BOGOTA, Colombia -- A fall in the number of kidnappings on Colombia's notoriously dangerous roads is fueling both auto sales and economic growth, industry officials said.
Many Colombians were long afraid to drive outside big cities for fear of being kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas. But military advances against the rebels meant the average motorist drove 11,000 miles (17,000 km) in 2004, up from 7,000 miles (11,000 km) in 2002, according to the Transport Ministry.
Restored driving freedom has been a significant factor in auto sales, which have in turn become one of the main motors of Colombia's economic growth.
Auto sales should rise 10 percent this year from $4 billion in 2004, industry officials said, predicting 2005 would bring the best results for five years. New car sales should total 125,000 vehicles, up from 115,000 last year.
Production of cars and auto parts jumped 40.6 percent in 2004, helping Colombia's overall industrial output to expand by 4.87 percent, the fastest in three years, according to the government's National Statistics Department.
A significant reason for this has been improving security under the government of President Alvaro Uribe, officials said.
The number of kidnappings in Colombia fell to 1,300 in 2004, still one of the highest rates in the world but less than half the number in 2001, when Marxist rebels regularly staged mass abductions of motorists on inter-city highways.
"The security brought by Uribe has helped enormously in getting people to have confidence in their country again. In getting them to buy a high-range car," said Andres Aguirre, a sales manager for DaimlerChrysler, with responsibility for models from Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler.
While 60 percent of Colombians live in poverty and most could never afford any type of car, it is becoming more common to see expensive models on the nation's streets. For many years, many people who could afford them opted for cheaper models so as not to attract the attention of criminals or rebel kidnappers.
And longer journeys by motorists leads to more sales of new models and also parts, said the president of the Colombian Auto and Autoparts Association, Tulio Zuluaga.
"The more you use them, the quicker you wear them out," he said.
Auto production was also helped by rising sales to oil-rich Venezuela last year. Sales of imported models have been helped by the strength of the peso, which has also benefited from confidence inspired by Uribe's security policies and has risen 13 percent against the U.S. dollar over the past 12 months.
Auto sales are still a long way from the record $4.8 billion in 1998, but Zuluaga was confident that figure could shortly be reached again