While Others Fall Around Her, a Mayor Stands for Peace
APARTADO, COLOMBIA — In this city near Colombia's Caribbean coast, the people endure a conflict of Bosnian proportions. Guerrillas on the left and right kill almost anyone for money or politics, with the Army somewhere in between.
Clearly in the middle is Gloria Cuartas Montoya, Apartado's mayor, who was elected in 1994 by a consensus of political factions with a common goal: an end to violence.
Nineteen mayors have been killed in Colombia so far in 1996, and Ms. Cuartas has condemned all the armed groups. "For me it is life that comes first: This is my radical act," the mayor says.
This simple demand has earned her the wrath of all sides. Since she entered the office, nine members of her administration have been killed and as many have fled because of death threats.
This summer while Cuartas was inside a school talking to about 100 students, armed men killed a student in the playground outside. No one is certain who killed the child, but Cuartas says the murder was a message for her.
Last year over a thousand people were murdered in Apartado, a municipality of some 90,000 people. The roots of the war reach back to the 1980s, when guerrilla groups acted as the de facto government of the surrounding area. The relative order was splintered in 1991 when one guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army, laid down its arms and joined the political process, forming a party called Hope, Peace, and Liberty.
Violent divisions resulted. The guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia hunted down their former allies as traitors. To defend itself, the party took up arms again. Rich landowners saw a chance to free themselves from the guerrillas' "taxes" and helped create paramilitary forces that, witnesses say, are assisted by the Army. Apartado currently marks the front line of this civil war.
"We must not leave Gloria Cuartas alone," wrote Juan Manuel Santos recently in a column in El Tiempo, Colombia's national newspaper. Cuartas, however, says, Apartado has been abandoned. She has been seeking international support, she says, because the federal government has been virtually absent. "I haven't seen neutrality on the part of the state," Cuartas says.
The embattled citizens of Apartado are beginning to worry that their outspoken mayor is not solving their predicament. For all of her international appeals, the violence increases.
Mayor Cuartas continues with the day-to-day duties of her office, taking no measures to protect herself. At the doorway to her office, there are no bodyguards, no metal detectors. In fact there are no guns in sight.
"I'm still here, and I still have faith," she says.