Leader with the iron fist and the big heart

Colombia's neoliberal president has used the military to take control of large areas. But the guerri

Fifteen months ago, Jesus Evelio Medina Alarcon was running his construction business in Saravena, a small town in the department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border of Colombia. Medina, in his fifties, was well known in his community: he had served on his local council and been president of his district for eight years in a row. It's the kind of thing that wins you friends, he told me, but also makes you enemies. That, at least, is his explanation for why he is now in prison in Bogota.

On 12 November 2002 at 5am, as Medina was making his morning coffee, the police raided his house. Apparently finding nothing, they left, only to return to take him to the town's sports stadium. Two thousand people were ordered to the stadium that day. It was, the police said, a "census". Inside the stadium, however, was a car with darkened windows. Inside the car were paid informers who apparently pointed Medina out. Along with more than 40 others, he was taken to the military barracks.

There, he was offered the choice of joining the ranks of paid informers or going to prison. Eight days later, he was taken to Bogota, where he was charged with rebellion. It could be years before his case is concluded, but he may not live that long. Medina is diabetic and cannot get enough insulin in prison to keep him well. To the government, he is another terrorist suspect successfully rounded up. As far as Medina and his family are concerned, he is a citizen guilty of nothing more than affiliation to the construction workers' union and leadership of his local community.

Since Alvaro Uribe Velez came to office in Colombia, the prison population has jumped from 50,000 to 67,000, a function, say lawyers, of waves of arrests that frequently derive from nothing more than the unsupported and anonymous accusation of a paid informer. The informers are an important part of Uribe's strategy to defeat the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

When Uribe visited Strasburg this month, he was in characteristically belligerent mood. "If you had Hitler here [in Europe] and people locked up in concentration camps," he said, "the outside world would not be pushing for humanitarian agreements with him but trying to overthrow him." This bizarre analogy was intended to refute the charge that Uribe is making Colombia's already dire human rights situation worse. The "Hitler" in his remarks is the Farc; the concentration camp reference was intended to describe the several thousand kidnap victims who remain in Farc hands and for whom Uribe refuses to negotiate a humanitarian exchange.

If President Uribe's grasp of European history seems a little shaky, his determination to pursue his security agenda is not in doubt. There are now many kinds of war going on in Colombia: a war between the guerrillas of the Farc, the ELN and the state; a war between the Farc, the ELN and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces (AUC); there is even, intermittently, a conflict between the AUC and the government; and, of course, there is the "war on drugs", sponsored by the United States through the multimillion-dollar Plan Colombia. All these wars contribute to Colombia's prolonged crisis.

The most recent addition to this tragic list is a war over image and statistics. This being Colombia, the statistics themselves are about death, specifically about whether civilian deaths attributable to the Colombian armed forces or their partners in the paramilitaries have declined under Uribe. The president and his supporters claim a dramatic improvement, which shows that his "democratic security" policies are both popular and effective. On the other side, a small army of NGOs, diplomats, human rights defenders and social activists contests the claims of improvement and argues that Uribe is leading his country into new dangers - the militarisation of the judicial system, the incorporation of some of the most sinister elements of Colombian society into legitimate politics and the persecution of any who disagree.

The figures themselves are fuzzy. It is clear that kidnapping (overwhelmingly a crime perpetrated by the guerrillas) is down, as is the frequency of massacres (overwhelmingly a crime perpetrated by the right-wing paramilitary defence force). But many NGOs argue that these benefits are offset by an increase in individual murders and a sharp increase in disappearances.

Uribe did not invent Colombia's problems: they date back at least five decades. The argument is over whether he is making things better or worse. Uribe was elected with a convincing majority two years ago after the efforts of his immediate predecessor, Andres Pastrana, to negotiate peace with the Farc had failed. Sick of the misery of a degraded war in which the state failed to defend them against the abuses of the guerrillas, the paramilitaries or the state security forces, Colombians voted enthusiastically for Uribe's promise of "an iron fist and big heart" - war against the guerrillas and increased social spending.

Both were necessary. It was the army's reluctance to do the fighting that had allowed the savage paramilitary forces their opportunity. And Colombia, a country rich in natural resources, including oil, suffers one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in Latin America. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 59 per cent of Colombians live on less than two dollars a day, half the population is either unemployed or underemployed, there are no school places for one-third of the children.

In one respect at least, Uribe was true to his word: he declared a state of emergency and gave the military special powers. The government has re-established control over large areas of the country and in some parts Colombians can now travel more freely than two years ago. It remains to be seen whether military force will prevail against the world's largest and most seasoned guerrilla force: some reports suggest that Farc recruitment continues apace, and even hardliners in Colombia accept that the end of this conflict can come only through negotiation. The Farc, well funded by their "tax" on coca production and the revenues from kidnapping, can afford to sit Uribe out.

The president has ruled out talking to the guerrillas but he has offered an olive branch to the paramilitaries: it amounts, essentially, to an amnesty for their past crimes and permission to run for political office. Some groups are in negotiations; others have declined. Those who do not enter negotiations are to be targeted by the security forces. In theory, the AUC, the largest bloc of paramilitaries, has declared a ceasefire, though the government seems unperturbed by the continuing killings and forced displacement of poor farmers from their lands.

So attractive are the terms on offer that there are reports of notorious drug traffickers seeking membership of the paramilitary forces in order to benefit from the promised amnesty. (A confidential Colombian government report, according to the Washington Post last July, revealed that the paramilitaries already control 40 per cent of Colombia's cocaine traffic.)

As for the guerrillas and their "sympathisers", they can expect no mercy. But eight months after the president came to office, Colombia's constitutional court ruled that he had exceeded his powers under his state of emergency. Since then, he has been trying to pass legislation that will give him a free hand.

The peace deal with the paramilitaries is one of the areas of concern to the UN and to the assorted NGOs that monitor the health of Colombia's much-abused civil society. Other strands of Uribe's "democratic security" policy include his attempt to introduce legislation that will restore some of the powers that the court ruled unconstitutional; his network of anonymous, paid informants; his mass arrests; his desire to give the army powers to tap telephones, to make arrests and to carry out raids on homes and places of work; as well as allowing civilians - including, potentially, demobilised members of the paramilitary forces - to arm themselves with assault weapons. Several of his proposals, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights among others, are violations of national and international law.

Uribe's supporters claim that he remains popular. In fact, this seems doubtful, given that in October, he suffered a humiliating defeat in a referendum on key proposals. The following day, several prominent left-wingers and ex-guerrillas were elected to important posts, including a number of state governorships and the prominent position of mayor of Bogota.

The other half of Uribe's promise - the big heart - has been less in evidence. Some of Colombia's fiercest political battles have been fought over the attempted privatisation of the public sector - including changes at the public universities, the closure of hospitals, the removal of employment and pension rights, and the steady transfer of spending out of social needs and into debt servicing and the military budget. Trades unionists and social activists complain that the sweeping powers which Uribe claims are necessary to fight the guerrillas are used with equal enthusiasm against those who peacefully oppose his virulent neoliberal agenda.

Those who protest against such abuses - largely the NGOs - have themselves come under attack. They were, the president claimed, "political manoeuvrers in the service of terrorism". Early this month, the deputy minister of defence told me that 95 per cent of information that reaches the outside world from Colombia comes from NGOs sympathetic to the guerrillas. This generous sweep includes War on Want, Save the Children, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as their Colombian counterparts. It would be comic, were it not that in Colombia, to accuse somebody of sympathising with the guerrillas carries a death sentence.