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Colombia Elections Dogged by Violence

October 18, 2003

SOLEDAD, Colombia (AP) _ Stella Castillo walked into the town registrar’s office to declare her candidacy in the mayoral election _ instantly making herself a target for death at the hands of rebels bent on disrupting the next weekend’s elections.

Castillo was well aware of the danger: Hit men shot and killed her husband, the previous candidate for mayor, before her eyes two weeks ago.

``At first I thought ’What’s the point of trying to change things if it’s just to end up like my husband,‴ Castillo said in an interview with The Associated Press.

``But my daughter told me not to give in, that we should try to make his dreams come true,″ the 34-year-old law student said at her home in a coastal city that has been flooded with families fleeing decades of guerrilla warfare.

A deluge of death threats, killings and kidnappings have dogged campaigns for the Oct. 25 municipal and state elections throughout Colombia. The rebels have succeeded in sowing terror and have undercut the government’s efforts to strengthen democracy.

Leftist guerrillas, battered by an army onslaught that is driving them deeper into the jungles, have threatened to kill every contender who refuses to either strike a deal with them or quit, part of their attempt to sever the state’s reach into lawless areas.

But if politicians do seek an accord, or even show sympathy toward the rebels, they risk being killed by right-wing death squads. In between both sides lurk organized crime groups with their own interests who take advantage of the chaos and fear.

At least 30 candidates have been assassinated and a dozen kidnapped, according to the Defense Ministry. One in every five has received a death threat. So far, 181 contenders have withdrawn.

Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is blamed for most of the attacks. Others are attributed to rightist paramilitaries battling the guerrillas. Common criminals are suspects in a handful of cases.

One member of a delegation of European mayors who traveled to Colombia this week to show solidarity with their Colombian colleagues said the situation is ``unimaginable.″

``At times I really ask myself whether I would be capable of living what they are going through,″ Jan Van Putten, mayor of the Dutch city of Putten, told reporters Friday.

The violence is an setback to hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, who hiked defense spending upon taking office just over a year ago. He promised to restore state authority in Colombia’s anarchic countryside and guaranteed the presence of local governments.

Police in Soledad arrested two of the four hired gunmen who fired six rounds at Castillo’s husband, Jose, as he sipped coffee on his porch on the morning of Sept. 30.

Authorities say they have no doubt the killing was politically motivated but have yet to identify who paid the hit men.

Residents, however, suspect right-wing paramilitaries who may have decided that Jose Castillo _ the front-runner in the Soledad mayoral race _ was unacceptable because he was once a member of the now defunct M-19 leftist guerrilla group.

``I don’t even want to know who was behind it,″ said his wife, speaking in a barely audible voice and struggling to hold back tears. ``I don’t want to fill my heart with feelings of revenge.″

Over the spot where her husband died, Castillo has hung a banner summing up her feelings: ``You can cut the flowers but never prevent the coming of spring.″

``He was sensitive, humble. He drove around in a battered old car,″ said Alexander Villar Rojas, a friend who is a Soledad city councilman.

Rojas recalled how he received a threatening phone call the night before Castillo’s murder. ``Be careful, tomorrow you will receive a message,″ a voice told him without identifying itself.

Rojas says he doesn’t know whether the call was linked to Castillo’s death, and is scared.

``My life is in God’s hands,″ he said.

Soledad’s departing mayor, Alfredo Arraut, said it’s logistically impossible to provide security for all politicians and that the pervading fear among candidates is damaging the city’s electoral process.

``Few candidates are sleeping peacefully,″ he said. ``It is, of course, difficult for democracy to work under such circumstances.″

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