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AP Interview: Colombia's president riding high

Juan Manuel Santos is burdened by thorny challenges aplenty as he marks a year in office: sophisticated drug traffickers, criminal gangs marauding in the provinces, hit-and-run attacks by Latin America's last rebel army.

What Colombia's president is relieved not to be facing is what his U.S. counterpart grapples with daily: a powerful opposition.

All but token opposition has melted away as Santos forged an agenda that aims to ease the very inequalities that Colombia's leftist rebels cite as ideological justification for their half-century-old insurgency.

"Fortunately, I'm not in President Obama's position. I'm fortunate to have 95 percent of the Congress with me," Santos, his smile widening, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Even the party of the candidate defeated by Santos last year, the Greens, has joined the governing coalition. The media is solidly behind him, his approval ratings consistently top 70 percent and he has been a pragmatic, moderating influence on a continent where doctrinaire leftists have recently gained clout.

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva even suggested while in Bogota last week that Santos was assuming the mantle of a continental leader.

Asked about the compliment, Santos said he appreciated it, but added, "I don't consider myself a regional leader."

Nonetheless, Santos said during the weekend interview at this hot springs resort a few hours north of Bogota that this long-suffering nation of 46 million people is at a special moment.

"They say the stars are aligning over Colombia," said Santos, whose 60th birthday is Wednesday. "It's necessary to take advantage of the situation."

Santos has faced plenty of tough calls over three decades in Colombia's political trenches.

Hailing from a prominent Bogota political clan, he is the grandnephew of a Depression-era president who was also a social liberal.

After stints at the newspaper El Tiempo, which was until recently run by his family, and the national coffee federation, Santos was Colombia' first foreign trade minister. He later was defense minister for his hardline predecessor Alvaro Uribe.

On Santos' defense watch, record desertions plagued the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and in a spectacular rescue 15 FARC-held hostages including Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors won freedom.

His tenure was marred, however, by a scandal that broke in late 2008 over extrajudicial killings of hundreds of civilians by security force members. It prompted the immediate dismissal of 20 officers, including three generals. More than 360 soldiers have since been convicted in killings in which slain civilians were sometimes dressed up as rebels to boost enemy body counts.

Santos has said he acted to discipline those responsible as soon as he found out, but critics say he shares the blame.

As president, Santos has vigorously kept up the pressure on Colombia's main rebel band that was a hallmark of Uribe. But unlike Uribe, Santos has opted for amicable relations with the prickly leftist leaders of neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.

In attacking inequality in a country with a 44 percent poverty rate and more than 3 million people displaced, Santos has promoted the mix of social inclusion and free-market principles he articulated in a 1999 book, "The Third Way." It's a creole version of ideas championed by his friend, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Most ambitious is a law enacted in June that will seek to redress over the next decade some 4 million victims of Colombia's dirty war.

It is an effort fraught with peril. Criminal bands in the service of large landholders that also traffic cocaine have been killing peasants who have been emboldened by the new "Victims Law" to seek to regain land stolen from them a decade ago or more.

Santos said he wasn't sure how much his government can afford to spend on reparations, which it estimates will cost about $20 billion.

"We're going to carry out the law in such a way that we don't bust the budget," he said. "And that's why I say that I don't want to create too many expectations."

Improving often tense relations with Venezuela has been another priority.

Commerce between the neighbors remains well below the $6 billion yearly level before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stopped buying Colombian goods in July 2009 to protest Uribe's constant complaints that Venezuela was aiding the FARC. Chavez has since lifted the ban, and trade is slowly rebounding.

Another dividend of the improved ties: Santos has persuaded Chavez several times to arrest FARC operatives in Venezuela and deport them.

The cooperation came after Santos, to the chagrin of his close U.S. ally, turned over to Venezuela a reputed drug kingpin whose extradition was also sought by Washington and who had fingered members of Chavez's inner circle as his associates.

Santos said Chavez's newfound cooperation against the FARC has prompted rebels who had obtained refuge in Venezuela to leave.

Just a few days earlier, Colombia's armed forces chief, Adm. Edgar Cely, made headlines by telling a reporter the FARC continues to operate out of Venezuela.

Santos publicly responded that Cely "was mistaken." He has nevertheless kept up the pressure on the FARC, including a relentless pursuit of its leader, Alfonso Cano. The military claims to have narrowly missed capturing or killing Cano last month at a jungle camp.

Yet Santos also insists peace is at the top of his agenda even if he doesn't see the FARC showing signs of seeking appeasement.

"The door to dialogue is closed but not locked. And I'll open it when I see real will on the part of the guerrillas to sit down and talk," he said.

Asked about rumors that his government is in exploratory talks with the FARC, Santos didn't miss a beat: "If there were, I wouldn't tell you."

Analyst Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, is impressed by Santos' first year but believes the momentum won't be easy to sustain.

The FARC, though diminished in numbers, remains strong, Shifter says, and "there are some ominous signs that the criminal bands are becoming stronger."

Santos, meanwhile, is sharing with Mexico and Central America the lessons learned in the trenches of a costly war on drug syndicates that compelled Colombia to overhaul and bring greater integrity to its police, military and judiciary.

To date, Colombia has trained more than 5,000 Mexican police officers.

Last week, Santos led a high-level delegation to Mexico to share insights into Colombia's successes, learned over two decades and at the cost of thousands of lives, in keeping criminals from taking over state institutions.

Neighboring Peru's newly inaugurated president, Ollanta Humala, has also asked Santos to help him fight drug trafficking in a nation some analysts believe could soon overtake Colombia in cocaine production.

It's just one area illustrating the growing influence of Santos while that of Colombia's ally, Washington, is diminishing in the region.

At his suggestion, finance ministers of the UNASUR union of South American nations along with Mexico are meeting in Argentina this week to discuss a coordinated response to the U.S. and European debt crises.

While he doesn't expect much from the meeting, Santos hopes the effort encourages the region's leaders to "begin to understand that we're going to be more effective if we coordinate policy."

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Associated Press Writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.

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Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak