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Fear and loathing on the Colombian border

BOGOTA, Colombia — Success in the war against Marxist rebels was supposed to pave the way to the presidency for Juan Manuel Santos, who stepped down as Colombia’s defense minister last year to run in the May 30 elections.

But now, Santos is dealing with some major blowback.

During Santos’ three years in charge of national defense, attacks by police and army troops weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla army known as the FARC, while three of the rebel group’s top seven leaders lost their lives.

Santos also helped plan and direct a spectacular 2008 sting operation that freed 15 FARC-held prisoners, including three U.S. military contractors, without a shot being fired.

As a result, Santos was widely viewed as the natural heir to Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s hard-line president who will step down on Aug. 7 after serving two four-year terms. Early in the campaign Santos topped the polls by a wide margin.

But now, Santos has come under fire from Ecuadorian authorities and from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Officials in both countries are upset about a March 1, 2008, raid in which Colombian and aircraft and commandos briefly crossed into Ecuadorian territory to attack a guerrilla camp and kill Raul Reyes, the No. 3 FARC leader.

That operation was a huge blow to the rebels and was widely praised in Colombia. But Ecuador’s left-wing president denounced the raid as a violation of international law while an outraged Chavez ordered Venezuelan troops to the border with Colombia. For a brief time, it seemed that a regional war could break out.

President Uribe defused the crisis by apologizing to Ecuador. But last month Santos angered Colombia’s neighbors once again by expressing pride in the cross-border attack and by rightly pointing out that FARC fighters often use Ecuadorian and Venezuelan territory to stash hostages and stock up on weapons.

Ecuador is now trying to extradite Santos in order to put him on trial for murder because 25 people died in the 2008 attack. On Monday, Santos ridiculed the lawsuit, saying that Ecuador was “personalizing” what amounted to an action of state.

Chavez, meanwhile, has been loudly denouncing the Colombian candidate. He has warned that a Santos presidency “could lead to war.” Chavez has also threatened to cut trade ties with Colombia if Santos wins.

It’s hard to tell how much the spat has affected the presidential race. But for a variety of factors, Santos has lost his big lead and is now running neck-and-neck in the polls with Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, a former Bogota mayor.

Mockus said he would not have ordered the raid into Ecuador because it violated the Colombian Constitution. If he wins, Mockus said he would invite Chavez to his swearing-in ceremony in an act of diplomacy.

Yet nationalism can play a big role in elections. If the controversy continues, Colombians could end up rallying around Santos in an act of solidarity. In fact, some experts believe that’s what Chavez — and perhaps Santos — is after.

Writing in El Tiempo, political analyst Leon Valencia said that a Santos presidency would provide Chavez with a more polarizing scenario and more opportunities to lash out at Colombia and blame the neighbors for economic problems and rising crime in Venezuela.

“War is unthinkable,” Valencia wrote. “But maintaining tension between two countries is supremely beneficial for political leaders who base their popularity on fear and on the exacerbation of nationalism.”