Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Colombia: Mayors Resign after Threats

Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Colombia: Mayors Resign after Threats

Article excerpt

More than 100 Colombian mayors have resigned this month or said they planned to after the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) warned them that they would be considered military targets if they failed to step down. The government has refused to accept the resignations and said it would provide protection, but that has failed to convince the mayors.

In many areas, the rebels extended the threat to all municipal officials, effectively shutting down local governments and raising questions about whether democracy exists under such conditions. On June 25, the FARC broadened the threat further to cover all Colombian mayors, judges, and municipal officials.

Over half of Colombia's 32 departments have already seen collective resignations by mayors, town councilors, and judges, and the situation is likely to worsen. The officials find themselves between a rock and a hard place--threatened by the FARC to resign and, in many areas, threatened by the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) if they do.

The Federacion Colombiana de Municipios (FCM) says that, since the beginning of 2001, 14 mayors have been killed and another 16 kidnapped. While mayors of rural towns have historically been targets of rebels and paramilitary groups, the latest threats seem to be a new FARC strategy to openly challenge the Colombian state and President-elect Alvaro Uribe. Uribe, elected in May on promises to hit the rebels hard, takes office Aug. 7.

Caqueta and Huila are first to receive threats

The current campaign against mayors began in early June, when the FARC declared 16 mayors in the department of Caqueta and seven in the department of Huila military targets.

The mayors resigned after Luis Carlos Caro Pacheco, mayor of Solita, in Caqueta department, was assassinated on June 5. He was killed while traveling to a meeting with mayors from other cities to discuss the rebel intimidation campaign.

On June 8, Defensor del Pueblo Eduardo Cifuentes Munoz called on the mayors not to resign despite the threats. "The only alternative Colombia has is to defend democracy, guarantee the lives of these people, and in that way confront this homicidal action...," said Cifuentes. He called the FARC strategy "the most serious threat made against the Colombian state in history."

Cifuentes said the FARC was using the threats to try to "eradicate and eliminate all authority in these departments" and create a new demilitarized zone, "an independent republic," where they can impose their own law.

On June 17, after a special national security meeting in Neiva, capital of Huila, 304 km southeast of Bogota, Defense Minister Gustavo Bell Lemus told the mayors that their resignations were illegal and that they must return to their jobs. Bell said the government would take whatever measures were necessary to protect the local officials.

FCM president Gilberto Toro said if officials want to resign, "it should be other reasons" than pressure from the FARC. He said 48 mayors "administer from outside their towns" for security reasons, and 37 of them are "in imminent risk" because of threats from illegal armed groups.

Mayors today are in the "same situation that Colombia's campesinos have been in for years," said Marcos Romero at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Totally abandoned by the state, rural residents in war-torn areas have few options: join the war, migrate to the slums surrounding the large cities, or be killed, kidnapped, or disappeared, he said.

The state is unable to protect the mayors everywhere because no security forces are even present in 180 of the country's 1,089 municipalities, said Romero.

Other regions also threatened

On June 21, 100 officials, including nine mayors, in Arauca, an oil-rich eastern state on the border with Venezuela, presented their resignations. But Arauca Gov. Eduardo Bernal refused to accept the resignations on orders from the central government. …

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