Colombian mayors to get bodyguards against FARC rebels

BOGOTA, Colombia, Reuters

The Colombian government said on Tuesday it plans to assign bodyguards to town mayors to fight back against a campaign of death threats by Marxist FARC rebels aimed at driving the civil authorities out of the war-torn countryside.

But the security measures announced by President Andres Pastrana, whose armed forces are already stretched to the limit by a 38-year-old war, fell short of calls by mayors for him to declare a state of emergency to combat the new tactic by Latin America’s most powerful insurgent army.

“If a state of commotion were the solution, we would already have enacted it,” Pastrana told a news conference, referring to the limited package of emergency laws available under current Colombian law.

Declaring an emergency would allow the government to restrict certain civil rights and raise taxes but would make little real difference in the most exposed areas of the country where the government simply does not have enough soldiers.

Death threats by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a 17,000-strong band known by the Spanish initials “FARC” — have sparked panic among mayors and other officials in dozens of towns throughout a lawless countryside where police and army struggle to project authority beyond fortified barracks.

For years, the FARC concentrated on attacking the security forces, but has now changed strategy to concentrate on a softer civilian target in a war that claims thousands of lives a year.

About 25 mayors announced they were quitting over the weekend after receiving letters from the FARC telling them to resign or be declared “military targets.”

Sitting ducks in small towns prowled by rebels or far-right paramilitary outlaws, Colombian mayors are often the targets of intimidation. Eight have been killed so far this year — at least one them after being placed on a FARC hit-list.

The government has asked mayors to stand firm in the face of threats and keep working, but many have replied that they value their lives, and those of their families, too much.

The FARC campaign has been strikingly successful so far, forcing many mayors to flee and take refuge in the capital.