- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

TAMARA, Colombia — Municipal elections across Colombia this weekend will take place in a climate of fear created by armed groups that have murdered 26 candidates across Colombia and threatened many more.

Among those defying the threats is Arcadio Benitez, a candidate for mayor in this town of 9,000 residents in the western region of Casanare.

Mr. Benitez, said in an interview that he was summoned in August to a meeting with “Alfredo,” the local commander of the Marxist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

“Arcadio, leave. I don’t want to have problems with you,” Mr. Benitez says he was told. “Otherwise, I will have to send a bullet for you.”

Mr. Benitez said he immediately fled for the relative safety of the capital, Bogota.

The decision “wasn’t so difficult,” said the 42-year-old history professor, who worries for the safety of his family.

But, he said, Tamara residents clamored for his return. Pulled by the “dark force that the people have printed upon me,” he is back in Tamara campaigning from the seclusion of his home.

“I don’t have anything to lose,” he said. “Except my life.”

If Mr. Benitez is elected, he may end up governing his town from the relative safety of the provincial capital, as more than 150 mayors across Colombia have done since FARC issued a general death threat against all municipal authorities in June of last year.

The rebel group has left no doubt that it means to follow through on its threat.

Government officials recently intercepted the chilling words of FARC commander Jorge Briceno directing guerrillas to kill any candidates who refused to make a deal with FARC.

The government has sent police to most of the country’s urban centers and will deploy more than 200,000 around the country to watch over the polls this weekend in what will be a major test of President Alvaro Uribe’s “democratic security” strategy.

But many candidates complain they have not been provided with the bulletproof vests and bodyguards that are made available to elected officials.

“There are still zones where [FARC members] have the ability to damage,” said Gilberto Toro, head of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities. “They have sown so much fear, depriving certain communities of options.

“It is a mortal blow to democracy,” he said.

This election season, 26 candidates have been assassinated — 34 percent fewer than in previous elections — and 136 have dropped out, the Defense Ministry said.

The killing spree began July 4 with the assassination of gubernatorial candidate Tirso Velez in Cucuta, the capital of Norte de Santander province, in an attack that has been blamed on rightist paramilitaries who are negotiating a peace deal with the government.

On Aug. 9, FARC kidnapped Silvio Belalcazar, candidate for mayor of Puerres in the southern province of Narino. He was released five days later with a grim message for the other 64 mayoral candidates in Narino: Leave.

Most troubling to Mr. Toro is that at least six towns have no candidates for their mayoral offices or town councils.

No police presence was in any of the towns except Santa Rosa, in Cauca province, which was recently stormed by the military.

Authorities say military officials may be appointed to govern in such places, a new approach.

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