Hardliner winning in Colombia

Front-runner Uribe set to win Sunday's presidential election.

Tired of nearly four decades of guerrilla war, Colombians turned in 1998 to the presidential candidate who promised peace, and Andrés Pastrana was carried to victory on the wings of a dove.

Four years later that bird has flown, and in Sunday's presidential elections, Colombians are set to turn to a much more hawkish alternative in Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

Campaigning on a platform of security, anticorruption, and zero tolerance for the nearly daily atrocities, Mr. Uribe offers to those he calls "the violent ones" bullets instead of conversations, and to Colombians a strong state in the place of a weak and often absent one. He appears certain to win – either outright on Sunday or in a runoff three weeks later – because fed-up Colombians are ready for a show of strength.

"Uribe will mean more war at first, but so be it if that gets rid of the violent ones and lets us start to make something of Colombia," says Angela Narvaez, a Bogotá architecture student.

The public's association of Uribe with more war is a red flag for some observers, who say the conflict – where lucrative cocaine, kidnapping, and arms trades have displaced the original Marxist social causes, and which increasingly has become a "privatized" war pitting more than 25,000 guerrillas against 12,000 paramilitaries – can't be won militarily.

"Enthusiasm for peace took Pastrana to the presidency, and what worries many of us is that now a similar enthusiasm for war is about to do the same for Uribe," says Marco Romero, a political analyst and human rights specialist here. "That sets the stage for another bout of disappointment."

Colombia has often been dismissed as a hotbed of irrational violence that seems never to yield. In the 1990 presidential campaign, three candidates were assassinated. But Sunday's election holds implications for everything from US relations with the region to prospects for democracy in Latin America.

Already under the Clinton administration, Colombia – by far the leading supplier of illicit drugs to the US – became the third-largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt. Now the Bush administration is proposing new aid, and a change in legislation to allow US military aid to be used not just in counternarcotics operations but against Colombia's subversive groups as well.

With Uribe saying he will seek even more international aid to carry out his plans, both domestic and international scrutiny is sure to intensify – especially on how a security-focused president from a wealthy, land-owning family deals with Colombia's growing right-wing paramilitary armies.

Ties to paramilitaries?

Rumors of Uribe's links to paramilitaries from his days as governor of Antioquia have dogged his campaign, as have rumors of family links to drug traffickers. In that context an Uribe plan to create a civilian security force – a kind of neighborhood watch to provide the army and police with "a million eyes and ears" to warn of subversive groups' movements – raises eyebrows.

So does the fact that paramilitary leaders only slightly veil their support for Uribe – a precaution not even taken by dozens of newly elected members of Congress, whom paramilitary leaders brag are in their camp. So far no clear links have been revealed.

Still, for some observers, the company Uribe has chosen to keep is one of the candidate's most troubling enigmas. Says one US embassy official here, "If some Uribe supporters with questionable backgrounds were to have a formal role in an Uribe government, it would cause problems for Uribe both in Colombia and among the international community."

Three factors explain the astonishing rise of an order-and-authority candidate who until January seemed stuck in third place in polls, with less than a quarter of voter support.

First came Pastrana's decision in February to throw in the towel on three years of peace talks with the country's largest guerrilla group, the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces, or FARC. For most Colombians, the talks produced only more and stronger outlaw organizations, more violence, more displaced peasants in the cities, and less hope for peace.

Also playing in Uribe's favor is a crescendo of violence by guerrillas and paramilitary groups that has shocked even inured Colombians. The worst happened earlier this month in the tiny riverside settlement of Bellavista in the conflict-ridden Chocó province. During a ferocious battle with paramilitaries, the FARC lobbed a bomb into the village church, killing 119 villagers as they sought refuge in the settlement's only concrete structure.

Response to Sept. 11

And then there is a delayed reaction to Sept. 11. Most now refer to the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries as "terrorists," insisting that Colombia is confronting not an ideological insurgency but terrorism.

"The reason all you hear now is 'terrorists' and 'terrorism' is what happened in the US," says Guillermo Escobar, a marble layer and Uribe supporter sharing a puff of Bazooka-pink cotton candy with his three small daughters in a Bogotá park. "Colombians have finally realized that the same thing is happening here," he adds, "only on a daily basis and with no authority able to put a stop to it."

Even the conditions of the presidential campaign have worked in Uribe's favor. In February, candidate Ingrid Betancourt was taken hostage by the FARC – where she remains today along with hundreds of other hostages – proving Uribe's point that the Colombian state has failed in the very basic duty of protecting its own citizens.

Then in April, Uribe – already the target of numerous death threats – had a miraculous near-miss with a car bomb that destroyed his armored vehicle and killed four people. Since then, the conservative candidate and dissident from Colombia's traditional Liberal Party has run a virtual campaign – through the media, Internet chats, and teleconferences – with only rare public appearances.

The studious, bespectacled Uribe's cyber-campaign has drawn derisive quips from chief challenger Horacio Serpa, a former vice president and populist Liberal who calls Uribe the "astronaut candidate." Known by his owlish eyes and bushy moustache, Mr. Serpa is also trying to convince voters that an Uribe victory would mean more bloodshed.

At his sparsely attended campaign closing in a Bogotá park this week, Serpa said he stood "not for lead but for peace," and boomed, "I don't want our children to die for Colombia, but to live for Colombia!" Still, final polls showed Serpa as much as 27 points behind Uribe, who is a point or two short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff – but with 6 percent undecided. Other candidates were in single digits.

Where Uribe earns high marks, even among Colombians who don't plan to vote for him, is on his focus on building institutions to arm the country with a modern, efficient state capable of providing basic services from security to education.

"Uribe knows that sooner or later we have to return to the negotiating table [with the guerrillas]," says Fernando Cubides, a sociologist at Colombia's National University. "But he wants to do that from a position of strength, and not just of the military kind."

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