May 27, 2006

Amid war, Bogota a tale of two cities

By Angus MacSwan

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - The troops patrolling Bogota's
streets in the days before Sunday's presidential election are a
reminder Colombia is at war, but you might not believe it from
the hectic night life in its rich areas.

The growing feeling of safety in some parts of the city is
a result of President Alvaro Uribe's tough security policies
and a main reason he looks set to coast to a second term.

"We feel safe ... in Colombia we grow up with guerrillas,
you get used to it. But this has been the best time in 15
years," said Camilo Giraldo, operations manager at Salto del
Angel, a bar in a chic district of Bogota.

Soldiers in flak jackets and steel helmets stood outside
Salto del Angel while inside a packed crowd of well-heeled
young Colombians danced and drank the night away.

"He's done a great job. I hope on Sunday he will get voted
in for another four years," Giraldo said.

Polls show Uribe will win more than half of the vote --
enough to win the first round on Sunday.

Crime and kidnapping rates have dropped as Uribe's security
forces, with strong support from the United States, drove
guerrillas from urban areas and cracked down on the illegal
cocaine trade that helps fuel a four-decade-old conflict in
which thousands have been killed.

Large parts of the Colombian countryside are still under
the control of the most powerful rebel group, the FARC. But in
the clubs, bars and nightclubs gathered round 93rd Street Park,
the scene looked more like Miami Beach.

"They have a lot of energy, a lot of money -- they spend it
all on booze," Giraldo said of the young professionals who
packed into Salto del Angel.

Friday night was slightly more subdued as a "dry law"
banning alcohol sales before polling day had come into effect.

Christina Galindo, a public relations employee, and her
friend Carolina Torres, who works for a technology company,
drank coffee at the glass-and-chrome Amaranto bar.

They both credited Uribe, a conservative lawyer and
landowner whose father was killed by the FARC in 1983, with
making the city safer.

"I go out a lot. I'm not afraid of anything happening.
There is more confidence. Kidnappings? No!" Galinda said.


It's another story in the sprawl of working-class areas and
slums that make up south Bogota. In Barrio Estrella, going out
at night is not advised.

Armored police vehicles guard the foot of the hill the
barrio clings to. As darkness fell one recent evening, people
hurried home along the cracked roads, pulling cheap jackets and
sweaters tight against the Andean chill.

"I won't go out after 8 o'clock, the gangs are in the
street," Blanca Forero, 35, sweeping out the little pharmacy
where she works.

The social problems critics say Uribe must confront if he
wants to have a successful second term are evident.

A lot of people have no jobs, Forero said. Those who did
find work in factories earned about $200 a month. "The people
here live very badly," Forero said.

She believed most people would vote for Uribe but said she
would not bother. "Nothing gets better because of the
corruption. Politicians don't want to share what they have with
the poor people."

A young police officer said violence in the barrio had
dropped in the past few years but it was still a dangerous
place, where drug trafficking and assaults were rife and bodies
turned up on a weekly basis.

"Here we don't feel the security of Uribe," he said, asking
that his named not be used.