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Fear is a way of life for Colombian mayor

Despite assassination attempts, a target of leftist guerrillas won't yield: `Someone has to confront the dangers.'

March 31, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

NEIVA, COLOMBIA — Mayor Cielo Gonzalez's house looks like a Marine outpost in Fallouja, buttressed by stacks of sandbags to absorb any blasts. She travels with 10 gun-toting guards, and recently received a gift from President Alvaro Uribe: the most heavily armored SUV in Colombia.

"I am often very afraid or very bored," said Gonzalez, a tall, athletic 38-year-old. "The guerrillas have made me a prisoner."

Early this month, Gonzalez emerged unscathed from the second attempt on her life by leftist guerrillas in the 3 1/2 years since she was elected mayor of this rice-farming and cattle city in southern Colombia. Would-be assassins planted two bombs outside the radio station where she took citizen calls every Thursday morning. One bomb was in a parked sedan that drew authorities' attention: It exploded as it was being towed away, injuring five people.

The second bomb, taped to the station's water meter, was discovered the following night. It blew up as it was being transported in a police vehicle, killing four police officers who thought the device had been disarmed. One of the mayor's bodyguards was among the victims.

Gonzalez, whose designer shoes and chic attire seem out of place in this agricultural hub of 350,000 people, says she is a target because she supports the tough anti-guerrilla policies of Uribe. She refuses to quit her job, though her life has been drastically changed.

"I can't do any of the simple things I used to do, like jog in the mornings, go to the hairdresser, parties or the movies. Now I only rent them," said Gonzalez, a lawyer who comes from a political family. "I already had stopped doing everything in my old routine, except the Thursday morning radio shows. And look what happened."

Gonzalez is hardly alone among Colombia's locally elected officials. According to a mayors association, 159 of the country's 1,099 mayors live under the shadow of a death threat from the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, or from right-wing paramilitaries.

Nor is Gonzalez the only member of her well-connected family to come under threat. Her father, a former Bogota City Council member, and brother, a Colombian senator, also have been targeted.

Politics is Gonzalez's calling, she says, and not something she is willing to give up. To do so would be "making way for killers," she adds. "Someone has to confront the dangers, and Colombia deserves it. It's the only way to build a democracy."

After getting her law degree in 1991, she worked her way up the bureaucracy to appointments to two Cabinet jobs here in Huila state, as head of social services, then secretary of state. She won her first elective office -- to the state legislature -- in 2000.

"Politics allow you to see your ideas materialize, to improve people's quality of life, which is the most important thing for me," Gonzalez said as she led a midmorning tour of Neiva construction projects.

But her idealism has been tempered by the threats to her life.

As her bodyguards drove her through Neiva's sun-baked streets, she was visibly nervous in traffic and at stoplights, her eyes scanning the cars and crowds for possible threats. She interrupted an interview to urge her driver to stay closer to the lead car in her caravan, and to avoid parking next to a cluster of motorcycles that she feared might be rigged with bombs.

"I can't get out and just talk to people because you never know who might be there waiting," Gonzalez said, her expression tense. "I've lost the closeness to the people. The security creates a fence around you."

Tight security is a fact of life, and since the bomb attacks, she travels with a security detail even in Bogota, the capital, where she visits her fiance on weekends. They plan a wedding next year, after her term is up.

In the first assassination attempt against her, a month after she was elected in October 2003, someone lobbed a grenade at her house. In addition, a plot to kidnap and kill her was uncovered in December.

The FARC has declared six mayors in Huila, including Gonzalez, and their city councils to be "military objectives" -- marked for death for their insistence on staying on the job.

"What the terrorists want is ungovernability, to leave the way clear for them." said Col. Miguel Angel Bojaca, who commands the Colombian National Police base in Neiva, the state capital. He provides round-the-clock protection to Gonzalez, all 19 members of the Neiva City Council, and 60 other mayors and council members in the region.

Army Col. Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla, who commands the Colombian military's 9th Brigade, based in Neiva, says the FARC targets Huila government officials because the region is a crucial crossroads with highways that connect prime coca-growing regions in Putumayo and Caqueta states with urban centers to the north and Pacific ports to the west. The FARC and right-wing militias now run much of Colombia's billion-dollar cocaine-trafficking industry.

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