Colombia's Election Chic: Well-Tailored, Bulletproof

About 70 people were killed during first round. Second vote is Sunday.

It's a rainy, gray morning in John Murphy's central Bogot office, and he is deciding which one of his employees to shoot.

Fortunately for the fellow who will be wearing one of Mr. Murphy's designer bulletproof jackets, it's only a sales demonstration. Colombian elections are coming, and business is booming.

"We've already made jackets for the major presidential candidates," he says.

According to Murphy, who also armors cars for his clients, Colombia is among the world's largest consumers of bulletproof clothing and vehicles. His partner, Miguel Caballero, is a fashion designer who makes sure the jackets look stylish, while Murphy ensures they can stop rounds from a machine gun.

"Most of our clients have been threatened - they're politicians, emerald dealers, people in the military, people on the left. We've even had priests," Murphy says.

Recent statistics suggest that Murphy's business future is solid. In 1997, Colombia racked up some 87 homicides and five abductions each day.

This year's statistics are looking even worse, which authorities blame on presidential elections.

More than 70 people were killed in election-related violence leading up to the first round of voting May 31. The second round is this Sunday, June 21.

"All of the presidential candidates have reported death threats," says Gen. Luis Enrique Montenegro, head of Colombia's secret police. "That's normal."

General Montenegro has 500 men dedicated to escorting candidates. His agents sometimes pose as waiters or barmen, unbeknown to the candidates. They investigate the occupants of hotel rooms above and below the rooms where candidates stay when on the campaign trail.

Army troops also guard the candidates and polling stations, says Gen. Jos Manuel Bonett, commander of the armed forces. During elections, about 18,000 soldiers - a fourth of the entire army - are dedicated to preserving order. General Bonett has said that he lacks the troops to effectively fight the country's 34-year-old guerrilla war.

"During an election we're spread out even worse," he says.

Voting's violent past

Colombian elections have a turbulent history. In 1990, three candidates were murdered. President Ernesto Samper caught a few stray bullets in one of the attacks, which he still carries, causing him to set off airport metal detectors. Between the estimated 15,000 leftist rebels and 5,000 right-wing militia members, as well as uncounted criminals linked to the kidnapping or drug trades, it is hard to be sure who is behind a political crime.

Human rights groups estimate that Colombia has some 1,000 politically motivated murders a year. Most of the dead are from the political left, but the May 12 assassination of retired Gen. Fernando Landazabal made it clear that the violence strikes across the political spectrum.

General Landazabal served as defense minister in the early 1980s and was considered the mentor of ultraright candidate Harold Bedoya. His murder is the first to be directly linked to a candidate. No group has claimed responsibility.

"This is part of an escalation of violence meant to destabilize the election process," Colombian President Ernesto Samper said in a statement after the killing. "We can't let the dirty war return to Colombia."

Weakened government

But voices on the left and right say the "dirty war" is already in full swing and may escalate. "It's seen as some sort of payback," says Robin Kirk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Ms. Kirk says the general's killing was sure to be perceived as retaliation by the left for the recent murder of the renowned human rights lawyer Eduardo Umaa.

President Samper was hampered almost as soon as his term began four years ago, when it was revealed that his campaign had received a $6 million contribution from drug traffickers.

In his weakened state, critics say he is helpless to stop the rampant violence.

"It shows to what extent Samper has lost control of events," Kirk says, noting that several high-ranking government officials have also been threatened recently, and the state seems unable to offer them protection.

Joaquin Landazabal, a cousin of Landazabal, also places the blame squarely on Samper's shoulders.

"A weak and disgraced government has allowed the violent forces to grow more destructive. The state isn't capable of stopping the violence," he said in a statement.

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