- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2002

For the people of Colombia, the value of a vote is akin to the value of life. Voters who cast their ballots in the recent presidential election defied death threats from guerrillas and paramilitaries, which have been made morbidly credible in light of the mounting death toll: About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, are killed each year in Colombia's ongoing civil war. Alvaro Uribe, an independent, won 53 percent of the vote on May 26, becoming the first candidate in Colombia's history to win in the first round.
"For every Uribe vote, there will be a grave," guerrillas of a terrorist group, known as the FARC, reportedly told residents of one town. The FARC made these threats far and wide, and yet Mr. Uribe triumphed. Paramilitary groups, the terrorist rivals of the FARC, also promised post-election punishment if voters didn't turn out for Mr. Uribe. These threats were hardly necessary, since he was the clear favorite in the election.
Given the paramilitary support for the president-elect, these groups are perceived by some as the not-so-bad terrorists. But many of these groups got their initial funding from drug lords who grew tired of having to pay protection money to groups like the FARC. Some former paramilitary chieftains have moved into the narcotics trade themselves, hiring new paramilitary captains to protect them.
The Pentagon has concluded that paramilitaries may pose a greater long-term threat to Colombian stability than the brutal FARC. The State Department has listed both the paramilitary groups and the FARC as foreign terrorist organizations. Last year, paramilitary groups were responsible for most civilian deaths in the country.
The Bush administration must be wary of any collaboration between paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces or government. Washington has long cast a wary eye toward this nexus, and Congress has required the White House to certify that the Colombian military has severed links with paramilitary groups as one of several conditions for U.S. aid. Early last month, the State Department certified that the armed forces met these conditions, amid controversy.
While serving as governor of the Antioquia province, President-elect Mr. Uribe sanctioned the creation of civilian self-defense groups, some of which grew into violent paramilitary groups, against the FARC. Mr. Uribe is now endorsing the creation of a countrywide civilian self-defense movement. Mr. Uribe, and Washington for that matter, should closely monitor these groups to ensure they don't become terrorist vigilantes. The Colombian people have risked their lives to cast their ballots. Terrorist combatants can't be allowed to subvert this hard-won democracy.

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