Elected office: a post too perilous to occupy

Local elections are set for Sunday. But winners must govern from a safe distance.

For mayoral candidates in the United States whose biggest worry might be, say, whether the neighborhood kids steal their campaign lawn signs, the situation their colleagues in Colombia face must seem unimaginable.

Here, political influence and campaign messages often take the form of bullets.

Since the campaign for Sunday's local and gubernatorial elections got under way, 20 mayoral candidates have been killed and kidnappings are on the rise - including one abduction Sunday. Facing threats from leftist guerrilla groups or the right-wing paramilitary forces, at least 24 mayoral candidates and 64 local council candidates - not to mention three candidates for governor of Colombian "departments" - have pulled out of their races.

"The reigning lack of security in my town ... makes me fear for my personal well-being and for what is most precious to any human being: life," said one candidate for mayor in the town of La Argentina, in his official letter of resignation.

Those still in the running face the prospect of governing not from the municipalities they represent, but from distant, safer towns.

Under such conditions, it's easy to wonder why anyone would bother to run for local office here, especially in the small rural towns that sit on the front lines of Colombia's four-decade-old armed conflict.

Some skeptics say it's the same irresistible attraction to power that operates anywhere. For Colombians, mayors are generally the most recognized representative of the state after the president - which is one reason they are prime targets for subversive forces.

But mayors who have stuck to their offices despite almost impossibly difficult conditions insist the explanation lies elsewhere. It has to do with making democracy work, they say, with keeping the state a viable presence in areas that otherwise would be without any form of government, and with honoring the confidence and faith that constituents placed in them with their vote.

"People want to vote, they want representatives who will work every day of their mandate to make living in their community better," says Jorge Horacio Gmez Tamayo. Mayor of the small southern town of San Jose de Fragua, Mr. Gmez has stuck with his post despite being kidnapped by the country's biggest rebel faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and being ordered to resign or face death.

"Three-hundred-sixty-one of my fellow citizens voted for me, they had confidence that I would stand by them and work for them despite the difficulties," he says. "That's the major reason I couldn't resign."

So Gmez has stayed mayor of San Jose de Fragua, but with a twist.

Like more than 25 other Colombian mayors, he has moved to the department capital, where authorities say they can offer better protection. He can no longer cut ribbons or feel the jar of potholes his constituents complain about, but he works by phone and fax - and in meetings where town employees and project contractors come to him.

"Certainly it's not a perfect situation, but it is a way to say the state refuses to give up its presence," says Gmez, who has not been able to return to San Jose de Fragua, a frustrating 38 miles from Florencia, where he now works, for 15 months.

Gilberto Toro, a former mayor and now executive director of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities, says Colombia's mayors are unsung heroes who confront one of the country's gravest challenges - lack of governability - with little support or recognition from the central government.

In April Mr. Toro announced that half of Colombia's 1,093 mayors face real threats to their safety and life, "and since then the situation has only gotten worse," he says. Since 1998, 34 mayors have been killed, 11 of them in 2000.

A mayor a month killed tells you there is no security for those who are all alone in guaranteeing an institutional presence across large expanses of the country," Toro says, "but the truth is we have had little response from higher officials here in Bogota."

Fully one-fifth of Colombia's municipalities get by without a regular public-safety presence, such as the police, Toro notes.

With little or no police protection, mayors become a prime target for one of Colombia's worst scourges, kidnapping. Jose Aldemar Serna is one of 17 mayors who have been kidnapped this year.

Having already been kidnapped twice since taking office in 1997 in Concorna, in the central department of Antioquia, Mr. Serna decided the third time was enough and he resigned.

But the governor of Antioquia asked him not to give in to the threats and offered him an office in the capital of Medellin, so now Serna, like Gmez, is a long-distance mayor.

"I couldn't ask my family to face the threats any longer, especially when because of my post and location I can't even get life insurance," says Serna. "But at the same time, I know the only way to increase governability is to stay and fulfill the program I was elected on," he adds, "so I accepted this imperfect solution."

Serna hasn't returned to Concorna, 50 miles from Medellin, since his release by the National Liberation Army May 5.

At Colombia's National Registry, responsible for registering candidates and preparing ballots, officials recognize that the situation facing local government representatives has deteriorated, but they also say that this campaign period is finishing up in relative calm.

"In a lot of areas, things are more complicated because the conflict is sharper," says Martha Lucia Avila, spokesman for the registry. "But you also have to remember that as unacceptable as any of these problems are, there are still 145,000 candidates across the country putting their name and picture on a ballot."

While it's true that the FARC is not attempting to shut down this year's elections as it tried to in 1997, it is trying a different strategy this year. The FARC and other insurgents are in some cases issuing communiques in which they are making their local preference known or are pressuring candidates to follow a certain line in exchange for allowing them to remain in the race.

The implications of that pressure have municipality federation leader Toro worried about the consequences newly elected mayors will face. "This is a new way to try to manipulate local representatives," he says.

"These violent elements are going to expect to see the commitments they believe they got out of candidates fulfilled," he continues. "And when they aren't, I'm afraid we'll see even more killings of mayors next year."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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