By Jack Kimball
BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombian helicopter gunships strafed suspected rebel hideouts and police disarmed explosives as President Juan Manuel Santos headed to the nation's volatile south on Wednesday amid growing criticism that security has deteriorated.
Latin America's fourth-biggest economy has battled Marxist insurgents for nearly five decades, and despite a U.S.-backed crackdown that drove rebels into more remote hideouts, guerrillas have stepped up attacks in the last few years.
Before Santos arrived in Toribio municipality in southern Cauca province, police disarmed explosives placed in a field where his helicopter was expected to land, according to local media.
Local television showed attack helicopters shooting into surrounding mountains where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels were believed to be. Security forces also control-detonated several bombs in the area.
Santos, along with his ministers, arrived in the area later on Wednesday to talk about security after residents called for security forces and the FARC to withdraw.
Local media said Santos was jeered as he arrived in the area, with residents saying "Get Out."
Cauca province - known colloquially by soldiers as Cauca-kistan for the intensity of combat there - has been one of the hottest regions of the conflict and it is a strategic area for the production and transport of cocaine.
In July last year, rebels set off explosives in a bus in Toribio, wounding more than 60 people and destroying hundreds of homes.
Two years after Santos took office, a bloody resurgence of left-wing guerrilla attacks and a botched judicial reform have cut into his once-commanding approval ratings, threatening plans for extensive economic reforms.
In the first three months of 2012, attacks by illegal armed groups shot up by 57 percent, to 58 actions versus the same period last year - the highest level since 2006, according to defense ministry data.
Opponents say Santos is dropping the ball on security issues, allowing the FARC, Latin America's oldest rebel group, to recoup some of the ground lost to a military offensive under then President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, who chose Santos to be his defense minister and was a close ally who backed his run for president, is now his fiercest and most potent critic.
Analysts, however, say that security improvements since 2002 were starting to be reversed under Uribe's second term from 2006 to 2010 after gains from better intelligence, air power and reform reached their peak and the FARC adjusted tactics.
(Editing by Helen Murphy and Vicki Allen)