Undaunted, Colombia's Uribe presses security plan

Colombia's new president launches an initiative to secure the nation's roads.

President Alvaro Uribe Vélez won the presidency on a pledge to strengthen the country's national security by boosting its military machine and stepping up the war against the guerrilla armies battling the Colombian military.

This week came the bloody riposte: a rebel mortar attack launched on the presidential palace and surrounding blocks minutes before Mr. Uribe took the oath of office Wednesday afternoon, which left at least 14 people and injured at least 60.

At dawn Thursday, though, the undaunted Uribe began his first full day on the job by flying to the Caribbean coastal town of Valledupar to announce a plan to protect travelers on the nation's roads. Later in the day he planned to fly to the southern town of Florencia, in a region heavily populated by guerrillas, to continue laying out his security plan for the nation.

Uribe has promised to double defense spending, gradually increase the police force, double the number of professional soldiers, and establish a civilian intelligence network.

But this week's palace attack illuminated the fact that rebels, particularly the 18,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who authorities blame for the attack, are trying to spread their influence from the jungle to cities. It also highlights the weak state of Colombia's security infrastructure and the difficulties facing Uribe in his effort to tip the wartime balance in favor of the government.

The attacks occurred despite unprecedented levels of security implemented in Bogotá and throughout the country. Authorities had closed the airspace over Bogotá to commercial aircraft for most of the afternoon and an American spy plane patrolled the skies. The inauguration ceremony, traditionally held outdoors in the capital's main plaza, was moved inside the parliament building for security reasons. One square kilometer of the city center was sealed off to traffic and pedestrians and tens of thousands of military and police troops were mobilized throughout the city.

"It's difficult to understand how, in the middle of unprecedented security measures ... the 'rockets' were launched," an editorial in the leading El Tiempo newspaper said Thursday. The attack, it said, "confirmed worrisome faults in the state's intelligence and security services."

Security officials campaigned Thursday to focus attention on the security successes of inauguration day – the discovery of caches of weapons and explosives in Bogotá and elsewhere, the arrest of bombing suspects, and that no dignitaries were hurt.

Still, the commander of the Metropolitan Police of Bogotá admits that the security forces simply weren't prepared for Wednesday's offensive.

"There weren't precedents for this in Colombia," says Gen. Hector Castro. "Nobody imagined this would occur."

According to Alfredo Rangel, a prominent political and military analyst in Colombia, the attack doesn't necessarily presage full-scale conflict in the country's urban centers.

"I think there's an intention on the part of the guerrillas to harass the urban areas and create a climate of tension," he says. "But still, the principal areas of operation are going to be rural because the guerrillas don't have the capacity to generate urban control."

According to Mr. Rangel, the rebels lack experience in urban warfare and don't have enough communal and social support in the cities to build a strong base.

Rangel says that instead of anticipating a spike in urban operations, the authorities should prepare for a rise in rebel attacks on the nation's transportation and energy infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, energy towers, reservoirs, and oil pipelines. This is a tactic, he says, that is better-suited to the rebels' capabilities.

Uribe will have to develop his ambitious defense strategy amid a weak economy. He has asked the United States to expand its $1.3 billion antidrug package. The US Congress recently approved a measure that loosens rules governing the use of US funds in Colombia so that the US military equipment and US-trained troops can be used against the guerrillas, not just the drug crops the rebels protect.

Uribe has been the target of numerous assassination attempts. Guerrillas bombed his campaign motorcade in February, which forced him to take his campaign largely indoors. In 1983, the FARC killed Uribe's father during a failed kidnapping attempt.

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