Colombia's democracy under siege Violence: Several towns across Colombia have been attacked by rebels who cancel local elections by threatening anyone who dares to run for office.

Sun Journal

October 20, 1997|By Victoria Burnett | Victoria Burnett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Getting people to turn out and vote is always a problem in Latin America. But with municipal elections scheduled Sunday, the Colombian government faces a challenge just in getting people to stand for office.

Leftist rebels striving to scupper the election process have murdered at least 26 candidates and abducted and threatened other political hopefuls. More than 1,100 candidates have pulled out of political races. At least a million Colombians, of a total population of 36 million, will have nobody to vote for this weekend.

Gachala, an Andean town 60 miles east of the capital of Bogota, is one of at least 40 municipalities that won't be choosing its local government Sunday. Two months ago some 150 rebels stormed the town of 6,000 in the dead of night, and now all those running for mayor or the local council have stood down.

The rebels blew the police station to pieces, dragged two businessmen from their homes and shot them dead, and called the terrified townspeople to the central square to inform them that elections were prohibited.

Lucretia Buitrago, the local council president, tried to reason with the invaders, but they were adamant: Renounce your candidacy or become a military target.

Buitrago, who had planned to run for re-election, got the message. So did all the other candidates. "Everyone withdrew," Buitrago says, "because to do otherwise was to put your life in danger."

Torn election posters still cover walls and lamp-posts in Gachala. Some townspeople have left, including all five former candidates for mayor. Of those who remain, most refuse to talk about the attack. They weren't present, they say, or they are "very heavy sleepers."

All over Colombia, from the Caribbean coast to the coca-growing plains of the southeast, other towns tell similar tales. And the violence shows no signs of letting up. Three weeks ago 28 soldiers, police and prosecutors were killed in two attacks, one blamed on rebels and the other on paramilitary gunmen. Just last week in the northwestern town of Caicedo, a rebel attack on a police garrison left eight officers dead and five others injured.

President Ernesto Samper has entreated Colombians not to cave in to the rebel threats and to carry on with the elections. He has put security forces on alert, canceling all leave until after Sunday.

But the poorly funded, over-stretched security forces say that they cannot guarantee the safety of 100,000-odd candidates. Gabriel Toro, head of the Foundation of Municipal Governments, expects elections to be canceled in up to 10 percent of Colombia's 1,072 municipalities.

In some towns, the only person running for mayor is the candidate endorsed by rebels.

Politics, and especially elections, are always bloody in Colombia, where leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitary groups and drug-traffickers use violence to achieve their ends. The past 10 years of political conflict have killed an estimated 30,000 people.

Prominent politicians are routinely picked off by enemies. In the most notable case, Luis Carlos Galan, the presidential favorite and sworn enemy of the drug trade, was gunned down at a rally in August 1989.

Colombia's three mountain ranges and vast tropical forests hamper efforts to control rural areas, leaving provincial governments, too, at the mercy of armed factions. At least 28 mayors throughout Colombia have been killed in the past three years.

The guerrilla groups say that they are fighting for the common man, and to destroy an elitist and corrupt political system. But their image has been severely tarnished by kidnapping and links drug trafficking. Many Colombians regard them as little more than common criminals.

"The rebels are trying to twist the elections, to sabotage them," Toro says. He regards their assault on the election process as a sign of jealousy of local governments that have earned success and popularity in representing local interests and proving their legitimacy.

The two main groups are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, who are believed to have mounted the raid on Gachala, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN. Both started as communist groups. FARC consists of full-time fighters, estimated to number about 12,000, hiding out in the mountains. The ELN is smaller, numbering perhaps 3,000; many of its members lead regular lives and "moonlight" as guerrillas.

Both groups, and other smaller ones, find some credibility in attacking Samper's legitimacy. He has been tarnished by allegations that he won election in 1994 with the help of $6 million from the Cali cocaine cartel. The United States has crossed Colombia off its list of allies in the anti-drug war and canceled Samper's U.S. visa.

"We currently have a government that most governments outside the country consider illegitimate," says political scientist Juan Gabriel Tokatlian. The rebels are trying to take advantage of that fact to legitimize their armed struggle, he says.

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