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The beating heart of Colombia's historic struggle can be seen from the air. As you come in to land at Bogotá's El Dorado airport, you see perfectly parcelled suburban developments encircled by muscular mountains. Colombia amplifies the typical Latin American struggle of order versus chaos and concrete versus bush to epic proportions. Flying the flag for order and civilisation is two-term conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who will hold a referendum in November to change the constitution to allow what Colombians are referring to as his "re-reelection". He is widely expected to win both the referendum and a third, or even fourth, term.

A national hero with rock-star popularity, Uribe is a skinny, soft-spoken, bespectacled geek who carries a big stick. The ladies clearly love it. Last year, Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez threatened war because Colombia had crossed the Ecuadorean border to kill Raúl Reyes, second-in-command of the Marxist guerrilla group, the Farc (Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces). When Uribe discovered laptops revealing Chávez gave $300 million to the Farc, Chávez called Uribe a liar. 

"Then, at the Organisation for American Unity summit in Nicaragua," relates my guide breathlessly, "Chávez approached Uribe to shake his hand and Uribe refused it! Uribe said: ‘Sir, I'm trying to save my country and will not tolerate any allies of our enemies.' I cheered and shouted: ‘I love you, Uribe! I want to have your baby!'" 

Uribe is widely considered a conquering hero for quelling the rival armed groups that have shredded the country along the geographic lines of the three Andean cordilleras — Occidental, Central and Oriental: the Farc, the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the several dozen right-wing paramilitaries that sprang up to counteract them, grouped under the AUC (Colombian Self-Defence Forces). When Uribe was elected in 2002, Colombia was a nearly failed state in the grip of a violent civil war that had forced four million people to flee their homes (second only to Darfur in internal displacement). The Farc controlled 40 per cent of the national territory, which is only slightly smaller than France and Spain put together. The Farc were powerfully resurgent after former President Andrés Pastrana had created, and then rescinded, a demilitarised zone the size of Switzerland. Instead of negotiating a peace agreement, the Farc used the DMZ to rearm, grow more coca and build permanent concentration camps for their thousands of kidnapped hostages. On a hard-line platform, Uribe rode a wave of anti-Farc (and anti-Pastrana) anger all the way to the presidency. 

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