(AP) CARTAGENA, Colombia – The Spanish colonialists who fortified this Colombian seaport 400 years ago to guard against pirates and rival imperial powers could only have dreamed of the security being implemented for President Bush’s visit here Monday.
About 15,000 Colombian security forces — backed by warplanes, helicopters, battleships and two submarines — will safeguard Bush’s four-hour trip to discuss the nation’s war on drugs. That is the same number of American troops deployed in the Fallujah offensive in Iraq.
“If something happened during the president’s visit, we would lose everything — tourism, business. … The country’s image would suffer greatly,” said Navy Capt. Nelson Fernandez, who is in charge of security.
Colombia is wracked by a 40-year-old Marxist insurgency and there is concern the rebels could try to attack Bush.
Standing on the roof of Cartagena’s Convention Center where Special Forces staged a mock hostage rescue Sunday, Fernandez said all boats will be barred from entering or leaving the port during Bush’s stay, and the airspace will be shut down.
The sale of alcoholic drinks will be banned for 24 hours and workers are being given Monday off — in part to pre-empt protests, since many employees and students live in surrounding villages and would face roadblocks and searches if they tried to enter.
Nevertheless, a handful of minor demonstrations were expected, but probably not all of them will be directed against the United States, Fernandez said.
Those likely to take to the streets include families whose homes were flooded recently by the heaviest torrential rains in five years, seeking to use publicity around Bush’s visit to demand more state aid.
With its pastel-colored colonial buildings, Caribbean sun, fresh seafood, pulsating music and relative peace, Cartagena is the Colombian government’s ace-in-the-hole for visiting foreign dignitaries.
But Bush will not see any of the walled city, unlike President Clinton (news – web sites), who toured its cobblestone streets in a horse-drawn carriage in August 2000. Bush and his conservative Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, will remain at a colonial estate on an island just off the coast for their talks.
Bush and Uribe are expected to discuss future U.S. military aid to combat cocaine production and the insurgent groups that control the trade.
Residents expressed disappointment.
“When President Clinton came a lot of work was done to make the city more beautiful, which was good for tourism,” said Camilo Vega, a 42-year-old trinket seller. “But this time, nothing is being done.”
Others said they were pleased with all the attention Cartagena gets during presidential visits, but were fed up with the security.
“I have been searched three times in the last two days,” said Jorge Enrique Martinez, who sells ice cream on a bicycle cart. “I am not a guerrilla!”