Bogotá

A hard rain fell upon the mountainside campus of Bogotá’s elite Javeriana University, but the drumming and chanting of the student protesters outside the domed glass-wall auditorium penetrated nonetheless. On the podium, in wire-rimmed glasses and a charcoal suit, stood Colombia’s far-right president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Behind the lean, pale politician the slope fell away onto a vista of treetops, lush mountains and the elegant Modernist contours of a city that can appear deceptively calm.

Uribe was here to address students and faculty as part of his campaign to win re-election on May 28. If successful, which is almost assured, he will be the first president of Colombia to serve two terms back to back–and it will mark a major victory for Colombia’s far right just as the rest of the continent seems to be sliding ever more to the left.

“My security wanted me to use the other entrance, but we came through the protesters,” said Uribe as the rain subsided. “They called me a fascist. A paramilitary. But let them come in and debate–this is an expression of Colombian democracy. I am not afraid of the shouting, I am just worried that behind it is hate.”

During the bizarre five-hour verbal battle that followed, about 200 young activists took the audience microphone and accused their president of impoverishing the working classes, supporting repression and selling off the national patrimony. Uribe, in turn, calmly defended the role of big business in Colombia, touted what he calls “democratic security”–his total war on left-wing guerrillas and their civilian supporters–and accused the students of “crypto-communism.”

“I blame the professors for the political disorientation of these youth,” said Uribe at one point, his anger just barely showing. It was a statement made all the more chilling by recent revelations that the leadership of Colombia’s Administrative Department for Security, or DAS, has been infiltrated by rightist paramilitaries who are supportive of Uribe and have used government computers to draw up hit lists of trade unionists and, yes, professors. Uribe has brushed aside the scandal, attacked the press for reporting it and sent a key suspect to a cushy diplomatic post in Italy.

Raised in the violent countryside near Medellín, in Antioquia province, but educated at Oxford and Harvard, the 54-year-old Uribe presents a strange mix of personas. At times he is the provincial patrón, the menacing tough guy with a thick regional accent that sets him apart from the Bogotá elite. At others, he is the wonkish, workaholic Davos-man; the flexible, modernizing technocrat. The mix is subtly demagogic, as both Uribe personas pretend to transcend politics with appeals to common sense.

Colombia, with a sizable population of 42 million and a hard-right president, is the Bush Administration’s only true friend in Latin America. Uribe has ridden horses with George Bush in Crawford, plans to sign a sweeping free-trade agreement with the United States and has secured several billion dollars in US military aid for his country.

Early in his first term, Uribe had moments of unprecedented popularity, once even reaching a 70 percent approval rating. His main achievement in the eyes of most supporters has been a limited rollback of the country’s leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).

The war is a rather personal matter for Uribe: In 1983 the FARC killed his father, and in 2002 they almost got the president-to-be with a massive roadside bomb. In the past four years Uribe has imposed something like security on several key road links between cities, and the guerrillas have been forced out of several northern coastal population centers by right-wing paramilitaries.

“His policy is pure lead,” says a former truck driver named Edgar approvingly. Edgar drove freight across Colombia for twenty-eight years but finally quit to drive a cab. “Before, if you didn’t pay taxes the guerrillas would burn your truck.”

Despite Uribe’s popularity, he faces a new yet robust democratic left party, the Polo Alternativa Democrático. Formed in 2003, the Polo has done surprisingly well in recent elections–winning more than twenty seats in the Colombian legislature, and controlling the mayoral offices of several cities, including Bogotá, and ruling one provincial government.

The party’s program is a sensible mix of social democratic policies that aim to contain and reform Colombian capitalism’s worst features. The Polo wants better protection of civil rights, workers’ rights and the environment; land reform and an end to privatization of state industries; tighter regulation of foreign capital and big business; and a less Washington-influenced foreign policy. And despite its urban origins, the Polo has strong support among peasants and Colombia’s well-organized indigenous movements.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s Colombia had a similarly mass-based social democratic party, the Patriotic Union (UP), with links to the FARC. But the UP was wiped out in an assassination campaign that saw 3,000 of its activists, including three presidential candidates, murdered by paramilitaries. The Polo has no links to the guerrillas. But Polo activists fear that Uribe’s campaign-trail redbaiting will effectively associate the Polo with the FARC in the minds of many Colombians and thus clear the way for a violent onslaught from the right.

“In Colombia, if you run for office from the left you have to be willing to die,” says a young Polo activist named Daniel.

The head of the Polo, Senator Samuel Rojas, is somewhat more understated about the threat. “We must insist on the rule of law,” says Rojas as we ride with his bodyguards through the rainy Bogotá night toward a rally of striking bus drivers who want Rojas to mediate their dispute. “Our task now is to consolidate the Polo. We have to prove that we can govern in places like Bogotá so we can survive and build for the long term.”

But in recent months several high-profile political figures have been murdered. One victim was Jaime Gomez, an aide to a Liberal Party senator critical of Uribe. Gomez disappeared in late March and showed up a month later, dismembered in a Bogotá park. Liliana Gaviria, sister of a former Colombian president from the Liberal Party who now attacks Uribe, was assassinated in April. And an aide to Polo Senator Gustavo Petro was recently killed in what the police say was a fall but what forensic specialists called a bludgeoning. Several weeks ago the brother of a Polo campaign manager was murdered after huge left-wing rallies in a paramilitary-controlled city. Uribe’s critics say the murders are the work of the president’s paramilitary allies.

Established by presidential decree in 1965, Colombia’s antileft paramilitaries were originally legal auxiliary militias that worked with the Colombian state. But the paras were never just passive tools, and they soon grew into autonomous drug-trafficking mafias that even started killing and expropriating land from members of the traditional ruling elite and were declared illegal in 1989. By the late 1990s the paramilitaries had come together in a united front called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

In late 2002 Uribe started a peace process with the AUC but excluded the guerrillas. Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have blasted the process as little more than a blanket amnesty that has strengthened and legitimized the drug-trafficking paramilitaries and allowed thousands of “demobilized” paras to move into Colombia’s major cities.

The amnesty also seems to have triggered an economic boom that will help Uribe at the polls. Colombian economist and author Hector Mondragón argues that Uribe’s amnesty for the AUC–which was accompanied by a liberalization of investment laws–has allowed the paras and other drug barons to launder huge sums of illicit cash through Colombia’s financial markets. In the past four years the country’s stock exchange has ballooned a staggering sixfold. This bubble, along with rampant deficit spending by the government, has momentarily buoyed Colombia’s economy.

For most of late May, Uribe had stopped giving interviews to the press and was refusing to debate his opponents. But I finally managed to corner him for a few quick questions as he was leaving an event. When I asked about the possibility of a drug-fueled boom, his answer was surprising.

“Yes, we had some years when the market was inflated by narco resources,” said Uribe in English. Then he somewhat contradictorily added: “But in the last years, narco resources have actually decreased economic growth. I accept that we still have a big problem with narco-trafficking, and I pledge to fight that evil.”

In fact, Uribe’s connections with the rural narco-right run deep. As director of civil aviation from 1980 to 1982, Uribe was accused of handing out flying licenses to drug smugglers. The drug-trafficking AUC leader Carlos Castaño once described Uribe as “the man closest to our philosophy.” As governor of Antioquia, Uribe set up a vigilante force called Convivir, parts of which eventually merged with the AUC.

The town of Chia, about an hour outside of Bogotá, is controlled by paramilitaries who are known not only for keeping out the FARC but also for their social conservatism and anticrime campaigns of “social cleansing”: no pot smoking, panhandling, public drunkenness or prostitution here.

In Chia I meet Maria, a technician who voted for Uribe in 2002 but this time around plans to vote for Polo candidate Carlos Gaviria. Maria worked for a state utility but lost her job when Uribe privatized the company. Now she survives by renting rooms in her home and from the wages of her sons–one a waiter, the other an actor and teacher.

“At first I supported social cleansing. There was a man who was released from prison and was murdering old people. The paras found him and just killed him,” says Maria. “A boy raped a girl and they killed him and four of his friends. At first they were killing really bad people.”

Freddy, a bohemian bar owner in the center of Chia, shares this view. “I don’t approve of social cleansing, but I admit I appreciate it,” he says with a regretful shrug.

This attitude–an apolitical acceptance of violence–allows Uribe to be seen as a useful politician. Because Uribe mixes up a war on street crime with his war on communist guerrillas and the democratic left, he has cast his repression as a technocratic campaign against disorder in general. “The country needed una mano dura,” says Maria.

Santa Fe, Bogotá’s main red-light district, is also locked down by paras, but not of the stuffy sort who run Chia. Here “demobilized” paras moved in under the guise of social cleansing, then took over and ramped up the flesh trade. These are Uribe’s lawless spawn: the logical outcome of his pampering “peace process.”

Mouse is a gaunt and haunted-looking 26-year-old former paramilitary foot soldier who now plays guitar, lives in a cheap Santa Fe hotel and claims to survive by “breathing the air, nothing more,” though he also admits to a long history of crime. Mouse won’t use his real name for fear of reprisal, but he agrees to tell me about his life in the paramilitaries when we meet in a small corner bar for some midday beers.

About four years ago Mouse was a para with the Bloque Central Centauros in the province of Meta, a hard-core war zone south of Bogotá. “I was a para, but I never committed human rights violations,” begins the young man emphatically. “We fought the guerrillas. The army supported us with their Black Hawks [helicopters]. They would fire tracers into the guerrilla positions, and we would fire at the same spot,” he explains.

“In the paras there are no drugs,” says Mouse. “You pack and ship cocaine, and on leave you do whatever you want. But if you get caught doing drugs in the camp, the sentence is death!” He punches the air as if firing a pistol. “It’s either death by hammer or death by chain saw. I had to kill a guy with a chain saw. The first time is hard, but you get used to it. Besides, if you don’t, the physical violence is turned against you. So you adapt.”

At one point in telling his life story Mouse stops: a corrido prohibido has rolled up on the jukebox and he needs to sing along. It’s Uriel Henao’s “El Guerrillero y el Paraco,” a Colombian imitation of the Mexican genre norteño. In this song two strangers start drinking together, “their masks fall away” and they begin to confess.

“My patrón is Carlos Castaño, leader of the AUC,” wails one of the drunks. The other announces, “I am loyal to Tirofijo, leader of the FARC, and I am a guerrilla.” The song ends with a shootout and both protagonists dead.

Despite the horrors that define so much of Colombian politics, one still finds an almost invincible sense of hope among the popular movements that now form the institutional base of the Polo. Again and again, nonviolent social movements have been forced underground by terror, yet they keep rising up, phoenixlike, as soon as they have any space.

In Bosa, a sprawling, muddy slum on the south edge of Bogotá where both paras and the FARC operate, I find just such a struggle. The Muisca Indians were written off as extinct. But the Muisca are back. Thanks to Colombia’s broad indigenous movement, they have won considerable rights that are enshrined in the 1991 Constitution–though, as Muisca leader José Reinel Neuta Tunjo is quick to point out, these rights are frequently violated.

Now the Office of National Planning wants to take Muisca farmland as part of a long-term plan to remake southern Bogotá’s rural edges. But the 2,000 members of this community have built a strong organization. The Muisca support the Polo, but the election is not the center of their politics. Most of their work has focused on the project of cultural recovery and survival, dealing with traditional medicine, community education and small-scale economic development.

When I ask about the FARC and paras, Neuta Tunjo requests that we not talk about “this type of politics.” It’s clear that the looming confrontation with the central government is a terrifying prospect. But even if Uribe wins, which he almost certainly will, the Muisca will mobilize to save their fields: “We will go to the authorities with a strong and clear statement to demand our rights,” says Neuta Tunjo. “We have no choice.” So too for the other elements of the democratic left–the distant indigenous communities, the bloodied but still struggling unions, the latest crop of students and for the Polo–who are all too aware that, as the Polo activist said, to be active in Colombian politics means you have to be willing to die.