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COLOMBIA
Resign or be killed
Michael Easterbrook
7/11/2002
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Rebels step up pressure by tar

In dozens of small towns throughout Colombia, garbage is piling up, sporting events have been canceled and road and school repairs have been suspended amid a new offensive by leftist rebels that has paralyzed local government.

Through letters, radio broadcasts and handpicked messengers, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are giving mayors, town council members, judges and prosecutors in at least 18 provinces an ultimatum: resign or be killed.

Since the threats began in late May, 145 mayors and dozens of council members have deserted their towns for more secure state capitals, said Gilberto Toro, director of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities. The threats have forced courts to close in more than 35 townships.

"The people who elected me are getting desperate," said Aiymer Cruz, mayor of the southern town of Albania, who is now hiding in a hotel in nearby Florencia, the capital of Caquetá province. "I can’t go back — the guerrillas could come for me any moment."

Soon after the 33-year-old mayor left Albania with his wife and three children, heavy rains destroyed roads in the town in Caquetá, many of whose 13,500 residents scratch out a meager living by raising cattle, corn and sugarcane. Cruz said that he hasn’t been able to approve repair work because he’s too frightened to return to assess damage.

In the nearby town of Belén de los Andaquíes, projects to fix a bridge, expand a nursing home and repair an aqueduct have all been placed on hold. The mayor and town manager fled for the capital, Bogotá, earlier this month.

"The mayor’s presence is crucial," City Manager Octavio Valenzuela said. "If the mayor isn’t there, everything comes to a halt."

The situation appears to be even worse in El Doncello, also in Caquetá. The town’s 20,000 residents were left without any local government when the mayor and entire town council quit on June 28.

No one is around now to approve the release of money to buy gas for the garbage trucks, and the town’s residents will probably have to wait months before projects to repair roads and schools and expand the sewage system can resume.

"The township is practically paralyzed," said Omar Varón, the mayor who resigned for fear of being killed by the FARC.

This isn’t the first time that Colombia’s mayors have been targeted by insurgent groups on both the left and right. Before the municipal elections in 2000, armed groups fighting in the 38-year conflict threatened, kidnapped and killed dozens of mayoral candidates in attempt to ensure the election of officials who shared their beliefs.

During the past 18 months, 15 mayors have been killed and 16 others kidnapped, according to the Colombian Federation of Municipalities.

In the past, mayors were allowed to remain in power as long as they complied with demands made by whichever armed group controlled their region. Now, rebels are demanding that mayors resign regardless of their platforms.

"They’re trying to show they can control territory and the population by eliminating the presence of the state," Toro said. "The government says it is helping, but the situation is bleak."

The rebels appear prepared to back up their threats.

In El Doncello, a city councilwoman was shot to death on the evening of June 17 while entering her home, according to police in Caquetá. Authorities are still investigating the slaying of Lida Renjifo, but she apparently was killed by rebels because she refused to resign, Toro said.

On June 5, Luis Caro, a threatened mayor in the same province, left his house in Solita to attend a mandatory meeting with the FARC. His bullet-riddled body was found hours later on the banks of the muddy Caquetá River.

"How can we work in this climate?" asked Jorge Cedeño, mayor of Arauca, which borders Venezuela. "The only option I see is to quit."

Cedeño and other mayors in the region are being squeezed by both sides. Rightist paramilitaries have warned that there could be reprisals for complying with rebel demands.

Most analysts believe that the FARC have embarked on the new strategy to throw the state into disorder before President-elect Alvaro Uribe begins his term on Aug. 7.

"The FARC are trying to demonstrate that the government is weak and that they have the power to control huge areas of territory," said Rodrigo Losada, a political analyst at the Jesuit-run Javeriana University. "By controlling territory, the rebels also hope to achieve concessions during a future peace process."

Peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana collapsed in February, and the government retook a large demilitarized area that had been granted to the rebels in 1998 as a condition for talks (LP, March 11, 2002).

Uribe, who won the presidency on promises to crack down on rebel violence, has said he is willing to restart talks if the insurgents first declare a cease-fire and an end to hostilities (LP, June 3, 2002).

After the peace talks ended, the FARC launched a bombing campaign against the nation’s power grid that forced huge parts of the country to endure rolling blackouts for weeks. The rebel army now appears to have abandoned that tactic to target local governments.

In an attempt to prevent mayors from quitting en masse, Pastrana’s government is offering to give some of them bodyguards and to allow others to work from nearby military bases. Nelson Amaya, vice minister of interior, said they would be airlifted to and from their embattled towns when necessary in military helicopters.

A cartoon in a recent edition of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading daily newspaper, showed one mayor sitting behind a desk inside the back of a helicopter under a sign that said: "Municipal Offices."

The chaos created by the FARC’s campaign has also forced Pastrana to raise the bounty for information leading to the capture of senior FARC commanders to US$2 million.

"It’s impossible for the rebels to succeed," Amaya said. "The presence of the armed forces will continue even if the mayors quit."

But state security forces are stretched thin in Colombia, a country roughly twice the size of France. The FARC’s strategy is likely to continue until the government has the power to secure territory rebels now control, Losada said.

Many mayors agree with that assessment, saying that the protection offered by the government is insufficient.

Speaking from his hideout in Florencia, Varón said that although the government has given him armed escorts, his family and town council members would be left unprotected if they were to return to El Doncello.

Cruz said he wouldn’t even consider returning without a pay raise, bodyguards and a guaranteed airlift between Albania and Florencia, 40 miles northeast. So far, he said, the national government has offered him nothing.

"The government refuses to accept our resignations, but it also won’t offer us guarantees for our protection," Cruz said. "I wanted to do many things, but look how it’s turned out."

— From Bogotá, Michael Easterbrook

 


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