Colombia's Santos is elected president

Former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos has been elected Colombia's next president by a landslide. The U.S.-educated economist has pledged to continue the tough stance of the current government in dealing with left-wing rebels.
By Juan Forero
Monday, June 21, 2010

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Juan Manuel Santos, who as defense minister in Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's government oversaw the biggest blows against an entrenched guerrilla force, was elected president Sunday in a landslide.

Santos, 58, will become caretaker of an American military aid package that has delivered $600 million annually over the past decade to help Colombia counter rebel forces and drug traffickers. Under Uribe, who took office in 2002 and will end his second term on Aug. 7, Colombia went from a country buffeted by conflict to one marked by solid economic growth and a reduction in violence.

Santos's victory was seen as a strong endorsement of Uribe's policies, which centered on making a revamped army more offensive-minded.

"This, too, is your triumph, President Uribe," Santos told followers in a victory speech.

With nearly all the votes counted, Santos had 69 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Antanas Mockus, an eccentric former mayor of Bogota. More than 9 million Colombians voted for Santos, giving him a victory even more resounding than the two presidential elections Uribe won.

Just a month ago, Mockus's quirky campaign and his pledge to attack corruption and cronyism had awakened excitement, with polls predicting he would squeak to victory. But in the first round of polling, on May 30, voters gave Mockus 21 percent of the ballots while Santos received 47 percent.

Political analysts said that Colombians fearful that Uribe's security gains might ebb with Mockus instead supported Santos, who had pledged to keep up the pressure on a despised guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"We will keep fighting against the enemies of the state," Santos said, adding that "the time is up for the FARC."

Santos, an economist educated in the United States, is the scion of an influential family that for decades ran Colombia's biggest newspaper, Bogota's El Tiempo. His great-uncle Eduardo Santos was president from 1938 to 1942, and his cousin Francisco Santos is Uribe's vice president.

Juan Manuel Santos has held cabinet posts in three administrations, the latest running the country's armed forces, a position he held until 2009. Under his watch, an army reliant on U.S. training and military hardware severely weakened the FARC, breaking the group's aura of invincibility.

In March 2008, two of the FARC's top leaders were killed, one in a bombing strike on a jungle camp just inside Ecuador's northern border with Colombia. Four months later, in a daring raid that attracted international attention, a team of army commandos duped the FARC into turning over 15 high-profile hostages, including three American Defense Department contractors.

Santos's term as defense minister, though, was marred by revelations that army units throughout the country had killed hundreds of peasants and presented them as dead guerrillas to increase body count figures. Santos said he worked vigorously to shed light on the killings and dismissed dozens of officers and soldiers linked to the deaths.

But the scandal raised concerns among human rights groups, the United Nations and some Democrats in Congress, who questioned the near-unconditional stream of aid that Washington provides to Colombia. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who has been critical of rights violations under Uribe's government, said he thinks Santos did not do enough as minister to expose details of the killings or to ensure that those responsible were punished.

"I think this whole issue is not going to go away," said McGovern, who is asking for more energetic prosecutions of officers and troops accused in the deaths.

Philip Alston, a U.N. investigator who wrote an in-depth report about the killings, said that Santos was, overall, a "fairly consistent, positive force" in dealing with the scandal. But Alston said prosecutions have lagged badly, a situation that could be corrected in Santos's administration.

"He could certainly be speaking out now and saying this would be a priority of a new government," Alston said.

Santos will also face challenges from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has clashed repeatedly with Uribe's government. In the past, Santos has maintained that the FARC receive sanctuary and support from Chávez.

To Colombia's south, relations are also tense with Ecuador, where a judge recently issued an arrest order against Santos for authorizing the bombing of the FARC camp in Ecuador's jungle in 2008.

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