For Colombia's mayors, it's a year of living dangerously

Many of the country's municipal leaders are living under an ultimatum: Resign or die.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sitting around a dusty table in what was once a tourist paradise in Colombia's coffee country, three of this town's public officials ponder what it means to be "military targets."

After all, that's what a letter which arrived three weeks ago from the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), declared them.

Nearly a year ago, Prado's mayor, Hebert Humberto Sánchez Cabezas, fled town after receiving a similar death threat. He now governs from Ibagué, about two hours away by car. The three men - José Lizandro Barreto, the public services operator; José Edgar Vasurdo, president of the communal action committee; and Ronald Cardoso, secretary of public works - are all that remains of Prado's government.

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Now they, too, fear for their lives.

"We are waiting to figure out what to do," says Mr. Cardoso. "We are practically traumatized."

They're not the only Colombian civil servants feeling traumatized these days. Despite President Alvaro Uribe Vélez's pledge to restore law and order to all corners of this war-plagued country, large swaths of it remain without public officials more than a year after the FARC issued an unprecedented threat to all municipal authorities: Resign or die. Since then, nearly a dozen mayors have been killed and hundreds more have fled their towns, many conducting business from distant locations.

Colombia now finds itself itself in a tug of war over government at its most basic level. While many local officials want to quit, leaving behind the perils that attend public service here, the Uribe government is doing what it can to provide security and peace of mind, determined not to let rebel groups dismantle the country's political structure through fear and intimidation.

"In the face of terrorism, there is only one response: Destroy it," said Mr. Uribe in a 53-page document, released Sunday, that outlines the government's strategy to defeat Colombia's rebel groups.

According to Gilberto Toro, head of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities, 560 of Colombia's 1,098 mayors were threatened by the FARC beginning last April. Since June 2002, 13 mayors and 70 town councilmen have been assassinated nationwide. In the southern state of Caquetá, all 13 mayors conduct business from the provincial capital of Florencia because it's too dangerous to go home.

But Mr. Toro argues that the number of mayors killed is less than before the FARC issued its threat because the government has leapt into action. Through a national committee that evaluates risk to municipal officials, the state now doles out bulletproof jackets and cars, bodyguards, and sometimes relocates officials.

"Little by little, Army and police are arriving in all the municipalities," Toro says. "We are convinced that the state has to show itself strongly" in order to deal with this problem.

Colombia's government has increased security presence to 77 towns, though places like Prado remain with only a small contingent. Soldados campesinos, or peasant soldiers - men who receive military training and then return to their home villages - are also increasing security in urban areas, but mayors say the soldados are angering rebel groups and in some cases causing the mayors further headaches.

In the central state of Tolima, a half-hour plane flight from the capital, Bogotá, the situation remains critical. Ten of the state's 47 mayors work from the ninth floor of the governor's office in Ibagué. The killing of the mayor of AmBalema in December frightened many of Tolima's mayors, as did the murder of San Antonio Mayor Belisario Tao Useche at the end of May. During Easter week, Dolores Mayor Mercedes Ibarra was unhurt after an attempt on her life, while Planadas Mayor David Losada also escaped an assassination attempt.

Many of Tolima's town councils are simply not meeting, so mayors are essentially ruling by fiat. The state ensures that water, electricity, health, garbage, and telecommunications services function in all municipalities.

Mr. Sánchez, a former businessman, has been mayor of Prado for 2-1/2 years. After the first death threat arrived last August, Sánchez came immediately to Ibagué and has stayed put. Like other Tolima mayors, he submitted his resignation to the governor, who declined it. Sánchez says he wished he could have stepped down then.

His term officially ends in December, though most agree that October's municipal elections cannot be safely or fairly held in the current climate. As part of a proposed constitutional referendum, Uribe wants to extend terms for mayors and governors until the end of 2004.

Líbano Mayor Orlando Flores Forero has decided to stay in his town, despite being under a death threat from all three rebel factions - the FARC and another leftist group, as well as the right-wing paramilitaries. Mr. Flores has one bodyguard but refuses to wear a bulletproof vest.

Flores says that if the situation continues to deteriorate, he would consider fleeing Colombia, perhaps to Canada, with his wife and two children.

One thing is for certain: Neither Sánchez nor Flores plans on running for reelection.

"I love my town," Flores says. "But whoever chooses politics is a dead man."

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