[FONT=Arial,Helvetica]REBEL-FIGHTER URIBE REELECTED IN COLOMBIA
Colombia -- After suffering years of conflict at the hands of guerrillas, militias, and drug traffickers, Colombians reelected President Alvaro Uribe yesterday by a landslide as a reward for dramatically reducing violence and presiding over the strongest economic recovery in a decade. The election was largely peaceful.
With 99 percent of the ballots counted, Uribe had 62 percent of the vote, ensuring four more years for the Bush administration's most loyal ally on a continent dominated by leftist governments. At a time when neighboring Andean countries are nationalizing resources, the 53-year-old center-right Uribe has been Washington's biggest collaborator in the war on drugs and the push for free trade in South America. "Uribe got a much stronger mandate than four years ago -- he's won 1.5 million more votes than last time, and that's going to give him a lot of room to maneuver," said Alejandro Vargas, a political scientist at National University in Bogota.
But Uribe's challenges in a second term will be enormous: to vanquish Latin America's last leftist insurgency, invest in social services, build modern infrastructure to fuel trade and jobs, and eliminate drugs in the world's top cocaine-producing nation.
Leftist Carlos Gaviria, 69, former chief of the constitutional court, conceded to Uribe after finishing a distant second with an estimated 22 percent of the votes.
Gaviria had campaigned on a platform of expanding investment in social services to assist the nearly 50 percent of Colombians who live in poverty. A major challenge for Uribe will be to expand public education, housing subsidies, and health coverage for the poor, as well as to help an estimated 2 million Colombians displaced by the conflict return to their homes or make productive lives in cities.
This electoral season has been Colombia's least violent in 12 years, and most voters credited the greater tranquility to the president's boosting of military and police forces in rural areas that were long in the grip of vicious guerrillas or right-wing death squads.
Four years ago, residents in many parts of rural Colombia lived under the constant menace of kidnapping, extortion, or forced recruitment by militias who operated with impunity in areas with little state presence.
Yesterday in Guasca, a small mountain town 35 miles northeast of Bogota, military and police patrols strolled casually through the town's narrow streets, and all voters interviewed said they cast their ballots for Uribe because security was immeasurably better than before.
"In the 60 years I have been alive, he's the first president who has done something for us," said Sandalio Zapata, a farmer who had donned a thick wool poncho to come from his village to the town center to vote. "Four years ago, the mayor and city council were constantly being pressured by the FARC," he said, referring to the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which has been waging war against the state for 42 years. Zapata's then-30-year-old son was kidnapped by the Marxist FARC five years ago, he said, and he and his wife had to scrounge a ransom before the guerrillas would let their son go.
With Uribe's 25 percent increase in security forces, a military post was established in Guasca, forcing the guerrillas to retreat to more remote regions, and allowing a return of tourism and commerce, residents said. Marco Aurelio, a 53-year-old local butcher who would not give his full name, said his family had been menaced by phone calls several years ago from guerrillas who demanded that he purchase 500 malaria vaccines for the rebels, or they would kidnap his children.
Unable to buy the vaccines, he negotiated a price equivalent to $13,000 and was forced to take a bank loan to pay the rebels. "That kind of extortion has practically disappeared in this town," he said, "and it's all thanks to Uribe giving us better security." In 2004, Uribe signed a peace deal with the right-wing militias that were formed in the 1980s by landowners to battle the guerrillas. The demobilization of 30,000 paramilitary fighters, who were blamed for some of the war's worst atrocities, substantially contributed to the drop in violence. According to government figures, homicides have dropped 23 percent since 2003, and kidnapping has fallen 62 percent.
Terrorist acts -- including car bombings, sabotage, and attacks on pipelines, roads, and towns -- have fallen by more than half, from 1,257 in 2003 to 611 last year. Major Oscar Angel of the Tequendama Infantry Unit that was patrolling Guasca's voting station at midday said Cundinamarca Province, the region surrounding Bogota, is unrecognizable compared with four years ago. In the past, ranchers were frequently forced to give livestock and money to rebels, or see their children forcibly recruited.
Mayors and town councils were often forced to turn over portions of their budgets to the guerrillas, he added. But with the increase of security forces under Uribe, he said, "local people are less intimidated. Once they felt that the state was here to stay, they began to help us with information about where the guerrillas were hiding." More than 220,000 security forces were deployed to nearly 10,000 polling stations across this country of 41 million people, from Andean mountain towns and Amazon jungles to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.
There were a few reports of attacks on police stations and energy towers and the kidnapping of some electoral judges in a remote region by the FARC. There were also two encounters in the past two days between military forces and illegal militias. A study by the Security and Democracy Foundation, a think tank in Bogota, says campaign-season killings are down more than 75 percent compared with the last 2001-2002 electoral period, when the FARC kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
"One of the principal reasons is the presence of security forces in 150 municipalities where there were none in 2002," said Alfredo Rangel, director of the foundation.
Under Uribe, he said, "authorities have broken the back of urban guerrilla networks," and chased rebels deeper into the mountains and jungles. Last year, Uribe's supporters in Congress passed a constitutional amendment legalizing reelection, allowing him to become the first president to serve two terms in Colombia in more than 100 years.
Not all people interviewed yesterday said they were happy with his reelection. "I don't think they should have changed the constitution to benefit one person," said Martin Carrillo of La Calera, a mountain town in the outskirts of Bogota that was once a frequent target of guerrilla activity. "How come Uribe hasn't talked to the FARC?" he said. "They have us by the throats, but he hasn't done anything to make peace with them. To really solve the guerrilla problem, he needs to help poor people, invest more in social welfare so the guerrillas won't have any cause." [/FONT]