Is Colombia's Hope a Hawk or a Dove?

Article excerpt

`My No. 1 priority is to defeat the drug smugglers,' proclaims presidential front-runner Gen. Harold Bedoya. His Success could deliver a country from corruption, chaos and violence.

The two-story campaign headquarters in a quiet residential neighborhood in central Bogota was bustling with activity with aides rushing about and radios blaring the latest news of guerrilla activity and paramilitary lawlessness. Toward the back of the squat building in a cramped and unadorned office, Latin America's latest general -turned-politician outlined to Insight what he will do if his outsider's bid for the presidency of Colombia proves successful next spring.

As he relaxed on a sofa, Gen. Harold Bedoya, the recently fired head of Colombia's armed forces, announced: "My No. 1 priority when elected will be to defeat the drug smugglers; in a year the problem of Colombian narcotrafficking can be resolved."

Tough words, but are they realistic? According to Bedoya, the unthinkable is possible -- victory could be won against this Andean nation's powerful drug gangs that produce 60 percent of the heroin and 80 percent of the cocaine seized on U.S. streets. They can be taken down with the right blend of force, cunning and a capital-investment program that would trigger economic development in poor rural areas and wean campesinos off coca production. All that's needed is political will -- and concerted U.S. aid in the form of what the general likes to call a "Marshall Plan for Colombia."

"Neither the U.S. nor Colombia are doing their best to fight drugs," he said. "We have to be partners in the effort or both of us are going to face catastrophe in the next century"

Until recently, few commentators were giving Bedoya much chance in an election that's likely to be crucial in Colombia's protracted battle against a trio of evils: the drug trade, leftist guerrilla insurgency and right-wing paramilitary subversion. After a long army career that began in his hometown of Cali, the 56-year-old Bedoya was lagging in the opinion polls far behind front-runner Horacio Serpa, the former Interior minister, who Washington suspects is narco-linked. But the general's refusal to be deterred by a 20 percent gap between himself and the well-financed Serpa has been rewarded: The latest poll here suggests Bedoya would tie with Serpa on a five-candidate first ballot and in a runoff would beat outgoing president Ernesto Samper's handpicked successor by half-a-dozen points.

Good news for the United States? Serpa's defeat would bring relief in Washington. Samper's campaign manager in 1994 Serpa at best is suspected of knowing about hefty campaign donations to the president from narcotraffickers and, at worst, of being involved in their garnering. Though cleared last month by Colombian legal authorities of any wrongdoing, he has yet to convince Washington that he is not a crook.

And Bedoya? Latin America is no stranger to military men with political ambitions. The continent's history of generals in politics hasn't been a happy one. Dirty wars, human-rights violations, repression and rule by fiat often have accompanied military-led or influenced regimes, elected or not. It is that history which is coloring Washington's attitudes toward the general.

But as turbulence mounts in Colombia (see sidebar), Bedoya's no-nonsense leadership is becoming more attractive -- and not just for his former charges, the country's soldiers. For some, the Cali native could be what desperately is needed: a Colombian equivalent of neighboring Peru's Alberto Fujimori, who has managed against the odds to curtail corruption in his country and curb a potent leftist insurgency. The sentiment among Bedoya's supporters is similar to the response Britain's King George II gave to those who complained about Gen. James Wolfe: "Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals."

Bedoya's critics counter that he's a dangerous populist and should be compared not with Fujimori but Paraguay's Gen. …