Fear is a way of life for Colombian mayor

Times Staff Writer

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.

Lasprilla believes that the FARC unit carrying out the death sentences is the dreaded Teofilo Forero front, which is thought to have perpetrated some of the most daring and horrific attacks in Colombia’s four decades of civil war.

Among them: the execution-style killings of nine city councilmen in Rivera, 20 miles southeast of Neiva, in February 2006; the car bombing of Bogota’s Club El Nogal in February 2003 that left 35 dead; and the slaying of former Huila Gov. Jaime Lozada in December 2005. The FARC allegedly had kidnapped Lozada’s wife and two sons; his wife is still being held hostage.

Four days after the discovery of the two bombs aimed at Gonzalez, armed men tried to kill Milton Cuellar, 32, a city councilman in nearby Campoalegre, as he drove home from his night university class with his fiancee. The town’s City Council and mayor are on the FARC’s military objectives list.

Two men dressed in military fatigues emerged from the shadows and sprayed his car with high-caliber machine-gun fire as he drove up to his house. Cuellar emerged unhurt; his 19-year-old fiancee was killed.

“Now I am half a man, and a marked man,” Cuellar said in an interview at a Neiva restaurant a few days after the assassination attempt, his hands still trembling. Two police officers with high-caliber weapons at the ready sat at a nearby table. “No one wants to stand next to me. Buses and taxis pass me by on the street.”

Despite the danger, Gonzalez stays in office, out of stubbornness, commitment and ambition. She acknowledges having plans to run for Huila governor in 2011 and wants to be around to cut the ribbon for several public works projects nearing completion, including a major highway interchange, pedestrian paths and a river-walk.

“I’m not leaving before I turn the projects over to the people,” Gonzalez said.

The day of the first bomb blast, Uribe flew down from Bogota to offer her encouragement -- and an office in Bogota if she thought it too dangerous to continue working in Neiva.

She refused the office but gladly accepted a heavily armored SUV.

“It’s got Level 5 armor, the most you can get,” she said. Uribe also dispatched 400 additional police officers and army troops to patrol Neiva’s streets.

Col. Bojaca said Gonzalez and other elected officials owed it to the people to remain in office despite the threats: “Mayor Gonzalez is responsible for public order in Neiva and has a moral debt to carry out her mandate.”

Gonzalez said she would not give in to the guerrillas’ threats.

“They want all the mayors to go so they are the only ones left, so they can say Uribe’s policies aren’t working. They want the power of the state. But I’m staying.

“Even though I am very afraid.”