- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Alvaro Uribe, 49, the front-running candidate in Colombia's presidential election May 26, spoke Friday with Steve Salisbury. Mr. Uribe, a maverick, has from 47 percent to 54 percent of the vote, according to Colombia's most recent polls. His nearest rival Horacio Serpa, standard-bearer of the Liberal Party, to which Mr. Uribe also belongs has from 22 percent to 27 percent.

The interview with The Washington Times was Mr. Uribe's first with a U.S. publication since he narrowly escaped death April 14, when a bomb severely damaged his car at Barranquilla, the Caribbean port city. The attack, blamed on Marxist guerillas, left four persons dead and several wounded.

"It is sad one has to campaign in mourning," he said, greeting this reporter after leaving the Bogota radio station where he had just participated in a talk show. The interview took place inside Mr. Uribe's armored blue Ford van as it drove in caravan for about 30 minutes through traffic to a hotel.

Question: The U.S. Embassy has just announced that up to $2 million of U.S. funding to Colombia's anti-narcotics police was illegally diverted for personal use by officers. What is your reaction?

Answer: By God, the salt cannot continue to be corrupted. A plan as important as Plan Colombia cannot be managed with corruption. It is necessary that all the corrective means are introduced immediately. If resources have to be handed over to a transparent community organization to guarantee honesty, then do it.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for the U.S. government regarding possible adjustments in American policy toward Colombia?

A: Relations are going well. It is necessary to improve them every day. What's important is that the United States helps us with air interdiction so that Colombia doesn't continue being a victim of airplanes that leave here with cocaine and those that enter with weapons.

It is very important that we have more practical projects for the substitution of [illegal] crops. For example, I am proposing an agreement with the 50,000 peasant families that are involved in coca [the leaf from which cocaine is refined] and amapola [the opium poppy, from which heroin is made] for them to destroy the drugs, care for forest recuperation, and for that they are to be paid.

It is very important that we can utilize Plan Colombia resources [limited by U.S. law solely to fighting narcotics] like helicopters to stop terrorism, to prevent massacres, to fight kidnapping, and to prevent the taking of towns [by rebels].

It is very important that the United States Congress approve the APTA [Andean Trade Preference Act] so that Colombia can get better access to the U.S. market.

Q: What is your position on the spraying of herbicide on illegal drug crops?

A: You have to spray the crops and without contaminants. Destroy them. We propose ending these crops by concentrating spraying on large plantations.

Regarding the small plantation, the peasants start to see that caring for ecology pays and that destroying drugs pays.

Q: During President [Andres] Pastrana's government, the guerrillas have grown from 13,000 to 23,000, according to army statistics. Also, there are reported to be 11,000 paramilitaries in the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [AUC]. What will be your government's military and security strategy?

A: For a Colombia without guerrillas and without illegal "self-defense" groups, it is necessary to strengthen further the public force to increase the number of professional soldiers and police to supply them better with mobility and intelligence, to introduce legal reforms that facilitate the fight against terrorism. We need the cooperation of Plan Colombia and the international community, because this conflict in Colombia is fed with the resources of the international criminal business of drug trafficking.

Q: The U.S. State Department has designated as "foreign terrorist organizations" the FARC, ELN [National Liberation Army, the country's second-largest rebel group], and AUC. The AUC does not attack the Colombian government nor American citizens. Is your government going to take into account the differences between the guerrillas and the illegal paramilitary "self-defense" groups?

A: "It is necessary to protect all citizens against whoever is the aggressor. We are not going to close the doors to dialogue. If the guerrillas want to dialogue, they have to commit to abandoning terrorism, with a ceasing of hostilities. And the same goes for the illegal self-defense forces.

Q: How would you organize the legal civil defense, which you propose?

A: That the citizens unite with the public force and the justice branch, as happens with community policing in the United States.

Q: AUC leader Carlos Castano has indicated that he is willing to try to make amends for past abuses by his forces and come to an agreement with the state to fight guerrillas. Can you foresee something in the future to incorporate the AUC, taking into account judicial matters?

A: To contain the guerrillas has to be done exclusively by the public force and the citizenry's support of the public force in a transparent manner. What is required is that the guerrillas and self-defense groups abstain from murdering one more Colombian.

For them to enter a negotiation process with the government, they have to abstain from terrorism; they have to facilitate a ceasing of hostilities.

Q: Would you be willing to send troops into Venezuelan territory to chase the guerrillas?

A: The way is a permanent agreement with the Venezuelan government so that the Colombian and Venezuelan governments work jointly in the border zone. The international community has to tell Colombia's neighbors, "Look, don't accept Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries."

Q: Coffee producers are suffering about the worst prices in decades. How can you persuade the United States to help coffee producers, giving them economic opportunities so as not to be tempted by drug trafficking?

A: I have proposed subsidizing the Colombian coffee industry and boosting small and medium exporters, and to make a presence in shops like the American Starbucks chain.

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