Colombian Vote's Sinister Side 

Colombian Vote's Sinister Side 
Posted by CN Staff on May 26, 2002 at 07:27:18 PT
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign Service
Source: Washington Post
The men from Colombia's largest guerrilla group delivered their preelection message to this lovely valley town only a few hours' drive from the capital with chilling clarity."For every Uribe vote, there will be a grave," town council member Victor Hugo Useche said residents have been told for the past month at roadblocks erected by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the 18,000-member insurgency is known.
The guerrillas have worked throughout the country against Alvaro Uribe Velez, the front-runner in today's presidential election, who has promised a more aggressive military campaign against them if elected. In towns like this one, 40 miles northwest of Bogota, the FARC's pledge to burn buildings and kill residents for each Uribe vote cast has threatened Colombia's small but not insignificant rural vote as never before."Abstention here is going to be close to 80 percent," said Useche, whose town has eight police officers defending it against the area's 600 guerrillas. "We are the orphan of the armed forces."Useche's prediction is a common one in rural Colombia as the country prepares to vote. The guerrillas and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia -- or AUC, as the privately financed paramilitary group that fights them is called -- have been using a variety of methods to influence the outcome of a campaign that has been conducted in the midst of a worsening 38-year civil war.The efforts, ranging from death threats to clandestine town meetings, reflect the high stakes for both sides. The election will determine whether Colombia embraces a military solution to a conflict born among the Communist insurgencies of the 1960s and now gaining momentum on drug profits, or returns to negotiations with the guerrillas, an approach that failed under President Andres Pastrana. It will also select Washington's next partner in Colombia, the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, at a time when the Bush administration is pushing for a wider role in the conflict.Although only 30 percent of Colombia's 24 million registered voters come from outside its well-fortified cities, those rural ballots could determine whether Uribe wins Sunday. The former governor of Colombia's most populous province has a commanding lead in the polls but appears to be just shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election in June.No Colombian president has ever been elected in the first round of voting. That would represent an unequivocal popular endorsement of Uribe's plan to double military spending, create civilian defense groups and give his generals a freer hand in prosecuting a war that features two guerrilla armies battling the AUC and the over-stretched Colombian military.Uribe's closest rival, former interior minister Horacio Serpa, has campaigned for a return to peace talks with the FARC but under what he says would be more restrictive ground rules. The government's three-year talks with the FARC, held in a Switzerland-size haven turned over to the guerrillas as a negotiating incentive, collapsed in February.Pastrana, barred by law from seeking reelection, has mobilized 200,000 soldiers, police officers and other security officials to ensure that Colombians can cast their ballots freely. The Organization of American States has sent election monitors, and U.S. Embassy officials are fanning out to the larger cities as informal observers.Meanwhile, the guerrillas have stepped up military operations in the past week, setting off bombs in cities, seizing thousands of the national identification cards that people need to show before voting and forcing election officials to move as many as one in four rural voting stations to the relative safety of urban centers."The guerrillas and paramilitaries are performing armed proselytizing," Serpa said last week in the western city of Cali. "This can't be allowed."But a tour last week of several towns that once served as weekend retreats for Bogota's wealthy suggested that much of the countryside will likely go to the polls without much protection.Light tanks rolled into positions along the highway running northwest from Bogota, which drops off the high Andean plain into a warm tropical valley. Military helicopters circled above, a novelty according to residents of this town. But only a few soldiers could be seen outside the larger urban areas, their numbers so small as to be largely useless in the face of any guerrilla attack.Only a few years ago this town, wedged between two rivers and thick with Spanish moss-draped trees, was a tourist destination. One stream on the town's edge is said to have medicinal properties. Now the town of 12,000 people is part of the FARC's tightening circle around the capital. Since the collapse of peace talks, two new guerrilla fronts have moved into the surrounding mountains."I have been asking the central government for help for several months, but nothing has come of it," said Alfonso Mahecha Arias, the town's 30-year-old mayor. "They can't wait long because if the guerrillas find out I have asked for help, they will take me away."Earlier this month, in the town of Topaipi, 50 miles to the northwest, the FARC killed the mayor for that very reason. "The situation has become so polarized, as these elections have shown, and it now threatens to delegitimize the next government if this vote doesn't happen without coercion," Mahecha said.About 30 miles west of here, in the town of Guaduas, the AUC is making its own threats. The paramilitaries have told would-be voters that they expect a big turnout for Uribe or else residents should expect a post-election punishment.But most of the threats in this region have come from the guerrillas. They prohibited traffic on these rural roads starting Friday, which will keep many farmers from traveling to urban voting stations. A rented car made it to this town Friday by flying a white flag from its antenna.Taxi drivers usually hired by the political parties on Election Day to take supporters to the polls have declined those jobs. Buses that have been on the roads in recent days bear the FARC's spray-painted message: "No voting" and "No Uribe."A dozen soldiers arrived last week in La Magdalena to protect its four voting stations. Two others will be moved into the town from San Carlos, a few roadside shacks the army has decided it cannot protect."They've told us that we should expect a certain numbers of corpses for every Uribe vote," said a man with silver-gray hair, who was the town's lone police official for 23 years before retiring this month. Like others in La Magdalena, he declined to give his name for fear of guerrilla reprisal. "I don't care. I'm voting, with God on my side, for Uribe." Note: Rebels Opposed to Front-Runner Threaten Rural Residents. Source: Washington Post (DC)Author: Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign ServicePublished: Sunday, May 26, 2002; Page A27 Copyright: 2002 The Washington Post Company Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Related Articles & Web Site:Colombia Drug War News US Closely Watching Sunday's Election in Colombia in Colombia: An Old War Gets a New Boost Damage from Colombia's Drug War
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