Mon, Oct 20, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Colombian politicians toy with death

REBEL POLITICS Guerrillas have threatened to kill every candidate in the upcoming municipal and state elections who refuses to either strike a deal with them or resign

AP , SOLEDAD, COLOMBIA

Stella Castillo walked into the town registrar's office to declare her candidacy in the mayoral election -- instantly making herself a target for death at the hands of rebels bent on disrupting the next weekend's elections.

Castillo was well aware of the danger: Hit men shot and killed her husband, the previous candidate for mayor, before her eyes two weeks ago.

"At first I thought: `What's the point of trying to change things if it's just to end up like my husband?'" Castillo said in an interview.

"But my daughter told me not to give in, that we should try to make his dreams come true," the 34-year-old law student said at her home in a coastal city that has been flooded with families fleeing decades of guerrilla warfare.

A deluge of death threats, killings and kidnappings have dogged campaigns for the Oct. 25 municipal and state elections throughout Colombia. The rebels have succeeded in sowing terror and have undercut the government's efforts to strengthen democracy.

Leftist guerrillas, battered by an army onslaught that is driving them deeper into the jungles, have threatened to kill every contender who refuses to either strike a deal with them or quit, part of their attempt to sever the state's reach into lawless areas.

But if politicians do seek an accord, or even show sympathy toward the rebels, they risk being killed by right-wing death squads. In the midst of both sides lurk organized crime groups with their own interests who take advantage of the chaos and fear.

At least 30 candidates have been assassinated and a dozen kidnapped, according to the Defense Ministry. One in every five has received a death threat. So far, 181 contenders have withdrawn.

Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is blamed for most of the attacks. Others are attributed to rightist paramilitaries battling the guerrillas. Common criminals are suspects in a handful of cases.

Police in Soledad arrested two of the four hired gunmen who fired six rounds at Castillo's husband, Jose, as he sipped coffee on his porch on the morning of Sept. 30.

Authorities say they have no doubt the killing was politically motivated but have yet to identify who paid the hit men.

"I don't even want to know who was behind it," said his wife, speaking in a barely audible voice and struggling to hold back tears. "I don't want to fill my heart with feelings of revenge."

Over the spot where her husband died, Castillo has hung a banner summing up her feelings: "You can cut the flowers but never prevent the coming of spring."

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