Pubdate: Tue, 19 Dec 2000
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2000 The Miami Herald
Contact:  One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132-1693
Fax: (305) 376-8950
Author: Juan O. Tamayo


Citizens: Leaders Are Ineffective

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Four months ago, presidential hopeful Alvaro
Uribe's calls for a crackdown on Colombian guerrillas, kidnappers and
drug lords were earning him a mere 5 percent showing in the polls.
Today, he has a 17 percent approval rate.

One year ago, most Colombians scorned right-wing paramilitary gunmen
as thugs who massacre civilians suspected of helping rebels. Today, a
growing number support the paramilitaries as effective if brutal fighters.

Increasingly desperate over the violence lashing their nation and
frustrated by the stalled peace talks with rebels, more Colombians are
demanding that their government adopt a mano dura -- a tough hand.

They are calling for tougher stances at the peace table, a declaration
of something akin to a state of emergency, creating civilian militias
and harsher jail terms, including the death sentence, for kidnappers.

``Every day there is more pessimism, lower support for the [President
Andres] Pastrana government . . . and more support for a military
solution to the conflict,'' said Hernan de la Cuesta, head of the
Invemer polling firm.

The shift has also generated occasional calls for U.S. involvement in
Colombia beyond the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package for a campaign
against the narcotics industry and the leftist and rightist rebels who
often protect it.

``We must kill all the hooligans,'' said Bogota supermarket clerk
Rafael Hurtado, 26.

``And if that means Americans coming to wipe out everyone keeping us
in a state of disaster, even better,'' Hurtado said.

Colombia's insurgency has left 35,000 dead since 1990 and the country
accounts for two-thirds of the world's kidnappings -- 3,000 a year --
as well as 90 percent of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin sold
on U.S. streets.

About 1.8 million people have been forced from their homes by the
violence, the economy is barely recovering from a 4.5 percent plunge
last year and common crime has long stood at near-epidemic levels.

``There is a groundswell of frustration and desperation worse than
anything I've ever seen there,'' Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami
expert on Colombia, said after a recent two-week visit.

Pastrana has stubbornly pursued a 2-year-old peace process with the
20,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the
smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, even though the talks have
yielded no results.

Even after the FARC ``froze'' the talks last month, Pastrana extended
until Jan. 31 the life of the 16,500-square-mile ``demilitarized
zone'' that he ceded the FARC in southern Colombia as a haven for the

Yet all around him military officers, politicians from his
Conservative Party and the opposition Liberal Party, private sector
leaders and plain citizens have been clamoring for a crackdown.

Polls show that about 80 percent of Colombians oppose a continuation
of the demilitarized zone, saying the FARC has turned it into a haven
for recruiting and training new fighters, holding kidnap victims and
planting coca fields.

``The peace process is exhausted because of the lack of results,''
acknowledged Congressman Antonio Navarro Wolf, a supporter of the
negotiations and former leader of the disbanded M-19 leftist guerrilla

Armed Forces Chief Gen. Fernando Tapias urged Pastrana to impose a
``state of internal commotion,'' akin to the five states of emergency
declared since 1978 to lift some constitutional guarantees for the
insurgency war.

And cattleman's association chief Jorge Visbal drew thunderous
applause at a convention two weeks ago when he demanded that the
government create civilian militias to augment the 146,000-member
armed forces, far too small for a country seven times the size of Florida.

Pastrana tried to answer the growing demands to get tough by proposing
to lengthen prison terms, including life sentences for massacres and
40-year terms for kidnappers.

Congressional critics replied that the problem was not short sentences
but a weak government that fails to enforce the law.

Pastrana's proposal, said Sen. Amilcar Acosta, ``is like searching
upriver for drowning victims.''

``What we do need is a public force capable of averting kidnappings,
disappearances and massacres,'' said Uribe, a tough-talking
conservative seeking the Liberal Party's nomination for the
presidential elections in 2002.

While almost every poll shows Pastrana's approval rates at record
lows, about 22 to 25 percent, quarterly polls taken by Gallup Colombia
show Uribe's popularity jumped from 5 percent in August to 17 percent
this month. The Gallup polls have a 3 percent margin of error.

Bagley said Uribe's rise reflected the ``astounding support'' for the
right-wing paramilitaries, also known as Self-Defense Forces of
Colombia or AUC, that he found in recent meetings with dozens of
business persons here.

``To a man and woman they considered the AUC tactics for annihilating
the FARC as a model, [justified] the human rights violations and were
all willing to say that they pay protection money to the AUC,'' Bagley

Michael Gold-Biss, a Colombian-born political scientist at St. Cloud
State University in Minnesota, said he was equally discouraged after a
one-week visit to Bogota this month.

``We're still a ways from an Augusto Pinochet,'' he said of the former
Chilean dictator.

``But people are justifying the existence of the paramilitaries
because the government is ineffective.

``I have never felt this discouraged.'' 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake