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Last Updated: Monday, 29 May 2006, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Uribe win brings hope for peace
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Bogota

Colombian president Alvaro Uribe
Mr Uribe says he will continue with his tough policies
Sunday's presidential elections in Colombia were the most peaceful in memory.

And that, say his supporters, is in itself proof that Alvaro Uribe is the man to lead the country over the next four years and tackle the one problem that is - and has been for the past 40 years - uppermost in most Colombian minds: violence.

When he first took office four years ago, Mr Uribe said he would solve the problem.

A problem that has seen something like 200,000 deaths in four decades of violence.

In 2002 alone, there were 36,000 murders.

Left-wing rebels, right-wing militia and heavily armed cocaine-producing gangs treat large areas of the country as their own personal fiefdoms, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Most of the victims are innocent civilians. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes.

A huge armed police and army presence on the streets of Colombia's cities has made them much safer.

We're on the right road to solve our problems
Alfredo Rangel, Foundation for Security and Democracy

There has been a drop in the number of murders - 15,000 last year. Official figures say that the government disarmed and disbanded 26,000 right-wing militia last year.

And, with the help of billions of dollars from the United States, a huge campaign is underway to eliminate the coca leaf crop from which cocaine is made.

Long way to go

Despite these advances, Colombia is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Not everyone is convinced that the right-wing militia have stopped operating. The cocaine industry is still thriving.

On election day, police uncovered two tonnes of the drug about to be shipped abroad.

Supporters of Alvaro Uribe
Mr Uribe's victory has raised Colombian hopes of long-term peace

But talk to people on the streets of Bogota and they are convinced that life is more peaceful and that Alvaro Uribe is the man to thank for it.

Horacio, a taxi driver, said: "This is a great city and Uribe has been a great president, really fantastic."

Alfredo Rangel, an analyst from the Foundation for Security and Democracy, said: "We're on the right road to solve our problems.

"I think all the factors, all the elements, are there to justify optimism in the medium and long term. In the short term, we probably will see more violence when, after the elections, the guerrillas will want to demonstrate their military strength."

The Defence Minister, Camilo Ospina Bernal, oversaw the deployment of 220,000 police and soldiers around Colombia on polling day.

In a rare interview, he told the BBC that the security forces now had control of all Colombian territory.

"We can go everywhere," he said. "There may be places where the terrorists, more or less, have a presence. But all national territory is under the control of the military. There's nowhere that military forces can't go."

Some may be surprised by that statement.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, boast something like 18,000 members. The smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, also has an impact.

The defence minister said the rebel groups nowadays boasted little in the way of ideology but were financed by kidnapping and the drug trade.

Drugs fight

The United States has given $4.5bn over the past few years to finance Plan Colombia, equipping the Colombian security forces to eliminate the coca crop and fight the drugs gangs.

Despite some high-profile arrests and the destruction of millions of hectares of coca leaf plantations, the supply of cocaine to European and North American markets remains at levels similar to those of a few years ago.

Soldiers stand guard in Medellin
Security forces have a strong presence around the country

The illegal trade is so lucrative that there are always plenty of young 'narcos' waiting to fill the shoes of the bosses that are arrested and extradited to the United States.

But no one is more convinced than Alvaro Uribe himself that he is the man for the job, to implement what he calls "democratic security".

The constitution was altered to allow him to run for a second term in office and there are rumours that he might even try for a third.

The economy is doing well. But after the violence, the new government will have to deal with poor wealth distribution and growing poverty.

The government view, however, is that cocaine and the violence it engenders is at the root of nearly all of Colombia's other problems.

Mr Uribe's victory will be welcomed in Washington which has few allies in Latin America.

President Bush has seen growing anti-US feelings expressed in Bolivia and Venezuela and to a lesser degree in Ecuador and Peru. But he has a firm friend in Harvard-educated Mr Uribe.

The election campaign was muted and many people did not vote.

But expectations are high that President Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by rebels in a botched kidnap attempt, can reduce the violence that Colombia has suffered for so many years.

He is said to be a workaholic, which may be a useful trait given the task that lies ahead.

The significance of Alvaro Uribe's election win


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