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20/10/2006 | Tougher Challenges Ahead for Colombia’s Uribe

International Crisis Group Staff

President Uribe’s second term promises to be more difficult than his first, and unless he broadens his emphasis on a military solution to the conflict and confronts corruption, poverty and human rights violations more effectively, blame for the country’s ills will lie squarely with him.

 

OVERVIEW

President Alvaro Uribe was overwhelmingly reelected in May 2006, two months after parties supporting him won large majorities in the Congress. The armed forces are stronger than they have ever been, and U.S. aid appears relatively secure. As he begins his second four-year term, Uribe seems to be in a stronger position to tackle Colombia’s long-standing problems: drug trafficking, the internal conflict, continued lack of security and poverty in rural areas, corruption, and social inequality. But appearances may be deceiving. His governing coalition is fractious, his popularity vulnerable to what a still powerful insurgency chooses to do. He has yet to define a comprehensive second-term strategy for peace and development that addresses these issues and puts a priority on bringing rural Colombia into the political, economic and social mainstream.

In response to public pressure, Uribe has been speaking about his intention to pursue peace negotiations with the country’s two main insurgencies but security, an area in which he achieved much during his first term, remains his top priority. As defined in the “Democratic Security Policy” (DSP) his first administration implemented, it is still the main reason for an approval rating around 70 per cent but it could also prove to be his Achilles Heel. A return of the conflict to the cities would weaken his popularity and mandate. That scenario is realistic as long as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dominate large swathes of the countryside and paramilitaries, whether or not formally demobilised, continue to control criminal structures and use intimidation and violence in local communities even if they no longer wear uniforms.

The security policy has failed to weaken the rebels enough to force them to the negotiating table, and a military victory remains apparently unachievable. Part of the reason is the failure of the counter-drug policy to have any sustained impact on cocaine exports and thus on cash flows to the armed groups. Drug revenues not only finance the FARC and entice demobilised paramilitary groups to organise new offshoots, they also corrupt the military. A series of scandals has hit the security forces, and corruption, abuse of human rights and irregularities have undermined their credibility and professionalism.

The FARC has been forced to retreat from large-unit movement to a more traditional guerrilla war but the movement is still strong. Both the government and the insurgents are showing some flexibility about a possible hostages-for-prisoners swap, which could eventually lead to full peace negotiations. However, their preconditions are far apart. Talks that the government has been holding in Cuba with the smaller and weaker National Liberation Army (ELN) are more likely to produce a true peace process sooner.

The demobilisation of more than 31,600 paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) has removed many illegal armed units from the battlefield but the Justice and Peace Law (JPL), proposed by the Uribe government to entice them into surrendering, has been condemned by human rights groups and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCRC). The Constitutional Court ruled that some sections violated both Colombian basic law and international legal norms, and serious questions remain about its implementation, the scale of reparations to victims and the functioning of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR). The government’s proposed regulations are being criticised for offering benefits to the paramilitaries that the Court had ruled unacceptable. How successful the attorney general is in identifying AUC crimes, assets and victims, and the NCRR is in protecting victims’ rights, will determine whether any of the wounds of more than four decades of violence begin to heal.

Many questions await answers in the second term, including whether the government will:

  • take a more supportive attitude toward the Constitutional Court ruling on the JPL by withdrawing regulations that conflict with that decision, fund many more attorneys and provide other resources to the attorney general for implementing the law, and require that all who seek to obtain reduced sentences give full state’s evidence on crimes, assets and victims if they are to obtain reduced sentences;
  • respond vigorously through law enforcement and security agencies against rearmed paramilitary groups and paramilitary leaders who leave the detention zones, making their capture a priority equal to fighting the FARC;
  • show flexibility in negotiations with the ELN and seek advice from the observer governments;
  • rededicate efforts to achieve a hostages-for-prisoners exchange with the FARC as the first step in a long-term strategy to negotiate an end to the insurgency; and
  • demonstrate alternatives to FARC rhetoric and drug traffickers’ blandishments by announcing and funding a national rural governance initiative to bring the rule of law, state social services and economic investment to the countryside.

If Uribe is to balance security with a social agenda, however, he will have to find and dedicate substantial resources beyond donor funds, including by increasing tax revenues, perhaps by repeating the 1.2 per cent “war tax” he imposed in his first year in office on the wealthiest Colombians. (This time it might be called a “peace tax” and divided between security expenditures, rural investment and the JPL.) He has struggled in the past with an often recalcitrant Congress, but his electoral triumphs and the reformed party system that has resulted from those successes and changes in the legislative framework mean he will be expected to carry out more of his initiatives than he could in the first term. If he cannot, the blame will fall directly on him.

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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