Colombia’s polls had been closed for only a few hours. The runner-up hadn’t even conceded. The President-elect was waiting for the final results to come in before giving his victory speech. Yet there was US Ambassador Anne Patterson on TV, congratulating Álvaro Uribe Vélez on his stunning first-round triumph. “It shows that Colombians are fed up with terrorism,” Patterson told reporters. Before the May elections the United States had gone to great lengths to show it favored no candidate. But Patterson’s early evening appearance at Uribe’s campaign headquarters killed any pretense of impartiality. The United States had its man.
Uribe had campaigned around two themes: more government soldiers, fewer (read: dead) guerrillas. Simple as it sounds, it worked. He got 53 percent of the vote in the elections, a clear mandate to do the kinds of things that make human rights groups cringe and the United States crow: mobilize a million people to help the government fight the four-decade-old insurgency, and negotiate peace with the right-wing paramilitary groups many consider to be the government’s lynch squads.
The President-elect spent the two days after his victory asking for more war matériel from Washington, and despite some opposition, it looks as though he may get it. In the past two years the United States has given Colombia $1.7 billion to fight drugs as part of “Plan Colombia.” But in the wake of 9/11, many in Washington believe the time is right to declare war on the rebels. “It only makes sense to apply the policies which now guide our worldwide war on terror to the scourge of terrorism in Colombia,” Representative Cass Ballenger told the House Subcommittee on Western Affairs in April as the debate over the new aid began. But there’s little evidence to show that Uribe, even with US help, will be able to control the escalating conflict. In fact, there’s good reason to believe the country’s civil war will spiral even further out of control.
Still, Washington seems determined to send a message to the guerrillas that their time is coming. The White House has requested more than $100 million to protect an oft-bombed pipeline in the eastern province of Arauca (in addition to more than $500 million requested for drug-eradication and military aid). But pipeline protection is a dangerous game, and US attention to it has quickly converted the Caño Limón oilfields in Arauca into a symbol of the larger war between the Americans and the guerrillas.
Of all the pipeline bombers I met when I was in Arauca, the scariest one was an unassuming kid who called himself Daniel. He was the classic militia: a dime-a-dozen kid from a poor section of the country with nothing to lose. The guerrillas, I thought, must have hundreds like him, and, as I found out, they do.
These “boys” blend into the local scenery perfectly. Daniel had fair skin, light-brown hair that he combed up and back over his head, and a thin little mustache. He liked to wear T-shirts and bell-bottom pants that covered his cowboy boots. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old and often acted his age. One morning he grinned as we drove by an electricity tower his colleagues had attempted to destroy. The tower stood on two of its four legs and leaned at a 75-degree angle. The wind, I asked, pointing at the tower. “Yeah,” he replied, “the wind of the explosion.”