Colombia Launches Hearts and Minds Campaign

To take control of his country, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has used army offensives and aerial fumigation of drug crops to undercut funding for Marxist rebels. Now Colombia has launched a "hearts and minds" campaign in 53 communities.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's report next on a sitting Latin American president who's been fighting for full control of his country. The country is Colombia, which suffers from a decades-long rebellion, as well as drug trafficking. President Alvaro Uribe has used army offensives and U.S.-backed aerial fumigation of drug crops. That has undercut the main source of funding for Marxist rebels. And now Colombia has launched a hearts and minds campaign for the citizens of 53 communities.

NPR's Juan Forero has this report from San Vicente, Colombia.

JUAN FORERO: In many ways, this town in southern Colombia - it's full name is San Vicente del Caguan - has changed little. Horses remain a central mode of transport and most people work the fields. And for as long as anyone can remember, Marxist rebels have roamed the surrounding jungles and cow pastures, until recently ruling like it was their personal fiefdom. They were once so powerful here, in fact, that the government ceded this town and four others to the rebels for peace negotiations, talks that broke down five years ago.

But that was then. Now, the old visitors center the rebels ran has been razed by the state. In its place is a gymnasium, complete with barbells and hard-thumping techno music. The gyms in a new two-storey building constructed by the state that offers services of all kinds. And that's not all.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

FORERO: The government has added a new wing to the local hospital to help mothers and their babies. It's built a sprawling school, remodeled three others, paved roads, built a new city hall, a community center and a police station. A multi-purpose sports center that seats 800 is soon going up. And then there are the little things like the instruments provided to a dozen budding musicians.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: Juan Manuel Santos is Colombia's defense minister. He says the idea has been to take communities in isolated regions and come in hard and fast with infrastructure, electrification, courts and other services. If successful, he says, the idea is to replicate across Colombia.

Mr. JUAN MANUEL SANTOS (Minister of Defense, Colombia): We have divided the country in three. One, red area, where the illegal armed groups are still present. Another, yellow area, where the situation is much better but still have problems. And the green area is where things are normal. Our objective is to enlarge the green areas at the expense of the yellow and particularly the red areas.

FORERO: Expanding the program to hundreds of communities won't be easy or cheap. Colombian officials, in fact, talk of spending $43 billion over the next six years. The United States has provided five billion this decade, mostly in military and anti-drug aid. Some lawmakers in Washington would like to see more diverted to social and economic programs. But Democrats in Congress say even so, Washington won't be providing more than $700 million a year.

John Walters is the White House drug czar. He says the Bush administration supports Uribe's plans. But he say's it's the emphasis on the security side that's helped make it all possible.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy): Everybody wants to see every community able to have better schools and healthcare. But the precondition of that is security.

FORERO: Even here, with so many police and troops everywhere, the rebels still have influence.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

FORERO: Extortion remains serious as made clear by constant radio ads that urge businessmen to report the crime. And outside town, the rebels are the state, says Rafael Rodriguez(ph). He's a farmer who had to flee to San Vicente.

Mr. RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) We're not in a free country. We're in a state where we're under pressure.

FORERO: Yet officials like Luis Francisco Valencia, chief of staff to the mayor, are optimistic.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

FORERO: He enthusiastically walks around the city hall - the new one that's going up. Next door is the old one, blown up by a rebel bomb.

Mr. LUIS FRANCISCO VALENCIA (Town Administrator, San Vicente del Caguan, Columbia): (Through translator) For us, the fact that the state is paying attention to the development of the municipality means giving back everything that was lost here.

FORERO: It also means a new chapter for San Vicente, what residents cautiously hope will be a more peaceful one.

Juan Forero, NPR News, San Vicente, Colombia.

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