Written for a foreign policy audience, this short story required an unusual amount of work reaching Colombian officials abroad and interviewing traumatized politicians. Originally published in The Washington Times, June 28, 2002.
By Andy Olsen
A massive effort by Colombian rebels to eliminate local governments and tighten their grip on the country has dozens of Colombian mayors resigning and fleeing their towns — sometimes seeking shelter in the United States.
Colombian newspapers report what the leftist rebels have called “total war” against the state. In a public statement last month, the rebels warned some 130 mayors to be out of their towns by midnight Wednesday or face death.
The announcement accelerated a campaign that has been going on since President Andres Pastrana took office in 1998. Since then, guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have threatened to kill more than 203 mayors if they refuse to resign, the Colombian Municipality Federation said.
In those three years, 50 mayors have been assassinated, the group said. No one is taking the latest threat lightly.
“They get a threat and the mayors have to resign tomorrow, or they kill them,” said Julian Hoyos, who spent six months kidnapped in Colombia before ending his term as mayor of Sevilla, a small town tucked in the Andes.
Though the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service does not release the figures, there are believed to be three former Colombian mayors and nearly 20 political and labor leaders now living in the D.C. area, said Mr. Hoyos, who resides in Washington and is president of the activist group Unidos por Colombia.
After being held with little food for half a year on a ranch in guerrilla-controlled Darien Valley, Mr. Hoyos paid $50,000 for his release before coming here. But many mayors cannot afford to pay ransom, he said.
“They are not armed players,” he said. “Those who have money are paying for their safety. The others are leaving.”
This week, two mayors who had been threatened were kidnapped. FARC on Wednesday added Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus to their resign-or-be-killed list, according to Colombian Vice Minister of Interior Nelson Amaya. The mayor of this city of 7 million is the FARC’s biggest target yet.
Mr. Hoyos predicted still more mayors would be targeted and that more would flee to the United States.
“The cup is just starting to overflow,” he said. “Things have to get a lot worse before they get better.”
The threats also extend to municipal judges, mayors’ families and their employees.
“It’s an easy way of terrorism,” Mr. Amaya said. “They are threatening 40,000 Colombians. They can’t kill them all.”
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson has promised financial support from Washington as well as armored vehicles to the threatened mayors. She said officials facing serious threats would be offered political asylum in the United States.
The Colombian government has offered them bodyguards and increased police support, though Mr. Pastrana has said he will not accept any resignations.
Those who leave their towns can continue governing from military bases, Mr. Amaya said. But he said that if they have to administer their towns from afar for long, the situation would invite social chaos.