Rebels' brazen bid to paralyze Colombia

Peering around the neatly painted metal door, municipal planning secretary Liliana Marquinez politely explains that the town hall will not be open for business today. Or tomorrow. Or at any moment in the foreseeable future.

Local government in this sun-baked Andean village has been paralyzed since Marxist rebels ordered 20 town officials to resign or die.

In the past month, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has explicitly warned local officials – including mayors, councilors, and judges – in 200 towns that they would be declared "military targets" if they fail to step down.

Now, the 17,000-strong guerrilla faction is systematically extending the death threat to every one of the country's 1,098 municipalities, in a concerted attempt to destroy the Colombian state from the ground up. It's an open challenge to President-elect Alvaro Uribe, who won a land- slide election victory in May by promising to crack down on FARC.

Mr. Uribe, who takes office on Aug. 7, has pledged to double military spending and take the battle to the rebels.

But this FARC offensive strikes at the weakest point in the chain of government, highlighting both the frailty of the Colombian state and the challenges which the US-backed government faces in its campaign against the scattered but locally powerful rebel army.

"This is a game of chess: to get the king you first take out the pawns," says Marlio Peralta, who last week resigned as mayor of Santa Maria, three hours north of Hobo.

According to Gilberto Toro of the Federation of Municipalities in Bogotá, about 100 mayors – half of the roughly 200 who were warned by FARC – have refused to bow to the intimidation, but many officials say they cannot afford to ignore the risks. Those in outlying regions say they feel particularly vulnerable.

A mounting toll

Since the first threats were made in mid-June, FARC gunmen have murdered one mayor and abducted three more, including one who escaped only by throwing himself into an icy mountain river and swimming underwater to avoid a hail of rebel bullets.

In Hobo, the ultimatum came in late May, when a local FARC commander called Mayor James Lozada at his office, and gave him 72 hours to step down.

"He said it was nothing personal, but these people don't make empty threats. We know that this is serious," says Mr. Lozada.

Colombia's rural mayors have long been easy targets for both the rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. In the past three years, the warring factions have killed an average of one mayor every month, but the recent FARC offensive has brought unprecedented political and social fallout.

"The mayor is very important in rural areas – he is the link between the state and the citizen," says Tatiana Serrato, secretary of state for the Huila region, which includes Hobo and Santa Maria.

A town in paralysis

Without a mayor to sign contracts and allot funding, Hobo's school canteen has been forced to close, the health center is running out of drugs, and patients who need to use the town ambulance must first pay to fill the gas tank.

Locals have started their own rubbish collection service, charging 15 cents for every household, but they have been unable to combat an epidemic of dengue fever spreading through the village of 6,000 people.

"With one phone call they paralyzed everything," says Betty Sanchez, who runs the town's old people's home. The hostel, which depended on town hall funding, once housed 75 senior citizens, but since the rebel ultimatum Mrs. Sanchez has had to send most of them to stay with local families.

"We have to beg for money to buy drugs. If this goes on, we'll have to close down completely in the next couple of weeks," she says.

Analysts say that with its latest campaign, the FARC is sending a message that US-backed government forces are still unable to control huge swaths of the country.

In recent years, US aid in the form of training, satellite intelligence, and air support has helped the military win back the initiative on the battlefield, but when a fruitless three-year peace process finally collapsed in February, the rebels rapidly switched to a new set of hit-and-run tactics.

"In terms of hardware, intelligence, and political support, the state has more capacity to fight, but the insurgents still have a great capacity to destabilize the country. They're trying to prove that the state cannot win a military victory" says Marco Romero, a political scientist at Bogotá's National University.

Since its inception in 1964, the FARC has rarely tried to consolidate or defend its own territory, but rebel influence is deeply entrenched in the jungles and mountains of the country's most underdeveloped regions.

In Huila, there are police or army troops stationed in every major town, but locals say that the security forces rarely venture beyond their own heavily defended bunkers.

Public servants find themselves at the mercy of local rebel commanders, who often demand a veto over local policy – and a portion of the local budgets.

'They have to go'

The rebels, meanwhile, denounce local politics as another example of the political corruption and exclusion that they claim as justification for their campaign against the state.

Town mayors have been elected by popular vote only since 1986 – previously they were appointed by national party bosses – and local administrations are still notorious for vote-rigging and contract kickbacks.

"Elected or not, the mayors still represent the interests of the traditional political parties. They have to go," says Andres, a FARC activist in Bogotá. He adds that in some regions, the guerrillas are encouraging communities to form their own social and economic policies in readiness for a new state to be born after a final rebel victory.

National government officials have urged local leaders to stand firm – or at least to continue working from the relative safety of the regional capitals.

The government has offered bodyguards, bulletproof vests, and cellphones to all the beleaguered mayors, and US ambassador Anne Patterson has offered places in a protection scheme designed for union activists, journalists, and those in other high-risk professions.

In Huila's second largest city, Pitalito, German Calderon ignored the FARC's deadline to resign on June 25, and since then five army bodyguards accompany him 24 hours a day.

"The principles of democracy and the dignity of the people are at stake. We cannot give in to the threats, because that would be giving up the will of the people," he says.

Mayor Calderon freely admits that he is scared, but insists that his duty remains with the community that elected him.

"Fear is constant in Colombia. But taking public office implies certain risks, and they are risks we must take, or the violence will smash the hopes of our people," he says.

Arguing that he cannot accept a resignation made under duress, the Huila state governor has officially refused to let any of the region's mayors step down.

Back in the sun-bleached streets of Hobo, most villagers still address Lozada as "Mr. Mayor," but his office is closed. He hopes his symbolic resignation will be enough to save him from the rebel death sentence.

"Until the governor accepts my resignation properly, I'm still the mayor," he says. "I'm mayor in name, but I'm not really doing anything."

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