Taking A Hard Line All The Way To The Top?

Colombians' frustration fires Uribe Velez' presidential bid

Six months ago, Alvaro Uribe Velez was a mere blip on Colombia's political radar screen. With his support among voters at a lowly 5%, Uribe Velez' chances of winning the presidency in May, 2002, elections looked slim at best. But now more voters are paying heed to the former governor and ex-senator and his get-tough-on-crime message. Uribe Velez' standing in the polls has jumped to 17%, a sign that he is fast finding converts among the growing number of Colombians who are frustrated by government efforts to end nearly forty years of civil war.

Uribe Velez' hard-nosed tactics for dealing with Colombia's Marxist rebels, honed during a three-year stint as governor of war-torn Antioquia province, have earned him the reputation of a right-winger. But the 48-year-old candidate rejects that label. "In a country with 32,000 assassinations a year, and with 60% of the kidnappings worldwide, wiping out crime is not a right-wing proposal," he says. "It's common sense." Yet he has courted controversy with a plan to create a 1-million-man people's militia to help the Colombian army fight the rebels, as well as the rebels' arch foes, the paramilitaries.

URBAN WEALTHY. At present, Uribe Velez appears to draw the bulk of his support from the urban wealthy. But his appeal may well be broadening to include others who believe that President Andres Pastrana has been too soft on the rebels. "It represents to some degree a radicalization of public opinion," says Elisabeth Ungar, a political science professor at the University of the Andes in Bogota. According to a December survey, just 19% of the population believes that the peace process is on the right track.

Negotiations with the largest guerrilla group, the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are now entering their third year, but there's been scant progress so far. The rebels have yet to make any meaningful concessions, including calling a ceasefire, even though the government has ceded them a large swath of territory in southern Colombia as a venue for the talks. And despite evidence that the FARC has been using the area to hide kidnap victims, recruit fighters, and launch attacks on military positions, Pastrana has so far refused to revoke the enclave.

Uribe Velez claims that if elected President, he will take a firmer line with the rebels. That's just what he did between 1995 and 1997 when he was governor of Antioquia, Colombia's second-largest province and onetime home to the infamous Medellin drug cartel. There, Uribe Velez promoted the creation of the controversial Convivirs. Styled as self-defense patrols, these armed militias supplied intelligence to the armed forces and helped police combat crime.

It wasn't long before some of the local militias, which eventually numbered 67 in Antioquia and 400 nationwide, morphed into deadly paramilitary squads that targeted not only guerrillas but also suspected civilian sympathizers. That led the Colombian government to strip the Convivirs of most of their power in 1997. Yet some conservative Antioquians still defend the patrols as an effective tool against crime, saying they helped reduce kidnappings, extortion, cattle rustling, and homicides. "If [Uribe Velez] were to do at the national level what he did at the [provincial] level, we're convinced that it could change the direction of the country," says Juan David Pelaez, president of Antioquia's cattlemen federation.

Or it could well drag Colombia deeper into a conflict that has claimed 30,000 lives in the past decade. Now the war threatens to spill over into neighboring Andean countries and is even embroiling the U.S., which is channeling $1.3 billion to the Pastrana administration to help fight the drug trade. Colombia's civil war could easily escalate if Uribe Velez seeks to provide the national civilian militia he wants to create with weapons--an option he leaves open. "How can it be guaranteed that those 1 million Colombians won't menace the lives of a lot of innocent people?" says Ana Teresa Bernal, national coordinator of Redepaz, a grassroots network that promotes the peace process.

Of course, Uribe Velez' presidential bid is still a long shot. The independent candidate trails front-runner Noemi Sanin of the center-right Si Colombia party by 17 points in the polls. Still, a year can be an eternity in politics, and the tide could yet turn in Uribe Velez' favor. The peace process will be a decisive factor. If the talks produce results, Colombians may rally behind more moderate candidates. If not, voters may think about giving a hard-liner like Uribe Velez a chance at trying something different.

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