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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 June 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Colombia's fight to end violence
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Colombia

President Alvaro Uribe
President Uribe has taken a tough stance on drugs and violence

The Colombian electorate voted back in President Alvaro Uribe in a landslide election last weekend. But despite 15,000 murders in the past year, most believe he has helped tackle the violence that has ravaged the country for generations. A couple of years earlier, there were 36,000 murders.

Mention Colombia and most of us think violence and drugs. I know that there is more to the country than that - stunning scenery, rhythmic salsa, a great literary and artistic tradition and bananas. But there is no getting away from the violence.

The presidential elections last weekend were hailed as the most peaceful in memory. In 10 separate incidents around the country, six soldiers, 11 left-wing rebels and one civilian were killed.

But everything is relative - they were much more peaceful than the 2002 elections.

Helicopters hovered, sniffer dogs patrolled the hotel lobby and my bag was searched entering and leaving the hotel and every public building

It seemed then as though left-wing rebels, right-wing militias and drug-producing and smuggling gangs were vying with one another to see who could commit the most atrocious crimes.

When Alvaro Uribe came to power four years ago, he promised to end that violence by being tough on the perpetrators. He has not yet fulfilled his promise but the electorate obviously believes he is on the right road, with more than 60% giving him a landslide victory.

Taxi abductors

The tight security began at Bogota airport and continued.

There were armed police and soldiers on almost every street corner. Helicopters hovered, sniffer dogs patrolled the hotel lobby and my bag was searched entering and leaving the hotel and every public building that I visited.

Soldiers patrol Medellin
Increased military presence aims to reassure Colombians

It is always sensible to talk to the locals about security. And what everyone said was: "Don't take taxis on the street."

That is because of the risk of being subjected to the "Paseo Millonario - the Millionaire's Walk."

This entails getting into what looks like a genuine taxi.

The driver will take you a short way before inventing some reason to stop, such as engine trouble. His accomplices will then climb aboard and hold a gun or knife to the passenger's throat, who is then taken on a tour of the city's cash machines, gradually emptying their account.

When the well is dry, the passenger will be dropped at some remote spot with, if their abductors are feeling generous, a few pesos to take a taxi home.

To avoid this fate a system has been created in which, when the passenger phones for a cab, he is given a code and the licence plate of the car that will pick him up. Before getting into the taxi the codes are matched and the passenger can be driven to his destination fairly sure that the journey will only cost the usual fare.

Drug lords

Medellin, a 45-minute flight from Bogota, is a beautiful city set in the mountains.

It is decorated with statues, the most common being the naked fat figures of one of the city's most famous sons, Fernando Botero.

Much of the violence is simply being hidden - disappearances are on the rise

His sculptures adorn the main square, the sun reflecting off the huge round bronze buttocks of his naked women. They add a comical air to the city. It's a possible attempt to forget another of Medellin's famous citizens - the drug lord, Pablo Escobar.

He began his career selling fake lottery tickets and stealing cars. He moved into the cocaine trade, kidnapping and killing his rivals.

Pablo Escobar helped to build the Medellin cartel, the biggest in Colombia's history with a turnover of millions of dollars.

His policy of "plata o plomo" - silver or lead - helped to bring the local police-force and political establishment under his authority.

He either paid them off or he killed them.

Escobar built schools, a football stadium and houses. He became a celebrity and was voted into Congress.

Risky business

When some of the government realised the danger of this development they tried to get the major drugs bosses extradited to the United States and Pablo Escobar declared war against the judiciary.

Forty judges and lawyers were killed each year. Journalists, human rights workers, trade unionists were gunned down by young hit men on motorbikes.

Soldiers in Bogota
Security was visibly stepped up during the election

Escobar was killed in 1993 but many of his tactics continue to be used.

Being a human rights investigator, journalist, trade unionist or community worker is a risky business and thousands have been killed and continue to be killed every year.

Very few of the killers are ever brought to justice.

I interviewed Ivan, who works with child victims of the violence. Afterwards he drove me back to my hotel, nervously glancing in his rear-view mirror.

He receives regular threats and has to live his life very carefully, establishing contacts with the right people, ensuring that colleagues always know where he is.

He dropped me outside a shopping centre where security guards were using mirrors to check for bombs under the cars of people going shopping.

Hidden violence

Colombia is not at war, I had to keep telling myself. Hundreds of thousands of people leave every year, unable or unwilling to put up with the tension caused by the constant violence.

Most cannot afford to emigrate and have to live their lives as normally as they can. Others, like Ivan, choose to stay, to fight for a better life, aware that, like many of their colleagues, they may be killed.

By putting more police and soldiers on the streets, Alvaro Uribe is instilling confidence in and reassuring Colombians.

Guns are not being openly displayed as they were a few years ago. But much of the violence is simply being hidden. Disappearances are on the rise - left-wing politicians and trade unionists simply taken from their homes or work-places and not seen again.

I arrived in Colombia conscious of, and a little paranoid about, the violence. But I left inspired by people like Ivan and convinced that their gentle battle against the violence is the only long-time solution.

I only hope he lives to tell the tale.

From Our Own Correspondent broadcasts Saturday, 3 June, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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