Rebels' brazen bid to paralyze Colombia
Peering around the neatly painted metal door, municipal planning secretary Liliana Marquinez politely explains that the town hall will not be open for business today. Or tomorrow. Or at any moment in the foreseeable future.Skip to next paragraph
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Local government in this sun-baked Andean village has been paralyzed since Marxist rebels ordered 20 town officials to resign or die.
In the past month, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has explicitly warned local officials including mayors, councilors, and judges in 200 towns that they would be declared "military targets" if they fail to step down.
Now, the 17,000-strong guerrilla faction is systematically extending the death threat to every one of the country's 1,098 municipalities, in a concerted attempt to destroy the Colombian state from the ground up. It's an open challenge to President-elect Alvaro Uribe, who won a land- slide election victory in May by promising to crack down on FARC.
Mr. Uribe, who takes office on Aug. 7, has pledged to double military spending and take the battle to the rebels.
But this FARC offensive strikes at the weakest point in the chain of government, highlighting both the frailty of the Colombian state and the challenges which the US-backed government faces in its campaign against the scattered but locally powerful rebel army.
"This is a game of chess: to get the king you first take out the pawns," says Marlio Peralta, who last week resigned as mayor of Santa Maria, three hours north of Hobo.
According to Gilberto Toro of the Federation of Municipalities in Bogotá, about 100 mayors half of the roughly 200 who were warned by FARC have refused to bow to the intimidation, but many officials say they cannot afford to ignore the risks. Those in outlying regions say they feel particularly vulnerable.
Since the first threats were made in mid-June, FARC gunmen have murdered one mayor and abducted three more, including one who escaped only by throwing himself into an icy mountain river and swimming underwater to avoid a hail of rebel bullets.
In Hobo, the ultimatum came in late May, when a local FARC commander called Mayor James Lozada at his office, and gave him 72 hours to step down.
"He said it was nothing personal, but these people don't make empty threats. We know that this is serious," says Mr. Lozada.
Colombia's rural mayors have long been easy targets for both the rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. In the past three years, the warring factions have killed an average of one mayor every month, but the recent FARC offensive has brought unprecedented political and social fallout.
"The mayor is very important in rural areas he is the link between the state and the citizen," says Tatiana Serrato, secretary of state for the Huila region, which includes Hobo and Santa Maria.
Without a mayor to sign contracts and allot funding, Hobo's school canteen has been forced to close, the health center is running out of drugs, and patients who need to use the town ambulance must first pay to fill the gas tank.
Locals have started their own rubbish collection service, charging 15 cents for every household, but they have been unable to combat an epidemic of dengue fever spreading through the village of 6,000 people.
"With one phone call they paralyzed everything," says Betty Sanchez, who runs the town's old people's home. The hostel, which depended on town hall funding, once housed 75 senior citizens, but since the rebel ultimatum Mrs. Sanchez has had to send most of them to stay with local families.
"We have to beg for money to buy drugs. If this goes on, we'll have to close down completely in the next couple of weeks," she says.