Last week, Colombian police discovered nine mortars aimed at the country's presidential palace -- home and workplace of President Alvaro Uribe. One day earlier, German Vargas Lleras, Colombian senator and ally of Uribe, narrowly escaped a car bomb attack that injured three of his bodyguards and six bystanders.
Security experts believe these are the initial sorties of what may become a seven-month war against the current Colombian government. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appears to have once again launched a violent campaign to influence presidential elections, the next one to occur in May 2006. The FARC is likely to intensify its campaign now that Colombia's Constitutional Court issued its decision that leaves open Uribe's possibility to run for re-election.
Electoral terrorism is nothing new in Colombia. Leftist and right-wing insurgent groups have used violence against candidates or their family members for decades. While the FARC has traditionally manipulated local and regional elections, in 2002 it made its mark on the presidential contest, kidnapping one candidate (who remains a hostage to this day) and threatening others. Uribe, who survived at least three attempts on his life during the campaign and whose regional campaign manager for Boyaca province was shot in the jaw, was forced to run what his running mate dubbed a "clandestine'' campaign in some parts of the country.
The FARC's tactic clearly failed. Their actions before and during the 2002 campaign galvanized Colombian voters around hard-liner Uribe -- the worst possible candidate from the FARC's perspective -- giving him an overwhelming victory.
The question this time around is whether the FARC's latest violent campaign will backfire again, or whether the FARC will be able to undermine Uribe and his government with attacks so vicious they would change popular perception of Uribe's accomplishments.
Since he won in 2002, Uribe has pursued a daring and often seguridad democratica strategy. Generously supported by Washington, Uribe has sought to take back Colombian territory once controlled by irregular forces. This followed the failure of former President Andres Pastrana's attempt to appease the FARC by giving it control over a portion of Colombia the size of Switzerland.
Uribe's government claims it has seriously weakened leftist insurgents. As of last month, it says it has captured, killed or demobilized more than 30,000 members of leftist "subversive'' organizations. Terrorist attacks, including the destruction of pipelines and electrical and communications towers, have also decreased, according to the authorities, from 1,257 in 2003, to 724 in 2004 and to 442 as of September.
For his efforts, Uribe enjoys support among 70 percent of Colombians, according to the latest Gallup poll published late in July.
But that could change if, as Colombian security expert Alfredo Rangel claims, the FARC has not been weakened but in fact has been in tactical retreat. In Rangel's scenario, it would be the intensity of the FARC's offensive that would demonstrate that Uribe's strategy has failed: "The first bomb sparks popular solidarity with the government; the second one causes people to call for greater security; the third makes them blame the government for the situation and demand change.''
In the late 1980s, the Medellin cartel declared an open war on Colombian citizens in an effort to stop the government from extraditing drug traffickers to the United States. After a surge in assassinations, bombings and kidnappings left hundreds of innocent Colombians dead, the government caved in to popular pressure and negotiated an end to extradition, eventually making it unconstitutional. The extradition ban was lifted in 1997.
The hope is that Uribe, over the course of his tenure, has brought Colombia to a place where it is not so susceptible to Rangel's third bomb scenario. As a nation, many observers believe Colombia has gone through a substantial shift. Colombians seem to accept the notion that their country is engaged in a war that affects everyone and requires all to make some sacrifices -- from the peasants turned soldiers to elites paying new taxes.
And as unbalanced as that sounds, it is a change nevertheless. There is no doubt that the real test to Uribe's strategy begins now. At the same time, if the FARC proves incapable of reversing Colombia's progress, and for the first time in two electoral seasons becomes unable to play a dominant role in picking Colombia's next president, the 2006 elections may help prove that peace in Colombia has been advanced.