War-weary Colombians lean toward Uribe
BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- Though he hasn't stepped out to press the flesh in more than a month, Colombian presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe has held a consistent lead in pre-election polling.
Since an April 14 assassination attempt -- the latest of many in more than a decade -- Uribe has campaigned exclusively by video teleconference, running his virtual campaign from Bogota studios.
"In the last 12 years, I have suffered 15 attempts," Uribe said. "In the last one, four people died and 12 were wounded. I have changed the style of my campaigning."
Uribe is one of the top targets of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's main leftist rebel group. The group, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, has battled government troops and rightist paramilitaries for nearly four decades in a civil conflict that claims an estimated 3,500 lives each year.
The death toll has contributed to the rise of politicians like Uribe, a Liberal Party candidate whose tough talk has struck a chord among Colombians weary of a war seemingly without end.
"Guerrillas, they do not dialogue with weak government," Uribe said. "They dialogue ... with governments with enough strength in order to contain them."
Uribe promises to strengthen the armed forces and the police; step up the military's campaign against insurgents; and involve Colombians more closely in the battle by mobilizing 1 million civilians to provide intelligence on insurgents to government security forces.
"In the United States, you have community policing," he said. "We need to do the same in our country."
But his tough talk has provoked the wrath of the FARC and revived old allegations of links to the country's paramilitaries. In her most recent report on Colombia, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson raised concerns about those ties, though she did not name Uribe directly.
"The international community must repudiate any attempt to draw the civilian population into the conflict or any other expression of support for violence," Robinson reported in April.
Uribe has condemned the paramilitaries publicly. But as a state governor in the mid-1990s, he championed armed citizen watch groups that critics said were infiltrated by the paramilitaries to target suspected rebel collaborators.
Meanwhile, Colombian newspapers accuse Uribe of having close connections to the Medellin drug cartel when he was Medellin's mayor. Uribe categorically denies the allegations, which he says were planted by his political opponents.
"I have intervened in politics for the last 30 years in Colombia transparently," he told CNN. "Every time I have been accused, I have asked for an investigation ... my curriculum is transparent."
Questions about Uribe's past do not seem to be damaging his standing in pre-electoral polls, which place him atop the list of contenders to succeed conservative incumbent Andres Pastrana. Voters seem willing to forget talk of Uribe's past if he can bring an end to the present's horrific violence.
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