By Humeyra Pamuk and Oliver Griffin
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Much remains to be done in Colombia’s fight against cultivation of coca, the base ingredient in cocaine, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Bogota on Monday.
The Andean country has come under repeated pressure from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to curb coca-growing by crime gangs and rebel groups, especially as crop figures shot up in recent years.
This month Colombian President Ivan Duque announced the country eradicated more than 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of coca last year – a record.
“As a result of aggressive, counter narcotics efforts by President Trump and President Duque, President Duque’s administration has rolled back record high cultivation and cocaine production levels,” Pompeo said.
“Much work remains, we’ll keep the progress going,” added Pompeo, who is visiting to attend a regional counter-terrorism conference in Bogota.
Coca eradication is the best way to protect peace efforts and fight drug trafficking which fuels violence, Duque told Reuters in an interview last week.
“Our work in the fight against drugs is maintained,” Duque said in joint remarks with Pompeo, adding that his administration is deploying a “multiplicity of tools”.
Duque supports restarting aerial fumigation of coca – which is more efficient and safer for troops than manual eradication.
Aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate was banned by the Constitutional Court in 2015 over cancer concerns but Duque has said a restart under safety conditions set by magistrates could be possible this year.
In opening remarks at the conference, Pompeo praised Colombia’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
The heavily armed group, established in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is an important part of a regional Tehran-led alliance known as “the axis of resistance”.
“We all know too that the Iranian regime’s top terrorist proxy Hezbollah has found a home in Venezuela under Maduro. This is unacceptable,” Pompeo added, referring to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, recognized as his crisis-ridden nation’s legitimate president by more than 50 countries including the United States, is attending the conference and is expected to meet with Pompeo.
Duque recognized Guaido in his opening remarks, saying ensuring free and fair elections in Venezuela is the responsibility of all countries.
Guaido is expected to continue onward to the World Economic Forum in Davos, a source said.
The trip will help gain global attention for Guaido, but there is no evidence the tour will break Venezuela’s deadlock, as the military continues to stand by the ruling Socialist Party.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Oliver Griffin and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb, Editing by Franklin Paul)