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Ex-defense chief wins Colombia runoff in rout

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100621/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/lt_colombia_elections Ex-defense chief wins Colombia runoff in rout Frank Bajak, Associated Press Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 20, 2010
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100621/ap_on_re_la_am_ca/lt_colombia_elections

      Ex-defense chief wins Colombia runoff in rout
      Frank Bajak, Associated Press Writer – 1 hr 1 min ago

      BOGOTA, Colombia – A former defense minister from a powerful political clan who oversaw a major weakening of leftist rebels won Colombia's presidency Sunday, routing an eccentric outsider in a runoff.

      The victory for Juan Manuel Santos, a 58-year-old economist and three-time government minister, was a ringing endorsement of outgoing conservative President Alvaro Uribe, whose U.S.-backed security policies he helped craft and promised to continue.

      In his victory speech before a crowd of 10,000 in a Bogota coliseum preceded by a traditional music and dance troupe, Santos lionized Uribe.

      "If we have come so far it's because we have been standing on the shoulders of giants," he said, calling Uribe "an exceptional person who transformed our country."

      With nearly all polling stations reporting, Santos had 69 percent of the vote against 28 percent for former two-time Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus. It was largest margin of victory in a presidential vote in modern Colombian history, said Carlos Ariel Sanchez, director of the national electoral council.

      More than 3 percent of voters tendered protest ballots, indicating dissatisfaction with both candidates.

      Mockus ran an anti-corruption campaign atop a fledgling Green Party that many Colombians considered naive if well-intentioned. But after catapulting into early contention he stumbled with a series of gaffes that had Colombians questioning his ability to run a country still mired in a half-century-old conflict.

      Violence marred Sunday's vote as seven police officers and three soldiers were killed in separate attacks blamed on leftist rebels.

      The police were killed when a roadside bomb ripped apart their truck on a routine patrol in Colombia's northeast, authorities said, while the soldiers died in an ambush of an army patrol carrying election material to a town in the eastern plains. Officials blamed the ambush on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest rebel band. The bombing was blamed on a smaller insurgency.

      Santos, a former naval cadet, paid tribute to those losses in his victory speech, promising to work with Colombia's armed forces to "consolidate control over every inch of our territory."

      "Time is up for the FARC," he said. There will be no dialogue with the rebels as long as they continue to engage in kidnapping and drug trafficking, he said.

      As defense minister in 2006-09, Santos helped knock the wind out of the FARC. Two members of its seven-man ruling secretariat were killed during his tenure and FARC desertions soared. He also oversaw the bloodless 2008 ruse that rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 others from long captivity with the rebels.

      In the May 30 first round, Santos fell just shy of the simple majority needed for victory. His margin of victory Sunday was superior to the 62 percent garnered by Uribe in his 2006 re-election. Mockus won in just one state, Putumayo, on Colombia's southern border.

      The persistence of the rebel threat was a central issue in the campaign.

      "Security. Security," said Bogota clothing factory owner Humberto Botero, 52, explaining his vote for Santos. "He's a statesman. He's someone who knows the country, who knows how to surround himself with talent."

      Santos won the endorsement of most of the country's political establishment after the first round.

      He promised to help the poor in a nation notorious for income inequality where more than two in five of its 44 million people live on less than $2 a day.

      "Creating jobs will be the great obsession of this government," Santos said in his victory speech, while promising a government of national unity and inviting Mockus to help him close whatever wounds might have been opened in the campaign.

      In his concession speech, Mockus said the election marked the consolidation in Colombia of "a new, independent political force, the Green Party," which he promised would "support the good and oppose the bad" in Santos' government.

      "Today we begin to change Colombia," he said to the shouted acclaim of supporters at a campaign headquarters festooned with sunflowers and green. The Greens won their first seats in Congress in March legislative elections. They will have five members in the 102-seat Senate that takes office July 20 and will be dominated by Santos' allies. Santos takes office Aug. 7.

      Mockus' clean-government campaign resonated strongly in the aftermath of a series of scandals that tainted Uribe's legacy, including the presidency's use of the DAS intelligence agency to spy on judges, journalists and human rights workers and, separately, more than 1,000 extra-judicial killings that prompted Santos to fire 27 officers in late 2008.

      Those who voted for Mockus, a former university rector and son of Lithuanian immigrants, praised his refreshing integrity and promise to rid Colombia of endemic corruption.

      But Mockus led many to question his ability to manage the military and foreign relations. At one point, he suggested Colombia dissolve its military, then backtracked. He also suggested he would have no choice but to extradite Uribe if an Ecuadorean court convicted him in a 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base. In fact, Colombia's presidents can deny extradition requests.

      The mathematician and philosopher alienated voters by promising a tax increase. And rather than courting the left-wing vote, he said he didn't want it.

      "Mockus simply isn't of the stature to be president and manage a country as complex as Colombia," said Diego Munoz, a 36-year-old street vendor who voted for Santos.

      Cynthia Arnson, director of Latin American studies at the Woodrow Wilson center in Washington, said Mockus "made some honest statements that constituted political suicide."

      Santos, a University of Kansas graduate, was making his first run for elected office may have benefited politically from a government welfare payment program called Accion Social that grew under Uribe from 320,000 recipient families to 2.2 million. He said Sunday night that he would continue and expand on such programs

      Santos is a great-nephew of Colombia's Liberal party president in 1938-42, Eduardo Santos, whose family long ran the country's leading newspaper, El Tiempo.

      As defense minister, Santos clashed often with leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

      Last month, a judge in Ecuador ordered his arrest for authorizing the 2008 cross-border raid on a FARC base inside Colombia's southern neighbor that killed the rebel group's No. 2 commander, Raul Reyes.

      Santos called the arrest warrant absurd because the Colombian state — not he individually — carried out the raid.

      He told The Associated Press in a pre-election interview that it wouldn't prevent him from visiting Ecuador if invited. Further, Santos said he would invite Chavez and the Venezuelan leader's leftist allies to his inauguration.

      "I want good relations with all our neighbors," Santos said.

      ___

      Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia, Carlos Gonzalez, Vivian Sequera and Nancy Lopez contributed to this report.
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