- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia Colombian voters go to the polls May 26 to vote for their first president of the 21st century.

The stakes are high.

The country's strongest guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has intensified attacks since February, when three years of virtually fruitless peace talks with the government of President Andres Pastrana ended.

Rightist vigilante forces have been gaining ground against the Marxist rebels, and Colombia's continuing violence and narcotics problems threaten to destabilize its neighbors.

Alvaro Uribe, a 49-year-old lawyer who studied at Harvard, is the front-running presidential candidate. He has been mayor of Medellin, a senator and governor of Antioquia province. A Liberal Party dissident, Mr. Uribe has from 47 percent to 54 percent support in Colombia's most recent opinion polls, while his nearest rival Horacio Serpa, the Liberal Party nominee and long a part of the political establishment has from 22 percent to 27 percent.

Left-leaning Lucho Garzon and centrist Noemi Sanin are polling at about 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Mr. Pastrana, of the Conservative Party, which supports Mr. Uribe, is constitutionally barred from re-election.

Last year, Mr. Uribe was running third. Surveys show his gains were propelled by his positions on security and anti-corruption issues. From the start, Mr. Uribe consistently opposed Mr. Pastrana's policy that ceded a Switerzland-size sanctuary to the FARC in exchange for peace talks. As the talks floundered and the FARC used the safe haven to initiate attacks and hide kidnapping victims, an increasingly frustrated Colombian public flocked to Mr. Uribe's slogan of "firm hand, big heart."

Mr. Uribe and Mr. Serpa both support Mr. Pastrana's international policy and anti-narcotics program Plan Colombia, which received $1.3 billion during the Clinton administration and for which President Bush proposes hundreds of millions more under an Andean regional initiative.

All the presidential candidates call for more funding for education, defense, employment, the environment and social programs. But opinion surveys show that most Colombians identify Mr. Uribe as the candidate who wants to cut Colombia's bureaucracy the deepest.

As part of his anti-corruption proposals, Mr. Uribe calls for a referendum to include reducing the scandal-tainted Congress from 266 members to 150 and eliminating special congressional salary privileges.

Mr. Serpa, a Cabinet minister during Ernesto Samper's presidency in 1994-1998, says Congress should be in charge of reforming itself. However, Uribe supporters ask: How can Congress reform itself when it refused to vote out Mr. Samper, whose election-campaign manager was jailed for taking donations from the Cali cocaine cartel?

Mr. Serpa denies any involvement in that scandal or having been a sympathizer of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Cuba-inspired guerrilla group.

With Mr. Uribe's rise in the polls, he, too, has been plagued by innuendos about drugs and paramilitaries. He acknowledges that his father, slain by guerrillas in 1983, had been friends with the great-grandfather of the three Ochoa brothers who were associated with the late Pablo Escobar's Medellin cocaine cartel. And, through a mutual interest in horses, Mr. Uribe concedes to a past friendship with the Ochoa brothers, though he denies that he or his family had anything to do with drugs.

Another item opponents are trying to use against Mr. Uribe is his long friendship with businessman Pedro Juan Moreno, his chief of staff when he was governor. The Moreno family has owned a chemical-import distributorship called GMP since 1938. In 1997, evidently acting on a Colombian police warning that Mr. Moreno's father and GMP may have been diverting chemicals to cocaine producers, U.S. authorities started detaining GMP's shipments at U.S. ports.

However, Mr. Moreno's father died in the 1960s. Judicial documents show that GMP and the Moreno family were cleared. "Pedro Juan is an honest man," Mr. Uribe said. But his political opponents continue to suggest a murky connection.

The problem in Colombia, a Western diplomat said, is that it's hard for prominent people to not innocently cross paths with people later identified as drug dealers and other criminals who try to blend into polite society.

Mr. Uribe who oversaw legal civil-defense groups as governor, before constitutional rulings dismantled them nationally rejects accusations that he condoned outlawed paramilitaries. He concedes to having met once or twice with rancher Salvatore Mancuso in the northern city of Monteria years before Mr. Mancuso became a paramilitary leader.

Though opposed to Mr. Uribe's talk of re-establishing legal civil-defense groups, Mr. Serpa said, "Alvaro Uribe's past doesn't worry me. He is an honest and responsible person."

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