Two men lay dead in the street and two buildings were already blown up when the guerrillas called the residents of Gachala into the town square for an announcement at 4 a.m. The townspeople emerged from their homes to find more than 200 rebel soldiers in the plaza. The meeting was short and to the point.
"They said that anyone who signed up to run for office was signing his own death sentence," says Sonia Alejandra, who works in a card shop just off the square.
The next day, Aug. 4, every candidate for mayor and town council withdrew - and several left town altogether. Gachala is one of scores of towns in Colombia that will sit out of municipal elections Oct. 26.
"It wasn't a hard or easy choice, just a simple decision to save your life," says Lucrecia Buitrago, who withdrew her bid for a second term as president of the town council.
As this year's mayoral races draw closer, the vote is becoming a symbolic contest to see who controls rural Colombia: the government or leftist rebels. Intimidation by armed groups on the left and right has figured in local elections for years, but never in the last 33 years of civil conflict have the elections been shut down. That's just what the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have set their sights on. The country's second-largest rebel force, the National Liberation Army, has joined in the campaign.
Rebel tactics include midnight meetings, like the one in Gachala, as well as kidnapping - sometimes abducting candidates by the dozens. Most candidates are released shortly afterward, unharmed but relieved of any desire to run for office. Not all of the persuasion is so gentle. In the province of Antioquia Sept. 13, a mayoral candidate was killed along with his three brothers. In the months leading up to the polls, there have been more than 30 election-related murders. And while not all the killings are attributed to the guerrillas, the atmosphere of terror certainly shows the state is not in control.
"The government wants the elections to go forward at all costs. If they don't, it would be a great blow to their image, national and internationally," says Eduardo Pizarro, a political scientist at Bogot's National University.
Colombians have elected their mayors only since 1988, but the practice has become popular, Professor Pizarro says, noting that voter turnout is much higher in local than national elections. While the central government has suffered legitimacy problems due to charges that President Ernesto Samper's campaign was financed with drug-cartel money, city councils and mayors have been winning people over to the idea of working democracy.
"It's indisputable that the popularity of elected mayors has taken support from the guerrillas," agrees Gilberto Toro, director of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities in Bogot. "The local community now sees that electing someone has an immediate result. The communities have really taken to the process, and it's returned some credibility to state institutions."
Residents of Gachala, in the Andes Mountains, won't directly criticize the guerrillas, who they know inhabit the hills around this town of 5,000. But they do express their satisfaction with the mayor's public-assistance programs and the paving crews working on the twisty mountain roads around their town. And they worry about the predicament that the guerrillas have left them.
"We're waiting to see what happens. We just don't want more violence," says Mary Guzman, who runs a restaurant in Gachala near the demolished police station that reminds residents of the rebels' visit. Bogot has not yet proposed a solution for towns that will not hold elections, but townspeople worry that military mayors will be appointed - a move that will serve the guerrillas.
"It will break the link between the people and their central government. And it's going to imply that the Army has to occupy areas where the guerrillas are strong. The strategy is going to be effective," Pizarro says. Army officials frequently complain that they lack the resources to fight the guerrillas. If they are compelled to occupy every town where the guerrillas have influence, they will be spread even thinner. With a military presence, the conflict would intensify in areas previously left alone by the war. Mr. Toro says that as many as 250 towns will have no elections next month.
"There are some candidates who are still running, but the majority [of those threatened] prefer to live, so they decide to withdraw," he says.