The Miami Herald
Aug. 12, 2002

Uribe takes first steps against rebels


  BOGOTA - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declared a state of emergency and imposed a wartime surtax Monday, taking his first steps in a presidency he promised would offer a ''firm hand'' against rebels.

  The limited state of emergency allows the government to prohibit public rallies or media interviews with guerrilla commanders, among other things, and allows for
  curfews, wire-tapping and searches without a court order.

  Uribe made the announcement in the predawn hours after a six-hour Cabinet meeting, saying that it was necessary to combat a recent wave of terrorism. He said the new tax would be aimed at the wealthy and used to expand the armed forces.

  ''He's sending a message that these are not normal times, sacrifices must be made and liberties must be restricted,'' said Daniel García-Peña, a former peace
  commissioner. ``The symbolic aspect here is very significant.''

  Announcing the measure, Interior Minister Fernando Londoño said: ``The nation is subject to a regime of terror in which democratic authority is sinking.''

  Uribe's decisions illustrate a fundamental change in Colombia's effort to terminate a decades-long insurgency. After four years of rule by a president who sought peace through negotiation, Uribe is relying on popular support to take more decisive action.

  The latest measure reflects a shift in public opinion and paves the way for a heightened state of war. Although previous governments imposed a state of emergency for five brief periods in the past decade, the last occasion was seven years ago.

  The measure also comes as the United States, which has contributed nearly $2 billion to Colombia's fight against drugs, has argued that Colombia does not allocate
  enough of its budget to defense. Congress recently voted to permit Colombia to use anti-narcotics aid toward battling terrorists.

  The emergency decree seemed to be widely accepted, coming just days after rebels launched mortar attacks at the presidential palace during Uribe's inauguration. The mortar shells struck an impoverished neighborhood and killed 21. Another 115 died in military skirmishes around the country in the following days.

  ''This is what Colombia voted for -- a turn toward authority,'' said Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at Bogotá's National University. ``Now let's see what results they get.''

  The mortar attack was attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, leftist rebels known as the FARC who have engaged in guerrilla warfare for 38 years in a campaign to overthrow the state and implement Marxist rule. Uribe vowed to bring authority back to Colombia after years of fruitless peace talks under President Andrés Pastrana. Polls show Uribe enjoys a 77 percent approval rating.

  Dubbed a ''state of internal commotion,'' Uribe's measure is a step below the ''state of siege,'' eliminated here in 1991 with the writing of a new constitution. The
  emergency measure lasts 90 days but can be overturned by the Supreme Court or renewed twice with congressional approval for as long as 270 days.

  Past governments often abused the stricter state of siege, often leading the Supreme Court to overturn it. Even before taking office, Uribe's interior minister expressed a desire to go back to the old way of doing things.

  ''Pablo Escobar [the late drug kingpin] would set off a car bomb, and they'd start censoring the press coverage of guerrillas, or throw striking union leaders in jail,'' said García-Peña, the former peace commissioner. ``It extended governments blank checks to ignore the constitution and Congress.''

  García-Peña said human rights activists are eager to see this state of emergency function properly, in an effort to prove the stricter version is not necessary. Nobody
  can make the argument that the current state of affairs doesn't warrant it, experts agreed.

  ''Ironically, Uribe's widespread support is likely to increase the possibility of rights abuses,'' said John de Leon, a Miami attorney who recently worked on a U.S.-funded justice program here. ``The declaration of a state of emergency by a president with a suspect record on protecting civil liberties may lead to the unfettered use of power against his country's citizens.''

  Uribe was governor of Antioquia when civilian volunteer watchmen allied themselves with illegal right-wing paramilitary groups.

  Uribe's one-time surtax, 1.2 percent to be levied against people with $65,000 in liquid assets, is expected to generate $800 million, nearly twice the current defense

  Defense Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez said the government would hire 10,000 more police officers and 6,000 new soldiers.