Colombia's president-elect Alvaro Uribe vows to continue struggle against drugs

Monday, May 27th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ President-elect Alvaro Uribe said the U.S.-backed fight against the drugs that stream across Colombia's borders will be crucial to his plans to end the long-running civil war that kills thousands of people every year.

A day after his landslide election on a law-and-order platform, Uribe said Monday that the drug war is ``essential'' because Colombia's leftist rebels and their rivals, the right-wing paramilitaries, finance their fight with the proceeds from drug trafficking.

``Colombia has to defeat drugs,'' the Harvard-educated former state governor told a news conference. ``If not, we will not create conditions to negotiate peace. As long as the violent groups are financed we will remain far from obtaining final accords.''

Uribe, 49, won 53 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff and securing a firm mandate to enact his plans to hammer the rebels in battle and force them into peace talks. His closest contender, former Interior Minister Horacio Serpa, received 31.7 percent.

Uribe's promises to increase the size of the military and take a hard line against the 38-year insurgency resonated with voters fed up with the long-simmering war, which kills about 3,000 people a year, many of them civilians.

On Monday, he appealed for more U.S. aid to stop cocaine and heroin from leaving Colombia and to prevent arms shipments from being smuggled to its outlawed guerrilla and paramilitary groups. The United States has provided $1.7 billion in mostly military aid over the past two years to help Colombia battle drugs.

The Bush administration has asked Congress to ease restrictions on that aid so that the government can use it to fight the insurgents. The administration has also requested $98 million to train Colombian troops to guard a key oil pipeline that is regularly targeted by rebels.

President Andres Pastrana, whose term ends in August, vastly improved Colombia's relations with the United States, obtaining the drug-fighting aid. Uribe said Monday he would keep Colombia's ambassador to Washington, Luis Moreno, in place, saying he has been key in solidifying U.S. ties.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said the United States looks forward to working with Uribe ``to advance our shared goals of eliminating the scourges of narcotics trafficking and terrorism, improving human rights conditions and ensuring a prosperous future for all Colombia.''

Colombia produces most of the world's cocaine and 70 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States.

The willingness of the United States to provide more military aid may depend on whether Uribe's planned crackdown on guerrillas would also extend to a right-wing paramilitary group that has massacred suspected rebel collaborators.

Uribe said he will combat all armed groups, but also said he was open to the possibility of peace talks with the paramilitaries _ something his predecessors have refused to do.

Uribe plans to ask for U.N. help in contacting the guerrillas and probing their willingness to resume peace negotiations in return for a cessation of hostilities and a halt to terrorism.

But observers said the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, will reject such overtures.

``Those terms have never been acceptable to the FARC in the past and will not be in the future,'' said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami. ``I expect a major escalation of violence.''

Uribe's ambitious agenda goes beyond the crackdown on guerrillas and drugs. He plans a referendum to nearly halve the size of Congress and reduce corruption. He also promised to create jobs, build roads, overhaul education and trim a bloated public pension system.

But bureaucrats, Congress and angry state workers could stand in his way _ as could Colombians' traditional aversion to higher taxes.

``He's got a Herculean task before him,'' Bagley said. ``It's going to be extremely difficult to fulfill even part of what he aspires to do during his four years of the presidency.''

Colombia has been unable to use credits from the International Monetary Fund for social programs, and Uribe appealed Monday for greater flexibility from the international financial agency. ``In Colombia's circumstances of poverty, we need to increase social investment,'' he said.