Colombia's Santos sees popularity dip as public worries about security

President Juan Manuel Santos is halfway through his four-year term, but with a rise of guerrilla attacks on his watch his approval ratings have fallen.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during Army Day on the 193rd anniversary of the Battle of Puente de Boyaca, near Tunja, August 7.

When President Juan Manuel Santos swept into power two years ago, he had such overwhelming support he managed to bring together members of the radical right and the center-left in his national unity government. The move won him international praise – and the cover of Time magazine’s international edition.

But as Mr. Santos hits the halfway point in his presidency, he is finding himself fending off growing discontent at home.

According to several polls released this week Colombians feel less safe and more pessimistic about the future of their country. One poll, published by the newsmagazine Semana showed Santos’ approval dropping from 71 percent in July 2011 to 47 percent last month.

The same poll showed Colombians are increasingly unhappy with the government’s handling of unemployment, the economy, and corruption. Critics say implementation of policies which have won him praise, such as a law that provides financial and symbolic reparations to victims of Colombia’s conflict, has been sluggish. The legislation stipulates the return of hundreds of thousands of acres of land to those who were forced to flee their farms due to Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. Though it went into effect in January, to date no land has been returned to victims.

But Colombians are most concerned about what they see as the country’s faltering security.

“Security has gotten worse since [Santos] arrived,” says Jennifer Camelo, a beautician in the country’s capital, Bogota.

A year ago, 59 percent of Colombians approved of how Santos was handling security at home, which has two active leftist rebel forces, half a dozen powerful drug trafficking syndicates, and a growing presence of petty crime. Today only 36 percent continue to approve of his approach.

Indeed the overall number of guerrilla attacks has risen over the past two years. But these attacks are largely limited to rebel-held areas, which means some 70 percent of the country is unaffected by them, said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón.

In a speech about security July 30, given while touring the country highlighting the achievements of his first two years in office, Santos said the spike in rebel attacks is a reaction to aggressive military action targeted in rebel strongholds.

“In many areas [the guerrillas] have dominated those mountain peaks for 40 or 45 years. We’re removing them for the first time, we are cutting off their mobility,” Santos said.

Some of the most significant blows against the FARC have come under Santos’s presidency – including the deaths of two of the guerrilla force’s most senior leaders – while several major leaders of new generation paramilitary groups, known as Bacrim, have been captured or killed. On Wednesday police arrested one of the country’s biggest mafia bosses known as Sebastián, who headed the feared Oficina de Envigado criminal organization based in Medellin.

Ms. Camelo, the beautician, says she disagreed with many of the government’s policies under Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, but “he was more efficient at attacking the FARC,” she says.

During Mr. Uribe’s two terms in office from 2002-2010 Colombia saw significant gains against the FARC, pushing the rebels from urban centers through massive military campaigns, while negotiating the demobilization of some 30,000 fighters of right-wing paramilitary militias. As defense minister, Santos was a key element of those successful policies.

However, Uribe, who supported his presidential campaign, is now the president’s toughest critic, particularly on the security front. Uribe tweets his disapproval nearly every day, re-tweeting any news of FARC attacks. He criticizes Santos for being too soft on the FARC, which has been holding out the possibility of peace talks with the government. 

Political analyst Alejo Vargas, with the National University in Bogota, notes that FARC attacks were already on the rise during Uribe’s last years in power as the guerrillas adapted to new military strategies which include hit and run attacks by small guerrilla units. “The result is there has been a deterioration in security but it is overblown by certain political sectors interested in inflating that reality.”

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