A Candidate With Many Lives
Colombia: Likely new president has been targeted by guerrillas and accused of drug ties.
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
Times Staff Writer
BOGOTA, Colombia -- This nation's violence has marked Alvaro Uribe like a firing squad wall.
Three of his childhood friends, all brothers, grew up to be infamous
drug traffickers. His father was killed by leftist guerrillas. He helped
create citizens defense groups
that human rights activists say evolved into vicious paramilitary gangs. He has been the target of assassination attempts.
Now the diminutive politician--whose center-right politics make him
a Colombian version of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani--is set
to become the
Latin nation's next president. Uribe, 49, holds a commanding lead going into the first round of voting today, with polls showing him close to winning the 50% of the
vote needed to avoid a runoff.
He insists that his personal history matters less than his desire to set Colombia right.
"I'm not bent on vengeance," Uribe said in a telephone interview. "I'm
running because I feel a commitment to change my country, to give a new
generation a better
country than the one our generation received."
If he wins, Uribe has promised to take on the guerrillas, who have battled
the government for nearly four decades. He wants to double the size of
the military, boost
the defense budget and persuade the United States to directly fund the anti-guerrilla war here.
But for many in Colombia, as well as in Washington, Uribe remains something
of a mystery, a newcomer to the national stage whose past is filled with
Colombians have embraced Uribe as a hard-liner--even a right-wing extremist--bent
on beating the guerrillas into submission. His popularity peaked in February
nearly 60%, shortly before the collapse of three years of peace talks that had seen the rebels grow in power and reach.
The guerrillas have taken the threat seriously. By his count, Uribe
has survived 15 assassination attempts, the most recent a bomb attack in
April that left four people
dead and destroyed the armored car in which he was riding. Uribe no longer campaigns in public for safety reasons.
But by U.S. political standards, Uribe is a moderate with a conservative
bent, a mix of pragmatist and populist. He is described by friends as intense,
His most controversial proposal, taken as proof of his militant stance,
has been the creation of a million-member citizens defense group, armed
with radios, to alert
the army to impending violence. Critics charge that it will only turn civilians into targets.
But in a 100-point agenda, Uribe has also proposed slashing the size
of Congress, creating 1.5 million educational slots for students and lifting
trade restrictions to
boost job creation.
What remains unclear is whether Uribe, running as an independent, will
have the ability to get his agenda through Congress. Even more uncertain
Colombia's failing economy will allow him to implement his ambitious goals.
More than anything, Uribe is a man of contradictions. A politician with
a gripping life story, he comes off in person as a humorless technocrat.
An avowed proponent
of law and order, he spent two academic sabbaticals abroad studying education reform and peace negotiation strategies.
Uribe's closest competitor is Horacio Serpa, a traditional politician who has failed to excite Colombians. Polls show Uribe trouncing Serpa if there is a June runoff.
"Uribe is more complicated and has a wider range than most people think,"
said Malcolm Deas, an Oxford professor who studied with Uribe and is a
expert. "I don't think he's a single-issue politician."
Uribe is also a man dogged by controversies, so many that they have spawned a hastily written unauthorized biography subtitled "Lord of the Shadows."
Human rights groups have questioned his relationship with Colombia's
violent right-wing paramilitary groups. Journalists have tried to link
him and close associates to
narco-traffickers. Other reporters have accused Uribe of threatening them.
Uribe dismisses the accusations, which have been neither proven nor well documented. Most seem to rest on guilt by association.
A close advisor, Pedro Juan Moreno, once had a shipment of chemicals
seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on suspicion that they
would be used
for manufacturing cocaine. Moreno, who was never criminally charged and whose company was recognized as being "reputable" in a later hearing, called Uribe
"honest and hard-working."
Uribe's financial support comes mainly from Colombia's top 300 companies,
according to Alberto Velazquez, his campaign treasurer. The country's attorney
recently reviewed about 2,000 donors and concluded that none of them had paramilitary links. Colombian law does not require the release of donor names until after
elections, so the claim could not be further investigated.
Uribe said his record speaks for itself.
"On one side is my trajectory of 30 years in politics in Colombia," he said. "On the other side, you have rumors and gossip and attacks. You can compare yourself."
Uribe was born July 4, 1952, in the province of Antioquia, Colombia's
heartland. The place looms in the nation's consciousness as a land of mythic
hardest-working farmers, the biggest families, the most violent crimes. Pablo Escobar, the late drug lord, came from Antioquia.
Uribe's family rose from middle-class origins to own ranches throughout
Antioquia's soaring mountains and verdant plains. Uribe's father traveled
by helicopter to visit
his far-flung spreads.
The family's love of horses frequently brought its members into contact
with the Ochoa clan, close partners with Escobar in the freewheeling narco
era of the 1980s
and early 1990s. Uribe competed in dressage shows against the three Ochoa brothers but said he now has no contact with them.
The relationship, however, has served to feed the rumors of his involvement
in drug dealing. As head of Colombia's equivalent of the Federal Aviation
he granted pilot licenses and airstrip building permits to people later accused of using them to transport drugs.
But in interviews, Uribe has denied any knowledge of such intentions,
saying that underlings provided the licenses only after applicants passed
Uribe showed an interest in politics early: From the time he was a boy,
he told his brothers and sisters that he wanted to be president, and he
participated in Liberal
Party politics in college.
After wending through Colombia's political patronage system in a series
of bureaucratic jobs, he was appointed mayor of Medellin, Colombia's second-largest
when he was 30.
In the middle of his term, he experienced the most dramatic turn of
his life. His father, flying into a family ranch in June 1983 with a brother
and sister, walked into an
ambush mounted by leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
In the blaze of gunfire that followed, his father was killed, his brother was wounded, and his sister was nearly kidnapped.
Uribe insists that the experience didn't affect his outlook toward the rebels.
Instead, he says, his pledge to increase military spending stems from
his belief that the guerrillas won't negotiate in good faith until the
army has established its
presence throughout the nation, 40% of which is controlled by the rebels in mostly rural, unpopulated areas.
"I became quite sad because of the assassination of my father, but ... there is no link between the assassination of my father and my running for president," Uribe said.
After his father's death, Uribe went on to serve as a city councilman, then senator, when he first showed a taste for privatization.
In 1993, he took a break from politics to spend a year pursuing a special certificate in administration at the Harvard Extension School.
During that time, he sat in on a weeklong course taught by Roger Fisher, a professor whose specialty is conflict negotiation.
When Uribe returned to Colombia, he invited Fisher down to teach. Since then, Uribe claims, more than 82,000 Colombians have gone through the course.
"He was keenly interested in the way people conduct conflicts," Fisher said. "He wanted me to teach that there were less adversarial ways of negotiating."
The paradox of Uribe's interest in the peace process is that it coincided
with the most controversial part of his political career: the so-called
pacification of Uraba, a
region of Antioquia. When Uribe took over as governor of Antioquia in 1995, Uraba was in chaos, reeling from a "dirty war" between the guerrillas and paramilitary
groups. By the time he left three years later, the dirty war was all but over.
Human rights groups suggest a reason: Uribe supported the army as it worked with the paramilitary groups to clear the zone of suspected rebels and sympathizers.
Most significant, Uribe promoted the creation of a sort of aggressive
neighborhood watch program called Convivir. The Convivir groups, some of
them armed, some
of them bearing only radios, worked with the military to warn of suspicious activities.
But these groups quickly spun out of control, becoming paramilitary
gangs, the rights groups charge. Left behind, they say, was a trail of
dead civilians and
extrajudicial executions and a massive stream of refugees.
Uribe emphatically denies any cooperation with the paramilitary groups,
and there is no evidence of direct links. His supporters attribute the
turnaround to better cooperation between locals and the army.
Retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, an Uribe supporter who was then in charge of the region, said Uribe fully backed his efforts.
Del Rio now faces charges of paramilitary collusion before a civilian
court and was stripped of his U.S. visa for alleged ties to the paramilitary
groups and drug
dealing. He denies any wrongdoing.
"Uribe is an honest man who will move this country forward," Del Rio said. "He demonstrated that in order to move forward, you must show authority."
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