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Rebels' brazen bid to paralyze Colombia

(Page 2 of 2)

Analysts say that with its latest campaign, the FARC is sending a message that US-backed government forces are still unable to control huge swaths of the country.

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In recent years, US aid in the form of training, satellite intelligence, and air support has helped the military win back the initiative on the battlefield, but when a fruitless three-year peace process finally collapsed in February, the rebels rapidly switched to a new set of hit-and-run tactics.

"In terms of hardware, intelligence, and political support, the state has more capacity to fight, but the insurgents still have a great capacity to destabilize the country. They're trying to prove that the state cannot win a military victory" says Marco Romero, a political scientist at Bogotá's National University.

Since its inception in 1964, the FARC has rarely tried to consolidate or defend its own territory, but rebel influence is deeply entrenched in the jungles and mountains of the country's most underdeveloped regions.

In Huila, there are police or army troops stationed in every major town, but locals say that the security forces rarely venture beyond their own heavily defended bunkers.

Public servants find themselves at the mercy of local rebel commanders, who often demand a veto over local policy – and a portion of the local budgets.

'They have to go'

The rebels, meanwhile, denounce local politics as another example of the political corruption and exclusion that they claim as justification for their campaign against the state.

Town mayors have been elected by popular vote only since 1986 – previously they were appointed by national party bosses – and local administrations are still notorious for vote-rigging and contract kickbacks.

"Elected or not, the mayors still represent the interests of the traditional political parties. They have to go," says Andres, a FARC activist in Bogotá. He adds that in some regions, the guerrillas are encouraging communities to form their own social and economic policies in readiness for a new state to be born after a final rebel victory.

National government officials have urged local leaders to stand firm – or at least to continue working from the relative safety of the regional capitals.

The government has offered bodyguards, bulletproof vests, and cellphones to all the beleaguered mayors, and US ambassador Anne Patterson has offered places in a protection scheme designed for union activists, journalists, and those in other high-risk professions.

In Huila's second largest city, Pitalito, German Calderon ignored the FARC's deadline to resign on June 25, and since then five army bodyguards accompany him 24 hours a day.

"The principles of democracy and the dignity of the people are at stake. We cannot give in to the threats, because that would be giving up the will of the people," he says.

Mayor Calderon freely admits that he is scared, but insists that his duty remains with the community that elected him.

"Fear is constant in Colombia. But taking public office implies certain risks, and they are risks we must take, or the violence will smash the hopes of our people," he says.

Arguing that he cannot accept a resignation made under duress, the Huila state governor has officially refused to let any of the region's mayors step down.

Back in the sun-bleached streets of Hobo, most villagers still address Lozada as "Mr. Mayor," but his office is closed. He hopes his symbolic resignation will be enough to save him from the rebel death sentence.

"Until the governor accepts my resignation properly, I'm still the mayor," he says. "I'm mayor in name, but I'm not really doing anything."