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Colombian rebels successfully using terror to control towns

September 9, 1997

GACHALA, Colombia (AP) _ The rebels descended on Gachala just after midnight, sent the seven-man police contingent fleeing with a shower of bullets and grenades and sought out two men: a leading rancher and a retired soldier.

Both men were hauled from their homes and shot to death in the street.

The 300 guerrillas then summoned villagers to Gachala’s plaza with bullhorns, declared the slain men ``military informants″ and imparted a simple message: ``You run for office, you die,″ recounted Jaime Correal, one of the town’s six former mayoral candidates.

Correal’s campaign posters are still plastered all over town. People on the street warmly hail the 41-year-old rancher and emerald mining entrepreneur. But Correal won’t dare take part in Oct. 26 municipal elections.

``I’ll run when they permit me,″ he says with a wry smile, looking up to the green-carpeted mountains where leftist rebels roam.

Voting has been canceled during next month’s nationwide balloting in this town of 6,000 people, 40 miles east of Bogota.

Gachala is one of at least 30 Colombian municipalities where all candidates have pulled out because of intimidation by guerrillas, whose growing rural clout poses a grave challenge to President Ernesto Samper’s scandal-weakened government.

``Over the past 20 years, (the rebels) said they would sabotage elections, but never before have they caused this much instability,″ said Eduardo Pizarro, a political scientist at Bogota’s National University.

Across Colombia, more than 300 mayoral and council candidates have withdrawn in the weeks since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, the country’s largest rebel band, paid Gachala the Aug. 3 visit.

Dozens of candidates have been kidnapped _ most held just long enough to be dissuaded from running _ by rebels who hold sway in sparsely populated regions from Colombia’s northern Magdalena Valley to its vast southern jungles.

Rebels and their landowner-backed paramilitary foes, who also use terror to influence voters, have killed at least 24 candidates and six mayors this year, the National Federation of Municipalities says.

The rebels’ effort to disrupt elections is a strategy they’ve pursued for more than a decade. They want to control as many of Colombia’s 1,072 municipalities as possible in hopes of securing a major role in national affairs as a concession in any eventual peace negotiation, says Alfredo Rangel, a former Samper national security advisor.

Since Colombian voters began choosing local officials in 1986, the guerrillas have quadrupled their influence, says Rangel: ``In 1985, rebel groups had some sort of presence in about 173 municipalities. Now they have it in about 600.″

In one-third of those towns, rebel influence ranges from behind-the-scenes involvement in decisions to absolute control, says Rangel, noting that insurgents are aided by the absence of police in about 10 percent of Colombian towns.

And though Samper has publicly invited rebel leaders to the presidential palace to talk peace, even offering to demilitarize large rural zones as an incentive, the guerrillas have shown no signs of acceptance.

``I have had discussions with both sides and I am not yet convinced that the FARC is genuinely interested in serious discussions,″ Robert Pastor, a potential mediator from the Carter Center, said from Atlanta.

Colombia’s No. 2 rebel movement, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, has ruled out talking peace at least until Samper’s successor is chosen in May elections. It considers Samper ``illegitimate″ because he won office in 1994 with contributions of $6 million from drug cartels. Samper has repeatedly denied soliciting the money.

``Let’s not forget that our country ... is among the world’s most corrupt,″ ELN said in claiming responsibility for the Aug. 8 assassination of Sen. Jorge Cristo, a Samper ally and regional boss it accused of robbing public coffers.

Colombia’s rebels have been widely criticized for relying on kidnapping, extortion and taxes on illegal narcotics cultivation.

But Colombia’s officialdom ranks third in the world on the corruption index of the Berlin-based research group Transparency International, and military commander Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett says he considers corruption a greater foe of Colombian democracy than any insurgency.

Little surprise, then, that Colombians expressed no sympathy for their 102 senators when it was decided after Cristo’s death that all would wear bullet-proof vests in public.

In Gachala, 20 heavily armed policemen now live in makeshift barracks. But there is no sense of security.

The nearest military post is 30 minutes away via a rutted dirt road. Besides, rebels rarely stay anywhere long enough for the army to engage them.

Mayor Jose Antonio Rodriguez, whose term ends Dec. 31, said six families fled after the rebel incursion, adding to Colombia’s 1 million internal refugees.

Predictably, many in Gachala have turned against Samper.

``A good father has to do what is best for his children. I think that if he loves us Colombians, he should resign,″ said Lucrecia Buitrago, who won’t be running for re-election as town council president.

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