Colombia's President Uribe Sworn In for Second Term; Promises Peace With Rebels

President Alvaro Uribe was sworn in for a second term Monday, promising to seek an elusive peace with leftist rebels while maintaining the hardline security policies credited with a sharp drop in Colombia's murder and kidnapping rates.

In a ceremony attended by 11 heads of state but marked by the absence of presidents from regional heavyweights Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, Uribe said he would devote "all of his energies" to pursuing a peaceful end to this nation's four-decade old civil war.

"I'm not afraid of negotiating peace. I confess what worries me more is falling short of that goal and instead seeing our gains in security eroded," the 54-year-old Uribe said after retaking the oath of office, in a speech short on specifics.

CountryWatch: Colombia

After reforming the constitution last year to allow him to seek a second term, the law-and-order Uribe coasted to victory in May 28 elections, winning 62 percent of the vote — 10 points more than in his 2002 victory.

Uribe is Colombia's first sitting president to be re-elected.

Despite his reputation as a free-market conservative and Washington's closest ally in Latin America, Uribe, in his inaugural address to a Congress stacked with loyal supporters, at times sounded like the left-leaning social democrat favored of late by voters in neighboring countries.

"We are against a fiscally tight macro-economic policy that leaves economic growth to the luck of supply and demand. The state must be devoted in equal parts to growth and equality," Uribe said.

But he made no bold proposals for improving the lot of the 50 percent of Colombians who live under the poverty line — on less than $3 a day — even as the rich benefit from the increased foreign investment that improved security has brought.

Also absent was any mention of how he hoped to stamp out drug trafficking in the light of new evidence showing that record amounts of aerial fumigation of coca has done little to reduce the crop that is the base ingredient of cocaine.

As Washington's caretaker in the war on drugs, Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, has received more than $4 billion in mostly military aid since 2000. The U.S. delegation at the inauguration ceremony was headed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and included Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and several members of the U.S. Congress.

The bulk of Uribe's speech, and the key to his overwhelming popularity, was devoted to touting the achievements of his "democratic security" policy — fortifying the military and ordering it out of the barracks and into the streets. The policy is credited with bringing down one of the world's highest murder and kidnapping rates.

But senators from the opposition Democratic Pole party, in silent protest over Uribe's preference for guns over peace-building, held up pictures several people being held captive by rebels, including some — such as former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt — who have been held longer than Uribe has been president.

The emphasis on security was also felt by the presence of tanks and 30,000 troops who formed a two-block perimeter around the Congress accessible only to journalists and dignitaries.

The show of force was for good reason. Four years ago, Uribe's first inauguration was marred by deadly violence when leftist rebels launched a mortar attack on the presidential palace, killing 21 people in a nearby slum.

After a week of stepped-up violence that saw six people killed when a car-bomb exploded outside a police station in the western provincial capital of Cali, Monday's ceremony took place without incident —an achievement not lost on Colombians.

"Seeing all the soldiers and police gives us more confidence," said Dora Gomez, a sales clerk, who was eating her lunch in a restaurant on the deserted streets of downtown Bogota.