A firm hand for Colombia

May 26, 2002

THE LEFTIST guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have vowed to wipe out entire towns that vote for presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez. The threat illustrates the dangerous forces at play in this democracy of 40 million and the stakes involved in today's election.

For Mr. Uribe, a 49-year-old lawyer who has studied at Harvard and Oxford, a better endorsement couldn't be had. A former provincial governor and mayor of Medellin, Mr. Uribe has seized the lead in the presidential race with his brand of ultraconservatism and military plans to end Colombia's decades-long war with insurgents. By most accounts, he is Colombia's likely next president and the United States' partner in the war on drugs.

About 90 percent of the cocaine in America originates in Colombia. That accounts for the nearly $500 million it receives from Washington, making it the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid. The bulk of the money is spent on drug interdiction. It's among the primary reasons that today's election is worth watching.

But the other pressing concern in Colombia today is the erosion of its civil society at the hands of drug traffickers, Marxist rebels and right-wing militias.

Mr. Uribe, whose father was assassinated by the rebels, is popular because of his hard-line approach to 38 years of fighting. He wants to double the size of the military and national police force and increase Colombia's firepower against the rebels.

Efforts to negotiate a peace treaty with the rebels failed under President Andres Pastrana. When talks broke off earlier this year, a wave of kidnappings and civilian murders increased.

Colombia's stability is important to the region and U.S. interests in Latin America. Recognizing that fact, the White House has taken steps to increase military aid to Colombia to protect the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, a favorite target of the guerrillas. It also is seeking congressional approval to give the Colombia government more flexibility to use U.S. funds to combat terrorism, the global initiative of President Bush.

Mr. Uribe, who survived an assassination attempt on the campaign trail, appears to be the man for the job for these chaotic times in Colombia. His campaign slogan -- "Firm hand, big heart" -- suggests his twin approach to governing: tough yet compassionate.

But his idea to enlist citizens in the national fight by equipping them with radios and motorcycles is worrisome. Would they resemble neighborhood watch groups or de facto secret police?

Mr. Uribe's relationship with right-wing paramilitary groups also has raised concerns among human rights groups.

If Colombia is to survive this latest round of internecine warfare, the next president must direct his attention to all those who undermine the safety and security of its citizens.

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