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Colombia's New Superhero Has No Secret Weapon

He's said to possess the mind of a savant, the asceticism of a monk and the courage of a warrior. As the Bush administration moves to increase involvement in Colombia's 38-year-old war, Colombia's president-elect is nearing superhero status. Yet it is not clear how Alvaro Uribe Velez will fulfill the promise that brought him a landslide win: ending the violence.

Winning in a May 27 landslide on a promise to restore order in this chaotic country, Alvaro Uribe Velez's talents have already been made legendary by Colombia's admiring press. Apparently, he could recite famous political speeches from memory as a child. A husband and father of two, the 49-year-old former senator and governor rises at 5 a.m. for a workout, followed by 20 minutes of meditation and yoga.

When presumed rebels detonated a bomb near his motorcade in April, Uribe -- unfazed -- asked if everyone inside the armored vehicle was OK, calmed his driver and still had the serenity to give a press conference minutes later. Four bystanders were killed in the blast.

Uribe is a hard-line ex-governor who has allegedly been the target of numerous other rebel assassination plots. He hasn't tried to hide how wants to handle the nation's two main leftist guerrilla armies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).

Uribe has said that after he takes office on Aug. 7, things will change. He will recruit 1 million civilians to be the eyes and ears of the government, reporting to authorities anyone suspected of criminal and rebel activity. Human rights groups fear the civilian spies will become rebel targets and could strengthen the right-wing paramilitary army, which is fighting alongside government troops against the rebels in a war that annually kills 3,500 people -- mostly unarmed civilians. The paramilitary forces -- the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) -- aligned with the army were blamed for most of the human rights violations in Colombia last year.

Uribe also wants to double the size of the armed forces and secure U.S. counterinsurgency aid. He has already met with U.S. officials in Bogota, the capital, and is scheduled to meet later this month in Washington, D.C., with the Bush administration, which appears to support Uribe's strategy.

However, even with Washington's help, it could take years to build Colombia's impotent military into an efficient fighting force. And when the buildup is finally complete, will that army beat the rebels or force them to the negotiating table?

The 16,000-strong FARC is stronger than ever and flush with multimillion-dollar profits from the cocaine trade. The 5,000-strong ELN also appears in no hurry to stop fighting: Peace talks between the ELN and the government of President Andres Pastrana -- who is constitutionally barred from a second term -- collapsed last month.

"The country was sold the idea that the war would be resolved quickly, and that resolving the war would solve the economic and social problems," said Marco Romero, a political analyst at Bogota's National University. "The new president is going to have a tough time fixing all those problems."

If Uribe can't show quick results, he could go the way of other Latin American leaders, such as Peru's President Alejandro Toledo and Mexico's President Vicente Fox, who arrived promising great things but now struggle to govern.

Uribe hasn't ruled out negotiations with the rebels, but only if they first declare a cease-fire and an end to hostilities. Those are conditions the rebels are sure to reject: Pastrana couldn't secure a cease-fire agreement after more than three years of effort.

"The insurgents are trying to finish off the country with everything they've got," said Hector Valderrama, a 65-year-old pensioner who voted for Uribe. "They need to be shown someone who is not afraid to govern." Uribe has demonstrated that he's not afraid to lead. What he hasn't shown is a plan to end the war.

Michael Easterbrook (easter@andinet.com) is a freelance writer based in Bogota and a correspondent for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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