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In lawless rural Colombia, running for office gets more perilous
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) ' After agonizing a few months over a guerrilla pamphlet that named him as a "military target," Hermes Sanchez finally decided to quit the race for mayor of Leiva, a rural municipality in Colombia's lawless southwest.
He had three excellent reasons: his children, aged 18 to 24. The rebels had made it clear, in "discussions" with Sanchez's adherents, that his family was also at risk.
The 48-year-old cattle trader said rebels wanted him out of the race because "I'm not the kind of person they can manipulate," something they apparently learned from his term as mayor from 2004-2006.
The truest barometer of Colombia's troubled democracy has always been its fate in the rugged, verdant countryside, and violence against rural political candidates has surged ahead of Oct. 30 regional and municipal elections. These days, illegal armed groups are increasingly deciding who gets elected.
At least 41 candidates have been murdered since February, nearly twice as many as in the same period four years ago, when the last such vote for mayors, governors and municipal councils was held.
"These are Colombia's most contentious elections because local power is the true power," said Alejandra Barrios, director of the independent electoral watchdog Electoral Observation Mission, which compiled the figures.
Interior Minister German Vargas says the government provided bodyguards for at least 72 candidates who complained of threats, but acknowledged it's a huge challenge to protect the more than 100,000 candidates running for regional and local office.
No one is counting how many candidates, like Sanchez, have quit out of fear. And it isn't just leftist rebels, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that imperil them. Far-right militias, drug traffickers and criminal associations run by corrupt politicians also seek compliant local officials.
The pamphlet threatening Sanchez, a member of the Liberal Party, also named three other candidates, from the Conservative and Green parties and the Indigenous Social Association.
It branded all four collaborators of "narco-paramilitaries," the lawless foes of Colombia's oldest and most potent guerrilla band, known as the FARC.
Sanchez calls the claim nonsense. He says the rebels seek only to remove obstacles to their control of the region's cocaine-trafficking routes.
Only one of the threatened candidates, the Conservative, has stayed in the race. Two other candidates, meanwhile, have signed up to replace those who dropped out.
The town once grew coca, the raw material for cocaine, but the farmers and cattle ranchers in the 13,000-population municipality have now replaced the crop with coffee and cacao.
Yet the region is becoming more dangerous as the FARC steps up deadly attacks on police and military patrols and noncombatants. It killed 20 soldiers in two separate attacks in the space of 48 hours last week, one nearby, the other in northeastern Colombia.
The surge in violence hasn't erased the major security gains achieved during the 2002-2010 tenure of former President Alvaro Uribe. But in unstable regions, it does stoke fears of a return to the lawlessness of a decade ago, when ransom-hungry guerrillas brazenly stopped and kidnapped motorists at rural roadblocks.
The uptick in rural violence led President Juan Manuel Santos to replace his entire military high command as well as his defense minister last month.
A decade ago, nearly half of Colombia was in the hands of outlaws. Now, illegal armed groups operate in about a quarter of the Andean nation, according to the independent nonpartisan Conflict Analysis Resource Center.
The Interior and Defense Ministries say 15 percent of Colombia's 1,102 municipalities are now at high risk of violence or corruption due to such groups. In 2003, a fourth of the municipalities were considered at high risk.
Uribe's security gains were costly, helped by special war taxes, a near doubling of the ranks of Colombia's military and U.S. military aid that has since diminished.
"There's a drop in operations by security forces and a new outbreak of guerrilla activity that began in the last months of Uribe's government," said former national security advisory Alfredo Rangel.
Attacks on the military are up 22 percent, while attacks on businesses and infrastructure are up 24 percent, he said, citing his own research. The independent Arco Iris think tank counts 1,115 hostile actions by the FARC in this year's first half, up 10 percent from the same period of 2010.
Reported kidnappings, meanwhile, were up 35 percent, to 177, for the first six months of 2011 over the year-before period, according to the nonprofit Pais Libre foundation. Kidnappings are chronically underreported in Colombia; affected families often don't trust authorities.
Much of pre-electoral violence owes to a rise in cash transfers to Colombia's provinces. New laws put more than $15 billion a year in public works funds in the hands of towns and provincial governments, and put millions worth of mining and oil royalties in local hands.
Aggravating factors: the influx of $2.3 billion in emergency reconstruction funds earmarked for areas devastated by recent record flooding, and government efforts to return at least (8 million acres?) 2 million hectares of land stolen from peasants who were violently displaced by paramilitaries and rebels.
Authorities say they are boosting protection for candidates.
But that's not happening in towns like Leiva.
"The police assigned us a single patrolman as an escort," said Sanchez. "But the mayor and other municipal officials haven't helped at all."
"They've abandoned us completely."