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Colombia's Presidential Campaign Kicks Off -- Finally

One of the main characters in my new book, Law of the Jungle, is Thomas Howes, a U.S. military contractor who was taken hostage by Colombian rebels and held in the jungle for more than five years.

On July 2, 2008, Howes and 14 other hostages were rescued by Colombian commandos in a daring raid authorized by President Alvaro Uribe. A few months after he was freed, Howes insisted to me that Uribe was the country's best leader of the past hundred years.

Following the military operation, Uribe's job-approval rating topped 80 percent and he tried to parlay this popularity into a third four-year term. But on Friday, Colombia's highest court declaring Uribe's bid to run in the May 30 election unconstitutional.

To maintain checks and balances in a part of the world with a history of dictators, Colombia's 1991 Constitution banned presidential reelection. Pro-Uribe legislators amended the Magna Carta so he could run for a second term in 2006 and they tried to pull the same stunt this year.

But the Uribe team violated all sorts of rules, including campaign finance laws. Mauricio Rodriguez, president of the Constitutional Court, said the irregularities amounted to "a grave violation of democratic principles."

The magistrates made the right decision, one that will prevent Uribe from morphing into a right-wing reflection of Hugo Chavez, who wants to rule Venezuela for two more decades.

Yet many average Colombians were disappointed with the court's decision and to understand why, all you have to do is jump in a car and drive from Bogotá to the provincial capital of Villavicencio.

A decade ago, Marxist guerrillas prowled the 50-mile route that winds through the Andes Mountains. One of their favorite tricks was to mount roadblocks, stop vehicles, and kidnap the richest-looking motorists.

These mass abductions were dubbed "miracle fishing" after the biblical story in which the disciples, on Christ's instruction, cast their nets into the Sea of Galilee and took home a massive catch. Back then, even scripture became code for kidnappings in Colombia.

In 2000, the worst year, guerrillas, paramilitaries and criminals abducted an astounding 3,500 people.

The victims included my former roommate, Ruth Morris, who was nearly grabbed twice in the same day. Ruth was taken hostage by a guerrilla group known as the ELN. But then, gunmen from a rival rebel group called the FARC tried to kidnap her from her kidnappers.

Few Colombians could afford security consultants. Instead, friends and relatives of hostages were forced to negotiate ransom payments for their freedom. One Bogotá human rights group published a ten-page how-to guide - a sort of Ransom Negotiations for Dummies.

The growing anarchy prompted voters in 2002 to elect Uribe, a pro-U.S. conservative who vowed to crush the guerrillas and rollback kidnappings. On many fronts, he delivered.

More than a dozen high-ranking FARC leaders have been killed or captured, and the government now controls many rural towns where the bad guys once held sway. Last year, Colombia registered fewer than 200 kidnappings.

The highpoint of Uribe's presidency - and Law of the Jungle - was the hostage-rescue operation in which Colombian Army commandos, disguised as humanitarian aid workers, tricked the FARC into turning over 15 hostages, including Howes.

But in the aftermath, as the president maneuvered to keep his job, his reputation took a hit.

Intelligence agents were caught spying on opposition politicians. Dozens of Uribe's political allies were imprisoned for collaborating with death squads. Colombian Army troops were detained for killing hundreds of innocent civilians and dressing them up as guerrillas.

As long as they felt safe, many Colombians seemed willing to overlook the scandals. Polls showed Uribe easily defeating any of his rivals and several candidates pledged to pull out if Uribe was allowed to run.

Thus, the presidential race never really kicked off. Instead of discussing major problems, like the emergence of a new generation drug-trafficking militias, public debate was overwhelmed by Uribe's reelection drama.

Just in time, the Constitutional Court provided a much-needed check on presidential power. And with the court's 7-2 decision scotching Uribe's reelection plans, Colombia's 2010 campaign to elect a new president can finally begin.

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