BOGOTA Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday promised strong U.S. backing for peace talks aimed at ending Colombia's half-century of conflict, calling the country a success story in a world where many states have failed or are failing.
"The United States of America will support that peace," Kerry said after talks with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is negotiating with the government to bring an end to a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people since it began nearly five decades ago.
The U.S. government has backed Colombia's effort to fight the FARC, providing billions of dollars in military aid and know-how over the past decade that has helped halve the drug-funded rebel group's force to about 8,000 fighters and push it deeper into inhospitable jungle.
Kerry's first official visit to South America is taking place under the cloud of revelations about U.S. global surveillance programs by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
The spying has sparked particular concern in Latin American countries, many of which have long complained about U.S. infringements on their sovereignty.
Brazil, where Kerry is to arrive on Monday night, has been particularly vocal in its complaints.
Kerry said the NSA controversy was "a very small part of the overall conversation" with Santos.
"We're necessarily engaged in a very complex effort to prevent terrorists from taking innocent lives in many different places," Kerry said, citing the temporary closure of about 20 U.S. diplomatic missions this month. "That's the only thing we're engaged in."
COLOMBIA SAYS RECEIVED U.S. ASSURANCES
Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said Colombia had received the "necessary assurances" from Washington that would enable the two nations to continue to work together on security.
A senior U.S. official said Washington is trying to prevent the NSA controversy from tainting other aspects of its relationships.
The United States has poured about $8.7 billion into Colombia since 1999 to help the country battle FARC guerrillas and drug traffickers under an initiative known as Plan Colombia. The amount this year is about $350 million.
U.S. officials say those funds, which once went mainly to pay for military hardware and training, are gradually being redirected toward development and supporting the peace process.
Kerry's decision to make Colombia the first country he visited in South America as secretary of state reflects close ties between Washington and Bogota in a region where many governments keep their distance from the U.S. government.
It also reflects Colombia's progress over the last decade.
Colombia is "one of the very few success stories anywhere in the world right now," Kerry told employees of the U.S. Embassy during a brief visit.
"This is one of the great stories, not just of the hemisphere, but really of the world, where so many governments that are challenged today, some of which are failing - and some have failed."
The United States is not directly involved in the peace talks, which are taking place in Cuba. The negotiations, which are unpopular with some Colombians, appear to be moving slowly.
Santos told Reuters in an interview last week that if the talks collapse, the FARC leaders in the negotiations would have to return to the jungle and end their days on the battlefield, or in prison.
After meeting with Colombian government peace negotiators on Monday, Kerry made a brief visit to the Arcangeles Wounded Warrior Program, where soldiers and policeman who lost limbs in the war are rehabilitated through sports.
He watched a game of wheelchair rugby and, sporting a yellow-and-blue "Colombia" jersey, joined in a game of volleyball with two teams whose members had lost one leg, or both.
Afterward, Kerry pledged to "ultimately try to help bring peace in Colombia."
"I myself am a veteran," he said. "I fought in Vietnam."
(Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)