Facing death threats, a Colombian mayor makes a daring visit to the town he runs
CARTAGENA DEL CHAIRÁ, Colombia — When Mayor Edilberto Molina strolled through this farm town in southern Colombia on a recent morning, some residents were astonished by the sight of him. Drug-trafficking guerrillas have threatened to kill Molina so many times that last year he fled for his life.
He now manages Cartagena del Chairá largely by phone and teleconference from a nearby town and comes here only sporadically. He flies in on an army helicopter, surrounds himself with bodyguards, crams in dozens of events and meetings, bunks down at night next to the police station, then flies out.
Molina became a target after he ran afoul of guerrillas in this area, which is home to vast cattle ranches and fields of coca — the raw material for cocaine. Besides drug trafficking, Molina says, the guerrillas reap huge sums by extorting the town's business owners — and its politicians.
"When I ran for mayor in 2019, the guerrillas demanded that I pay them 1 billion pesos," about $285,000, Molina tells NPR at his spartan office on the town's central plaza, during a recent two-week visit he made. "All of the previous mayors have had to pay off the guerrillas. I didn't want to. So, I became a thorn in their side."
After he was sworn in in 2020, guerrilla demands for money — and their threats when Molina refused — escalated. Finally, after army intelligence discovered a rebel plan to bomb the town hall last year, Molina packed up his wife and two young children and fled to the provincial capital of Florencia, 75 miles away.
He's not the only Colombian politician forced out by criminal gangs. Over the past three years, a dozen mayors have fled from their municipalities after being threatened, according to Carlos Camargo, the Colombian government's human rights ombudsman.
In the most harrowing case, Ider Álvarez, the mayor of the northern town of La Playa de Belén, narrowly escaped an ambush by gunmen in June by hiding inside an ambulance that eventually drove him to safety. He later fled Colombia.
Government officials and political analysts are sounding the alarm about rebel violence ahead of regional elections to be held Oct. 29, when Colombians will select new mayors and governors. According to Camargo, there's a "high or extreme risk" that criminal groups will interfere in the voting in 399 of Colombia's 1,101 municipalities.
In many cases, these groups are demanding money from candidates in exchange for allowing them to carry out their political campaigns. They are also intimidating residents to force their support of candidates the criminals consider allies, says Mauricio Vela of the Bogotá-based Electoral Observation Mission, an independent group that monitors the country's elections.
After so much intimidation, many incoming mayors will feel compelled to use part of their town's budget to pay off these criminals, Vela says — leaving less money for street paving and other public works.
"It's a huge problem for Colombia's democracy," Vela says. "It is the worst thing that can happen to a town."
Overall security has improved in Colombia, thanks to a 2016 peace treaty that disarmed the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. However, levels of violence are creeping back up as smaller rebel factions throw their weight around, according to Human Rights Watch.
For the most part, these groups avoid confronting government troops and instead focus on making money by smuggling drugs, illegally mining gold and extorting businesses and public officials.
President Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla who disarmed and jumped into electoral politics in the early 1990s, has announced a series of cease-fires with different rebel groups, designed to protect civilians. His envoys are trying to negotiate peace deals, but so far, there's been little progress.
That has left towns like Cartagena del Chairá — home to 35,000 people and just 30 police officers — vulnerable. Aristo Rodríguez, Molina's chief of staff, claims that everyone from cattle ranchers to motorcycle-taxi drivers makes extortion payments to the guerrillas.
"It's an impossible situation," he says.
Molina is one of the few mayors in Colombia willing to loudly denounce rebel blackmail, and he lists his reasons for going public. For one thing, he says, guerrillas killed his father in 1986, when Molina was a 6-year-old child. What's more, he grew up in Cartagena del Chairá and doesn't want to see his hometown completely taken over by criminals.
"When I raise my voice, I'm not doing it just for myself," Molina says. "I am trying to be a voice for all those people who are scared and intimidated and cannot speak out."
Despite the risks he's taken on, he says: "I like being a politician. It makes me feel alive."
But that means he's constantly on guard for rebel reprisals. During his visit to Cartagena del Chairá last week, his first in four months, he was flanked by four bodyguards and two police escorts. He restricted his rounds to the town center because it was deemed too dangerous to venture into rural areas.
Like most mayors, Molina receives both complaints and compliments. His term in office coincided with the pandemic, which put many projects on hold.
Colombian mayors cannot run for immediate reelection. So, before his term ends on Jan. 1, Molina is scrambling to accomplish what he can, including building parks and renovating the soccer stadium.
But some things slip through the cracks, says Daisy Díaz, a seamstress. She's still waiting for the mayor to make good on his promise to pave the muddy street in front of her house.
"The mayor needs to be here to take care of these projects," she says. "They get delayed because he's not here."
"It's hard to govern by long distance," he says. "I can never go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The other day, I inaugurated a roller rink on a Zoom call."
Another problem, Molina says, is that rebel leaders force town council members to attend clandestine meetings where they are bullied into opposing the mayor's initiatives. For example, he says council members recently derailed his plan to renovate the town plaza.
Asked about rebel interference in town business, one council member, Héctor Pérez, insisted to NPR that it was not a problem.
Meanwhile, four candidates are campaigning to replace Molina — who predicts that the winner will face similar pressures to pay off the guerrillas.
One mayoral candidate, Darwin Florez, acknowledges the guerrillas' presence in the region. When asked by NPR how he would deal with rebel demands to fork over part of the town's budget, Florez smiles and says: "For now, I'm just worried about winning. After that, I'll figure the other things out."
Early this month, after two tense weeks in his town, it was time for Molina to leave. So, to avoid getting kidnapped or ambushed on the road out, he called the army, which, after a two-day delay, sent in a helicopter.
Molina climbed aboard, the chopper lifted off. And soon his hometown was just a speck on the horizon.
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