Colombian rebels keep lawmakers off the hustings

Published March 8, 2002|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

At a recent campaign rally in the northeastern city of Bucaramanga, Sen. Claudia Blum, who is running for re-election in Colombia's congressional elections Sunday, laid out her anticorruption and antiterrorism platform. The auditorium was packed with supporters, but a key person was missing: Blum herself.

Her campaign speech came in a video she sent after Colombia's security forces warned her she was a prime target of leftist rebels. The guerrillas have gone on a rampage of violence and sabotage since President Andres Pastrana broke off peace talks last month after the kidnapping of a prominent senator.

Since learning of the threats, Blum and dozens of other candidates have had to run their campaigns for the House and Senate by remote control, not daring to venture into the countryside for hand-shaking, baby-kissing rallies for fear of being kidnapped or killed.

"I was told that security forces had intercepted a radio conversation in which (rebel military chief) Mono Jojoy gave instructions to go after (candidates), and my name was mentioned explicitly," Blum said.

"I tried not to show too much fear but I wasn't able to move around the country," said Blum from her home in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city, where she taped the videos for her campaign rallies. "I haven't been able to go out and be with the people and talk to them and listen to their concerns."

Five of Blum's colleagues are running even more remote campaigns from the jungles or mountains of Colombia, where they are being held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Friends and families have signed up two senators and three representatives for re-election despite their kidnappings. Among them is Sen. Jorge Gechem Turbay, who was nabbed off a domestic airliner hijacked by the FARC on Feb. 20, leading to the end of peace talks. Several days later, the FARC also abducted independent presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

The 17,000-strong FARC has called on Colombians not to vote in Sunday's elections to pick 102 senators and 163 representatives "because none (of the candidates) will legislate in favor of the interests of the people." The FARC has not, however, directly threatened voters.

Election officials have reported a number of problems _ such as suspected rebels torching a truck transporting voting booths to one rural location on Tuesday _ and have moved 142 rural polling stations to urban centers to prevent disruptions.

"There is no indication that they (the FARC) are planning a generalized sabotage against the elections," said Interior Minister Armando Estrada.

Even so, election time has traditionally been tainted by death threats and kidnappings of candidates and the coercion, both verbal and armed, of voters.

"But this year is worse than in the past. There is more anxiety," said Eduardo Barajas, dean of political science at Bogota's Universidad de los Andes.

This time around, too, right-wing paramilitary groups are openly backing candidates for Congress, using intimidation to ensure a high vote count for their favorites. "We're making recommendations to the people who to vote for," paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso said, predicting the candidates they back would win 30 percent of the congressional seats.

"There is information from some regions where paramilitary proselytizing (in favor of certain candidates) is significant," Estrada said.

Despite the paramilitary pressure, the new Congress is likely to resemble the current one, whichmost Colombians see as ineffective and corrupt, Barajas said.

Nearly 60 percent of Colombians have a negative opinion of the Congress and only 9 percent say its work is positive for the country, according to a nationwide survey taken in late February by the respected Napeoleon Franco polling firm.

Despite the grumbling of public opinion and the threats, Sen. Blum has called on voters to turn out en masse for the Sunday vote. "It is the best way for us to defend our democracy from the violent ones," she said.