Pubdate: Sun, 24 Dec 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Juanita Darling, Times Staff Writer


Latin America: Township Officials Are Targeted As Rebels And Right-wing 
Armies Expand Their Struggle For Territory.

PUERTO ASIS, Colombia--Manuel Alzate had been mayor here for just two weeks 
when the dreaded call came.

The Marxist guerrillas who control the countryside of this township in 
southern Colombia's coca-growing region wanted to meet with the tall, 
gray-haired cattle rancher. A few days later, Alzate set out at dawn with 
two town councilmen for a hamlet two hours upriver, an area where he had 
not campaigned for fear of his safety.

He returned 15 hours later to find his family in a panic. After all, three 
of the township's four previous mayors had been assassinated. Alzate's 
family feared that he was next.

Attacks on local officials have intensified as illegal armed groups expand 
their struggle for territory into a fight for Colombia's town halls. In the 
process, local democracy has become the latest casualty of the nation's 
prolonged conflict.

Since 1998, 36 Colombian mayors have been killed, 16 of them this year, the 
most recent in the township of Orito near here. In addition, seven town 
council members have been slain this year and four others kidnapped.

Although few of those cases are prosecuted, the killings generally are 
blamed on the power struggle involving two Marxist guerrilla groups and the 
largely unified right-wing private armies--called self-defense forces, or 
AUC--that fight them. Among them, the three factions control nearly half of 
Colombia's territory.

"Our country has been subdivided," said Sen. Miguel Pineida of Magdalena, a 
northern province. "In some regions, like Magdalena, the [AUC] and the 
guerrillas run the city governments. . . . In other areas, the property 
belongs to the national government. It's absurd, but that is our sad reality."

The illegal armed groups are choking out grass-roots democracy in the 
mostly rural communities they dominate, public officials say. The groups 
demand an accounting of decisions and sometimes insist on a share of 
municipal budgets.

Lately, they have been backing--some politicians say imposing--candidates 
for local office.

Legally, any contact between public officials and either insurgents or the 
AUC must be approved by the national government. "That sounds fine in the 
Casa de Narino [the presidential palace], but the reality is different 
here," said the mayor of one AUC-controlled township in northwestern 
Colombia, who asked not to be named out of fear for his life.

Neither the AUC nor the rebel groups will publicly admit to any role in 
municipal governments. Historically, politicians associated with guerrilla 
groups have become assassination targets; more recently, AUC-affiliated 
officeholders also have been killed.

Similarly, elected officials are reluctant to discuss the subject.

Nevertheless, from the banana plantations of the Caribbean coast to the 
coca fields in this deforested area near the Ecuadorean border, local 
politicians find that they must answer to guerrillas or the AUC in order to 
govern. In disputed townships, mayors are accountable to three 
constituencies: the voters, the Marxist guerrillas who control the 
countryside and the self-defense forces that occupy the county seat.

The effort to stay within the law and still recognize the influence of 
armed groups can mean playing an elaborate version of the game called "gossip."

Watching the national peace process founder over the past two years, City 
Councilman Ramiro Marin in the northeastern town of Yondo, across the 
Magdalena River from the giant oil refinery in Barrancabermeja, became 
convinced that local peace talks could be more successful. He knew that any 
effort would be pointless without the backing of guerrillas who control 
most of Yondo's rural areas.

Still, as a former member of the M-19 rebels who laid down their arms a 
decade ago, Marin had to scrupulously avoid direct contact with insurgents. 
He is already considered suspicious by the AUC, which has been fighting in 
the township for the past two years.

"I personally do not want any contact with these groups," Marin said, 
folding and refolding the edges of a paper napkin as he glanced nervously 
around a cafe. "So far, I have been lucky. I have not needed to talk with 
either one or the other."

Instead, he mentioned his idea to someone who he knew would pass it to the 
guerrillas. A few days later, the intermediary casually mentioned that the 
rebels were skeptical. The initiative collapsed.

Mayor Alzate, whose township has suffered intense fighting involving the 
AUC, guerrillas and anti-narcotics forces, disdains such game-playing and 
resents the national government's insistence on controlling the peace process.

"We are living the effects of war in our own flesh, but we are not supposed 
to intervene," the mayor said in an interview two days after a bomb blast 
in his town killed two people and injured 16 others.

The AUC first contacted Alzate during his 1999 campaign, he said, and he 
immediately met with a representative to discuss his platform. He has 
quickly made an appointment and unhesitatingly answered questions whenever 
the AUC has requested information.

Since his first meeting with the guerrillas--which turned out to be a sort 
of get-to-know-you gathering that included a town meeting--he has arrived 
promptly when summoned and used the occasions to promote his own initiatives.

Notably, the rebels are permitting him to travel through all of the 
township's 148 hamlets to promote manual eradication of coca crops--access 
that he was denied during the campaign. "They have agreed not to 
interfere," he said, a major concession from insurgents who finance their 
war largely with coca-related earnings.

Alzate is encouraging peasants to pull out their coca bushes in exchange 
for U.S. aid rather than wait for the crops to be fumigated when 
U.S.-financed drug eradication flights begin here in the coming weeks. The 
villages of Dabubio and Santa Ana agreed to the program in October, he 
said, and work has begun there.

He takes precautions, always telling his family where he will be meeting 
with an AUC representative and notifying the commander at the nearby army 
post when he goes into the countryside. Alzate has two bodyguards in town 
but leaves them at home when he visits outlying villages to avoid suspicion.

He insists that he does not fear meeting with the armed groups. "My 
conscience is clear, and I know that I am working well," he said.

The belief that only corrupt officials need fear the guerrillas or the 
private armies is widespread. "The armed groups are the only ones that can 
demand justice, and that raises their credibility with the population," 
said Yessid Perez, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of La Mesa, a resort 
two hours' drive from the capital, Bogota.

But Alvaro Gonzalez, a peasant leader in a guerrilla-controlled hamlet in 
the township, said that reputation is often undeserved. "They make 
[officials] give them money that they send other places," he said. "They 
are taking away financial support for the township."

Gilberto Toro, director of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities, 
agreed. "These guys want the mayors . . . to help finance their war," he 
said. "If they don't give them the money, they are kidnapped, killed or 
forced to leave."

As a result, 75 mayors cannot set foot inside their own townships because 
of death threats, he said.

While the danger for local officials is highest in disputed places like 
Yondo and Puerto Asis, the danger for democracy is greatest where one group 
is clearly in charge, local officials say.

For example, when Yondo was dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of 
Colombia, or FARC, this nation's largest rebel group, only guerrilla 
sympathizers were elected in the town. "From 16 years ago until six years 
ago, there was complete hegemony" of the Patriotic Union, the FARC's 
political arm, Marin said.

Then the private armies pushed rebels of the smaller National Liberation 
Army, or ELN, into Yondo from nearby areas. Two years ago, AUC troops 
arrived. Now all three are disputing the township.

Violence has escalated, Marin said, but "now the electorate is more free."

As a result, in this year's elections, City Council candidate Francisco 
Cogollo was elected despite opposition from guerrillas who control the 
countryside. He had angered them by objecting to the national government's 
plan to cede Yondo and several neighboring townships to the ELN as an area 
for peace talks.

"Just because I am opposed, the guerrilla accuses me of being in the AUC," 
he said in an interview at the town hall. He won with support from voters 
in the county seat, which the rebels no longer control.

Marin fears that the democratic opening is fragile. "We can't ignore the 
possibility that in the future one group will take control and start to 
pressure," he warned.

In townships under the control of one force, politicians who challenge the 
group's candidates do so at great risk. "That claimed the lives of 21 
candidates" this year, said Toro of the municipalities federation.

One place democracy has suffered is Magdalena province, where the private 
armies have made significant incursions into territory once held by 
guerrillas, said Sen. Pineida. In 16 of the 31 townships, only one 
candidate ran for mayor and only one candidate registered for each city 
council seat.

"That is not my idea of democracy," he said. "It's not an election if only 
one person is running."

Those one-person elections were blessed by Colombia's traditional Liberal 
and Conservative parties.

"The saddest part is that the candidates registered with the support of 
political parties and those parties are claiming victories that, as far as 
I'm concerned, are pyrrhic because they are the result of coercion," said 
Pineida, who recently resigned from the Liberal Party.

Still, many Colombians will not be coerced. One of the great electoral 
upsets for the FARC this year was the victory of Nestor Leon Ramirez for 
mayor of San Vicente del Caguan, the largest town in the Switzerland-size 
area that the government ceded to the rebels two years ago as a site for 
peace talks.

The rebels had allowed Ramirez to campaign throughout the township, though 
they had subtly made their support for another candidate clear. But the 
FARC recognized his victory, bowing to the will of 3,700 voters who had 
turned out to support Ramirez in a township where the previous mayor won 
with a mere 500 votes.

That reinforces Toro's theory about elections in Colombia: "When democracy 
is most threatened is when we vote in the biggest numbers," he said 
proudly, then quietly added, "Obviously, we would prefer that the 
government guarantee the exercise of democracy. In many places, the mayors 
are very much alone."

Battling for Control

Attacks on local officials in Colombia have worsened as illegal armed 
groups expand their struggle for territory into a fight for the nation's 
town halls. Since 1998, 36 Colombian mayors have been killed. The slayings 
are generally blamed on the three-way power struggle involving two Marxist 
guerrilla groups--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and 
the National Liberation Army, or ELN--and the right-wing private armies 
that fight them.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D