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Explaining Colombia - Page 4

Uribe's Rise to the Presidency

I met Álvaro Uribe in November 1996 in his Medellin office. The local anti-kidnapping cops had arrested a German agent at Medellin's airport as he attempted to spirit a retired German executive's wife out of the country. The agent had allegedly brokered a ransom of more than $1.2 million with ELN rebels – gaining himself a hefty commission.

Uribe wanted to make an example of this agent. His outrage was understandable. Leftist rebels had killed Uribe's father during a 1983 kidnap attempt. Giving the rebels no quarter, Uribe was also hoping to discourage the lucrative enterprise of abducting foreigners.

As provincial governor, Álvaro Uribe Velez was an outspoken supporter of citizen self-defense units. That was five years ago. Uribe is now Colombia's president.

The morning I visited Uribe, police had learned of an assassination plot against his wife and rerouted her motorcade, I was told. During the 2002 presidential campaign, Uribe survived unscathed a bombing that killed three people and battered his armored car.

Detractors say Uribe made a Faustian deal with right-wing paramilitaries while governor of Antioquia. And journalists have noted that Uribe's father was friends with the late Don Fabio Ochoa, a fellow show-horse breeder and father to a clutch of Medellin cartel cocaine traffickers.

But no one has produced any evidence directly linking Uribe either to right-wing paramilitary atrocities or drug trafficking. And no one has suggested Uribe had anything to do with the assassination of Jesus Valle, for which two paramilitaries were convicted in absentia last year.

Uribe's election in May was a clear sign of desperation among Colombians. The upper classes may even be willing to countenance a dirty war to rid themselves of the rebels. Colombia's landowner-backed paramilitaries have meanwhile expanded their radius of action, with a wink and a nod from the military, while the vast majority of arrest warrants for paramilitaries issued by the Attorney General's office languish without action, according to Human Rights Watch.

The number of paramilitaries has also climbed to at least 11,000 fighters from just a few thousand in 1996 – their units increasingly engaging rebels in direct combat.

Uribe wants to bring back citizens' militias, which would make life even more impossible for anyone in rural Colombia who has strived to maintain neutrality. Add the U.S. government's lifting of restrictions on military assistance and you're priming the bone-dry tinder of conflagration.

What Colombia needs most is a strengthened, more effective legal system so prosecutors, judicial investigators, and journalists are no longer hunted down and killed for challenging regional powerbrokers.

Even if Uribe can successfully pull off an eventual peace through brinkmanship, can he avoid a blood orgy of excess, especially with a judicial apparatus that Human Rights Watch says has been dulled and dispirited?

Uribe, 50, is a serious, some say humorless, man who impressed Colombians on election night with his dour, non-celebratory mood.

While studying in the early 1990s at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government he was deeply influenced, he told me, by JFK's famed "City Upon a Hill" speech.

Elected officials must be ready for the judgment of history, Uribe paraphrased. Were we truly men of courage, determination, and integrity? Compromised by no private aim or obligation but devoted solely to the public good?

It may just have been affectation, but in his office six years ago Uribe sounded passionate about the sacred trust that Kennedy said we invest in those who govern.
I sincerely wish Uribe the best trying to serve those ideals.

Frank Bajak ('79) has lived in Poland, Germany, and Colombia during more than two decades as a journalist. Currently based in New York, he is technology editor for The Associated Press.

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