Pubdate: Mon, 27 May 2002
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2002 The State
Author: Susan Ferriss, Cox News Service


Bogota, Colombia Exhausted by 38 years of bloody war, voters in Colombia on 
Sunday decisively chose a new president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, who promises 
to expand the country's army and police and seek more U.S. aid to defeat 
one of the world's oldest leftist insurgencies.

To avoid a run-off, Uribe needed 50 percent of the vote, plus one ballot.

With more than 96 percent of precincts counted, Uribe had won about 53 
percent of the vote, with Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpaconsidered 
more moderate -- a distant second with about 31 percent.

Uribe, 49, was an underdog who bolted from the Liberal Party and gained 
strength by promising a "firm hand" to combat the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia, the FARC.

The 17,000-strong FARC was born in the 1960s as an armed uprising against 
Colombia's glaring inequality and history of political oppression. The 
rebels are now widely viewed as criminals that recruit children to fight, 
commit assassinations, kidnap people for ransom and profit from Colombia's 
cocaine trafficking.

"Colombian democracy is very beautiful. The people have a profound sense of 
democracy," Uribe, the former governor of Antioquia state, said as he cast 
his own ballot Sunday. He will take office in August.

The rebels had vowed to disrupt the election, blowing up bridges, energy 
towers and killing a woman Sunday by dynamiting an election headquarters in 
the northern city of San Luis. Car bombs were discovered on four highways 
and voting had to be suspended in scattered rural areas because of threats 
of guerrilla attacks or the destruction of infrastructure.

Many Uribe supporters, weary of war and soaring unemployment, endorsed the 
possibility of a military build-up and a broader war if it means weakening 
the FARC.

In February, current President Andres Pastrana's three-year-old attempt to 
negotiate peace with the well-armed rebels collapsed. With U.S. aid, 
Pastrana also beefed up Colombia's military, especially to fight drug 

But many Colombians now believe he made a mistake to cede a 
Switzerland-sized piece of southern Colombia to rebels as a gesture to 
start talks.

Pastrana is constitutionally precluded from running for re-election.

"More violence is surely going to happen. But we have to decide once and 
for all what we're going to do about this situation we're in. We need a 
firmer hand," said Cesar Mesa, 49, a shopkeeper who voted for Uribe in 
Bogota, which was saturated with police and soldiers carrying weapons.

More than 200,000 soldiers and police were mobilized across Colombia to 
guard infrastructure and protect voters.

In Washington, Colombia is in the spotlight because the House of 
Representatives voted this past week to lift restrictions on U.S. military 
aid to fight the rebels. Over the past two years, Colombia has received 
nearly $2 billion in aid to combat coca cultivation and cocaine 
trafficking, of which Colombia leads in the world.

The U.S. Senate must also approve lifting the restriction. The proposal is 
controversial because Colombia has a poor human rights record and is 
accused of failing to crack down on right-wing paramilitary vigilantes.
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