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LOCAL VOICES OPPOSE COLOMBIAN KIDNAPPERS

The rally in Tampa joins a worldwide protest against the rebel group.

More than 1,500 people marched along a busy Tampa thoroughfare Monday to protest Colombia's oldest and most powerful rebel group.

The sheer number of marchers surprised even organizers, considering the rally was put together in about three weeks.

"It was incredible,'' said Bruno Giraldo, one of the event leaders. "We were very excited."

The protest got its start on Facebook when a group of young people railed against FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist group that is holding hostages.

It got its steam from e-mails and text messages spreading "like wildfire," Giraldo said. Major cities around the United States and the world coordinated the protest to take place at the same time.

The Tampa event drew enough marchers to cover the stretch of sidewalk along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Dale Mabry Highway and Himes Avenue.

They wore blue, yellow and red, the colors of the Colombian flag, and raised signs as they chanted, "No mas FARC."

Passing cars honked as marchers cheered. Dogs and babies slept in strollers and toddlers smiled from atop their fathers' shoulders.

"We are not political," Giraldo said. "We are just people. This is the voice of the people."

For 26-year-old Sandra Nieves of Tampa, participating was personal. She said the FARC kidnapped a friend of hers and he has not been heard from in more than two years.

"I'm here to show my support," she said, "to show that the world is paying attention."

For others, like Dr. Juan Angel of Tampa, who brought his wife and two sons, the protest served as a history lesson in love and humanity.

"It's important not just for my children," Angel said. "It's important for the whole world."

The Angel family visits Colombia every other year. About six years ago, the FARC's presence was so strong people hid inside their homes, he said.

"We want to visit a place where there is peace," he said. "Where we feel loved, safe and respected."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5312.

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