- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2002

Francisco Santos' biography as editor of Bogota's leading newspaper who has been kidnapped by Colombia's most notorious drug kingpin and driven into brief exile by leftist guerrilla death threats at times seems to track the tortured history of his South American homeland.
But now, as vice-presidential candidate on the ticket heavily favored to win the May 26 presidential ballot, Mr. Santos said in an interview that the way ahead for Colombia is clear.
"We have to strike hard against the guerrillas and against the [rightist] paramilitary groups. We have to double the size of our police, double the size of our military, radically alter the security situation in a way that hasn't been done before," he said.
"Colombian society is moving in our direction and U.S. support is vital to our cause," he added, stifling a yawn as he worked his way through a whirlwind of press interviews and visits with human rights groups and Bush administration officials here this week.
Alvaro Uribe, an Oxford-educated former provincial governor and legislator running as an independent, tapped Mr. Santos as his running mate in March.
Their hard-line platform, pushed as outgoing President Andres Pastrana abandons efforts to reach a political settlement with the largest of the far-left armed insurgency groups, has put them well ahead in the polls, hovering around the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff next month.
Colombia's 38-year civil war shows no signs of slowing, as government forces battle both left- and right-wing armed groups, both of which are financed heavily by illegal drug money even as the legal economy limps along.
Last week, a gas-canister bomb fired by members of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel group that goes by its Spanish acronym FARC, killed 117 civilians huddled in a church in a small Colombian village. It took government troops six days to reach the site, the scene of heavy fighting between leftist and rightist forces.
Despite strong doubts on Capitol Hill, Mr. Santos says attacks like the church bombing make it imperative for the Bush administration to expand military aid to Colombia to fight what he calls "terrorism."
The Clinton administration's Plan Colombia, embraced by Mr. Bush, has offered more than $1 billion to Bogota, but so far has restricted the aid to the fight against drugs and the defense of Colombian infrastructure against guerrilla saboteurs.
"We can do the fighting ourselves, but we need the equipment and the tools to do the job," he said. "U.S. engagement is crucial for us. I know there are troubles in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, but this is right in your own back yard."
Mr. Santos said an Uribe government would take on right-wing paramilitary groups such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, with the "same intensity" that it goes after leftist groups.
But Mr. Uribe's hard line has caused unease both in Washington and at home.
While praised for a record of social reform as governor of Antioquia state in the mid-1990s, the 49-year-old presidential candidate also has had to deal with persistent charges that he or his close aides have had links to Colombian drug cartels or to right-wing vigilante groups.
Mr. Santos survived eight months as a hostage of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1990. Mr. Uribe's own father wasn't so lucky; he died in a botched kidnapping attempt by FARC operatives seven years earlier.
The presidential candidate survived a dozen assassination attempts, the latest of which came a month ago by the FARC.
As a journalist, human rights campaigner and founder of Colombia's largest anti-kidnapping organization, Mr. Santos says provides political cover to his running mate on human rights concerns.
"If I had an ounce of doubt about [Mr. Uribe], I wouldn't be here," Mr. Santos said. "It's been a very nasty campaign and they've looked everywhere to find dirt on him, and they've found nothing," he said.


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