In presidential elections scheduled for Sunday, the terrifying violence that plagues Colombia overrides all other issues, and the candidate who has taken the toughest position against killer drug lords is favored to win the vote.
Cesar Gaviria of the governing Liberal Party may not win as strong a mandate as he would like to back his policy of fighting narcoterroristas "without concessions." According to recent surveys, Gaviria was preferred by as little as 40% of those polled.
But the surveys have shown that none of the 11 other candidates was preferred by more than 20%.
The winner will take office in August, succeeding Virgilio Barco Vargas as president of South America's second most populous country, with 32 million people.
Gaviria, 43, served as minister of finance and minister of government in Barco's Cabinet. He quit last year to head the presidential campaign of Luis Carlos Galan, a charismatic Liberal who was assassinated at a campaign rally last August.
Since then, terrorists suspected of working for cocaine traffickers have killed two more presidential candidates and hundreds of other Colombians in a shocking siege of shootings and bombings.
One of Gaviria's main campaign positions has been a stern stand against the terrorist campaign, which is aimed at forcing government concessions to traffickers.
"He is the only one of the four main candidates who is not preaching some form of accommodation," observed a European diplomat. Gaviria summarized his hard-line stance in a meeting this week with foreign correspondents.
"No society can lose the fight against terrorism without risk of dissolving," he said. "I am in favor of facing up to terrorism without making concessions to it."
Gaviria's position coincides with U.S. policy, and American officials credit him with bravery under threats to his own life.
"He's probably the most threatened person right now, under a tremendous amount of pressure," said one U.S. official. "And every time I have seen that he has spoken to the press, he has not wavered. He's extremely tough on the narcotics issue."
Gaviria said the immediate goal of the violence by traffickers is to disrupt the electoral process.
"They want to destabilize the democracy," he said. He added that right-wing death squads and leftist guerrillas have the same goal.
In recent weeks, the Colombian press has reported almost daily clashes between guerrillas and the army. On Friday, radio stations said seven policemen and five guerrillas died in a rebel ambush near the town of Jamundi, about 200 miles southwest of Bogota.
But the terrorist campaign of the drug lords has overshadowed other kinds of violence. Radio RCN said bombings and shootings killed 35 people Thursday in the city Medellin, home of the notorious Medellin cartel.
Six of the dead were police. The cartel has offered a bounty of $4,300 for every police officer killed in Medellin, and more than 30 have died this month.
The three candidates closest in pre-election opinion polls to Gaviria have all taken more conciliatory positions than he.
Rodrigo Lloreda, candidate of the opposition Social Conservative Party, has said he opposes the extradition of Colombians to the United States for trial on drug trafficking charges. An end to extradition has been one of the traffickers' main goals.
Alvaro Gomez, candidate of a Conservative splinter group, has proposed the legalization of cocaine in the United States. He has said the government should consider granting unspecified conditions in return for the surrender of traffickers.
Antonio Navarro, candidate of the M-19, a former guerrilla movement, has also advocated a conditional surrender and rejected extradition.
"The extraditions have done nothing for Colombia," Navarro told foreign reporters this week. Fifteen accused traffickers have been extradited to the United States since late August.
Navarro became the M-19 candidate after the April killing of candidate Carlos Pizarro, who had led the former rebel movement into the political arena earlier this year. The M-19's switch from rebellion to legal politics was the result of peace negotiations with the Barco administration.
This week, the government began negotiations with another guerrilla movement, the Popular Liberation Army. Two other major rebel groups continue to fight, although both have announced cease-fires for election day.
Both officials and rebel leaders say the process of pacifying guerrillas depends on reforms in Colombia's democratic system, long dominated by Liberals and Conservatives to the exclusion of other parties and interests.
When Colombians vote Sunday for a president, they will mark a second ballot on the question of whether to convene a constituent assembly that could write political reforms into the constitution. The national Congress previously has blocked the creation of a constituent assembly.
All leading presidential candidates support the idea. Some, including Gaviria, have said that constitutional changes also are needed to strengthen the country's judicial system, which has been almost totally ineffective against powerful drug traffickers.
Because of the threat of assassination, all major candidates except Lloreda have avoided outdoor campaign rallies this month.