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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 02:09 GMT
Profile: Andres Pastrana
Andres Pastrana
Pastrana staked his presidency on achieving peace
When Andres Pastrana Arango won the Colombian presidential elections in June 1998, his task was never expected to be easy.

The 44-year-old conservative was receiving a country ravaged by three decades of civil war, plagued by drug trafficking and corruption and hit by one of its deepest economic recessions in more than half a century.

Mr Pastrana, a lawyer and journalist, promised to put the government's finances in order and tackle corruption - but his biggest gamble was a pledge to negotiate a solution to Colombia's civil war.

Now, with only months to go before May's presidential elections, the peace process on which he staked his four-year rule has reached a critical stage, with a last-minute agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to resume peace talks.

Crucial gesture

Andres Pastrana - son of former President Misael Pastrana - began his political career in the capital Bogota's city council, to which he was elected twice in the 1980s.

Colombian soldiers
Pastrana strengthened the armed forces
After being kidnapped by the Medellin drug cartel during his campaign, he became the capital's first publicly elected mayor in 1988.

Three years later he was elected to the Senate, but he stepped down to run for the presidency in 1994. He lost by a small margin to Ernesto Samper in the second round.

He tried again in 1998 and came second in the first round of the elections.

It was in the weeks leading up to the second round that he made a crucial gesture towards the FARC, which many say tilted the election in his favour.

Peace gamble

On 8 June, Mr Pastrana declared that he himself, as president elect, would go to the jungle to meet the guerrilla leaders if it was necessary for peace.

Four days before the second round, the FARC's international office in Mexico released a letter to Mr Pastrana in which it expressed its willingness to meet him if he was elected president.

After that signal, analysts say, Mr Pastrana was perceived as a candidate who was prepared to take great risks to bring peace to a country torn by civil conflict for more than 30 years.

Andres Pastrana won the elections, and true to his promise, 18 days later the president elect was meeting FARC leader Manuel Marulanda in the jungle.

Doomed dreams

In his biography of President Pastrana, Mauricio Vargas, director of Colombia's Cambio magazine, says that despite all the good intentions, the new head of state did not appear to have a clear plan for the peace process.

Manuel Marulanda
FARC leader Manuel Marulanda met Pastrana after the elections
Mauricio Vargas says Mr Pastrana was optimistic that his government could negotiate with the rebels, and the government soon acceded to rebel demands for a 42,000 square kilometre safe haven.

Formal peace talks between the government and the FARC began, but the violence continued - talks were often interrupted because of particularly brutal attacks or rebel accusations that the government was going back on its promises.

With no clear rules and no deadlines, critics say President Pastrana's dream was doomed to failure.

As soon as he tried to toughen the controls on the rebels, the model collapsed.

Military build-up

Initially much applauded for his groundbreaking peace initiative, President Pastrana is now considered a weak leader by many Colombians - one who gave the FARC everything they wanted in exchange for a peace process that came to nothing.

But analysts say Mr Pastrana has also managed to undermine the FARC politically - according to Cambio magazine, more than 95% of Colombians now describe the rebels as kidnappers, murderers and drug traffickers and not freedom fighters.

Bags of coca paste, used to make cocaine
Drugs money has fuelled the civil war
And even Mr Pastrana's fiercest critics admit that thanks to him the Colombian army is in a better condition than ever to face the rebels.

While the head of state made unilateral concessions to the rebels, he also obtained for the armed forces its biggest budget, including special aid from the United States as part of what is known as Plan Colombia.

Colombian media reports say that in under four years, the number of soldiers has grown from 79,000 to 140,000. And 60,000 of them are professional, three times more than in 1998.

The Colombian armed forces are also better equipped, and Washington has provided them with information and technology capable of detecting major rebel troop movements.

World player

Mr Pastrana's victory in 1998 also marked a new phase for Colombia on the world stage.

His predecessor Ernesto Samper was tarnished by accusations - which he denied - that he had accepted campaign money from Colombia's drug cartels.

The US said his administration was not doing enough to fight drug trafficking and withheld some aid and imposed sanctions on Colombia.

But Washington quickly signalled its approval of Mr Pastrana and, before being sworn in, the Colombian leader was invited to the White House for talks with the then President Clinton.

The US promised Colombia assistance in the fight against drugs and in 2000 the US-backed Plan Colombia was put into action to tackle the drugs trade, which Mr Pastrana believes is at the root of the country's problems as it finances the civil conflict.

America promised $1.3bn in mainly military aid, centred on the creation of anti-narcotics battalions, trained and equipped by US special forces with 60 helicopters to give the force mobility.

International backing

Mr Pastrana's grand scheme has been mired in controversy - critics say it amounts to US military intervention - and its efficiency has been questioned.

On another front, Colombians have not seen the economic revival they were hoping for - unemployment is high and growth slow.

But Colombia's president - who is barred by the constitution form running in the forthcoming elections - still has the strong support of the international community, which has firmly backed him.

See also:

14 Jan 02 | Americas
Colombian troops poised to strike
13 Jan 02 | Media reports
FARC communique: 'Warmongers win'
12 Jan 02 | Media reports
Peace pessimism in Colombian press
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