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A Candidate With Many Lives

Colombia: Likely new president has been targeted by guerrillas and accused of drug ties.


BOGOTA, Colombia — This nation's violence has marked Alvaro Uribe like a firing squad wall.

Three of his childhood friends, all brothers, grew up to be infamous drug traffickers. His father was killed by leftist guerrillas. He helped create citizens defense groups that human rights activists say evolved into vicious paramilitary gangs. He has been the target of assassination attempts.

Now the diminutive politician--whose center-right politics make him a Colombian version of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani--is set to become the Latin nation's next president. Uribe, 49, holds a commanding lead going into the first round of voting today, with polls showing him close to winning the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

He insists that his personal history matters less than his desire to set Colombia right.

"I'm not bent on vengeance," Uribe said in a telephone interview. "I'm running because I feel a commitment to change my country, to give a new generation a better country than the one our generation received."

If he wins, Uribe has promised to take on the guerrillas, who have battled the government for nearly four decades. He wants to double the size of the military, boost the defense budget and persuade the United States to directly fund the anti-guerrilla war here.

But for many in Colombia, as well as in Washington, Uribe remains something of a mystery, a newcomer to the national stage whose past is filled with both victory and violence.

Colombians have embraced Uribe as a hard-liner--even a right-wing extremist--bent on beating the guerrillas into submission. His popularity peaked in February at nearly 60%, shortly before the collapse of three years of peace talks that had seen the rebels grow in power and reach.

The guerrillas have taken the threat seriously. By his count, Uribe has survived 15 assassination attempts, the most recent a bomb attack in April that left four people dead and destroyed the armored car in which he was riding. Uribe no longer campaigns in public for safety reasons.

But by U.S. political standards, Uribe is a moderate with a conservative bent, a mix of pragmatist and populist. He is described by friends as intense, focused, bookish.

His most controversial proposal, taken as proof of his militant stance, has been the creation of a million-member citizens defense group, armed with radios, to alert the army to impending violence. Critics charge that it will only turn civilians into targets.

But in a 100-point agenda, Uribe has also proposed slashing the size of Congress, creating 1.5 million educational slots for students and lifting trade restrictions to boost job creation.

What remains unclear is whether Uribe, running as an independent, will have the ability to get his agenda through Congress. Even more uncertain is whether Colombia's failing economy will allow him to implement his ambitious goals.

More than anything, Uribe is a man of contradictions. A politician with a gripping life story, he comes off in person as a humorless technocrat. An avowed proponent of law and order, he spent two academic sabbaticals abroad studying education reform and peace negotiation strategies.

Uribe's closest competitor is Horacio Serpa, a traditional politician who has failed to excite Colombians. Polls show Uribe trouncing Serpa if there is a June runoff.

"Uribe is more complicated and has a wider range than most people think," said Malcolm Deas, an Oxford professor who studied with Uribe and is a Colombia expert. "I don't think he's a single-issue politician."

Uribe is also a man dogged by controversies, so many that they have spawned a hastily written unauthorized biography subtitled "Lord of the Shadows."

Human rights groups have questioned his relationship with Colombia's violent right-wing paramilitary groups. Journalists have tried to link him and close associates to narco-traffickers. Other reporters have accused Uribe of threatening them.

Uribe dismisses the accusations, which have been neither proven nor well documented. Most seem to rest on guilt by association.

A close advisor, Pedro Juan Moreno, once had a shipment of chemicals seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on suspicion that they would be used for manufacturing cocaine. Moreno, who was never criminally charged and whose company was recognized as being "reputable" in a later hearing, called Uribe "honest and hard-working."

Uribe's financial support comes mainly from Colombia's top 300 companies, according to Alberto Velazquez, his campaign treasurer. The country's attorney general recently reviewed about 2,000 donors and concluded that none of them had paramilitary links. Colombian law does not require the release of donor names until after elections, so the claim could not be further investigated.

Uribe said his record speaks for itself.

"On one side is my trajectory of 30 years in politics in Colombia," he said. "On the other side, you have rumors and gossip and attacks. You can compare yourself."

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