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Campaign marked by violence
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After attempts on their lives, presidential candidates turn to television.

Violence hangs over the presidential campaign in Colombia, and keeping the candidates alive is a major task for law enforcement officials. Along with violence, however, questions about the transparency of the electoral system and the influence of drug money and armed groups in the campaigns are having an impact on the race.

Ten candidates will be on the May 26 presidential ballot for the 2002-2006 term.

Front runner Alvaro Uribe, a hard-line, right-wing dissident from the opposition Liberal Party, who is running as the candidate of the multi-party Colombia First coalition, survived an apparent assassination attempt April 14 when a bomb exploded as his campaign caravan drove down a street in Barranquilla. Three people were killed and 13 injured in the blast.

Other candidates have also been targeted. Ingrid Betancourt, candidate for the small environmentalist Green Oxygen party, was kidnapped by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in February and is still being held.

In December, officials revealed an alleged paramilitary plot against the main left-leaning candidate, former labor leader Luis Eduardo Garzón, who is running on the Democratic Pole ticket.

The violence has altered many candidates’ campaign strategy, with more emphasis on television propaganda and less on personal appearances.

President Andrés Pastrana condemned the attempt on Uribe’s life and invited all leading candidates to the presidential palace to discuss security for the final weeks of the campaign. Pastrana said the government was considering giving candidates more free television time.

On April 19, Uribe called off all campaign trips and said he would make limited public appearances only in the capital.

The race began to heat up in late March with a televised debate among five candidates, many of whom pledged to get tough on rebels and even extradite their leaders to the United States. Four candidates said they would agree to extradition of FARC founder and leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda if the United States requested it.

Only Garzón said he would oppose extradition. He also said that he considered the breakdown of peace negotiations (LP, March 11, 2002) a grave historical error. Retired Army Gen. Harold Bedoya, an independent who is lagging in the polls, called Marulanda a drug trafficker and the FARC "nothing but a drug cartel."

Other candidates include former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party, in second place in the polls, and former Foreign Minister Noemí Sanín, a Conservative Party dissident who is running as an independent. Serpa has warned that a Uribe presidency will translate into "total war."

Uribe named as his running mate journalist Francisco Santos, who founded a group that counsels victims of kidnapping and has advocated tougher government policies on abductions. Santos was kidnapped by drug lord Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in 1990 and held for eight months.

Uribe’s hard line toward the guerrillas comes from his personal history. Guerrillas fatally shot his father, Alberto Uribe, in a 1983 kidnapping attempt. Uribe said his selection of Santos "pays tribute to the Colombian families who have suffered from the scourge of kidnapping."

Santos, a graduate of the University of Texas, is a columnist and former managing editor of his family-owned newspaper, El Tiempo. His decision to run on the ticket with Uribe caused concern at El Tiempo, where his cousin, co-publisher Enrique Santos, said he feared that the newspaper’s credibility as an independent voice would be undermined.

Uribe has said that he will seek more US military assistance and more US help in tracking planes that smuggle drugs out of and weapons into Colombia. He has also pledged to double the armed forces’ strength to 200,000 troops.

While Uribe’s support seems based on public frustration with Pastrana’s unsuccessful three-year attempt to negotiate peace, human rights activists fear that his policies would further trample human rights.

Critics also say that Uribe is too close to Colombia’s military and the paramilitary groups they support. He has publicly praised officers who were forced out by Pastrana for collaborating with vigilante groups and paramilitary units charged with committing massacres in 1996 and 1997.

Most disturbing to human rights groups is Uribe’s defense of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who is under criminal investigation for collaborating with death squads.

As a state governor in the mid-1990s, Uribe supported armed citizen self-defense groups, which were allegedly infiltrated by right-wing death squads that attacked suspected rebel collaborators. The groups were dismantled in 1999, but Uribe has called for mobilizing 1 million civilians to provide "intelligence" on insurgents as an "early-warning system."

On April 1, Serpa filed a formal complaint with the attorney general, claiming that paramilitary groups are influencing the electoral process. Earlier, Serpa accused Salvatore Mancuso, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), of supporting Uribe. Mancuso recently said that the AUC had helped elect 95 legislators in the March 10 elections. The government is investigating paramilitary influence in those elections.

Credible evidence has also emerged of widespread fraud in that balloting. Some results are still not finalized, and the scandal is casting a shadow over the presidential race. On April 10, Prosecutor General Edgardo Maya confirmed that votes had been manipulated and tallies changed. He said that the most flagrant cases occurred in Bogota.

The March 16 murder of Cali Archbishop Isaías Duarte Cancino has also been tied to the March electoral campaign (LP, March 25, 2002).

The police initially blamed the FARC, but officials now say that evidence points to drug traffickers.

Duarte had said in February that drug money was funding some congressional campaigns. While he refused to name the candidates, he said that they were widely known in the community. A Cali priest said that Duarte made the allegation after parish priests showed him evidence that at least three drug-trafficking organizations were buying votes and financing candidates.


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