The Washington Post
Sunday, March 10, 2002; Page A22

Violence Mars Colombia Race

Security Forces Strive to Protect Candidates and Voters

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

FLORENCIA, Colombia -- In the final stage of his reelection bid, Congressman Luis Fernando Almario sat hunched on a low bed, greeting voters one by one in a
sweltering bedroom far from the palm-lined plazas and parks where politicians in Florencia have shouted out speeches for years.

Young and old, sick and well submitted to body frisks and bag searches before entering the cramped room, a refuge where the burly three-term member of
Colombia's House of Representatives could urge supporters to ignore their fears and head to the polls in today's parliamentary elections.

Adjacent to the well-guarded headquarters of Colombia's domestic security service, Almario's makeshift office made a challenging target for the leftist guerrillas who
want to kill him. It also had rich symbolic value: The house belonged to his friend, Senate candidate Juan Carlos Claros, who was in the Immaculate Mary Hospital
recovering from a gunshot wound to the face.

"Everyone tells me, 'Be careful, be careful, don't come back here,' " Almario said, referring to this provincial capital just outside a former rebel safe haven created by
the government for peace talks with the country's largest guerrilla group. "But when I heard about the [Claros] shooting, I had to. And what else can I do? These are
the voters."

As a failed peace process gives way to broader war, Colombia's democracy is being challenged more intensely than ever. More than 10 million Colombians are
expected to vote for the new Congress and demonstrate at least symbolically that the Western hemisphere's second-oldest democracy has yet to succumb to its
longest-running civil war. But as Almario and his colleagues can attest, the campaign has been marred by voter intimidation, by stalking-horse candidates fielded by
various armed groups and by assassinations.

The violence that has shadowed the campaign, a dry run for May's presidential election, has sharpened concerns over who wields the real power in electing
Colombia's leaders.

Despite deploying 100,000 soldiers and police to protect polling places, the government is being forced to move 142 rural voting stations in a dozen provinces to the
relative safety of nearby cities. That will likely lower turnout in those areas, a small victory for the Marxist-oriented guerrillas and a rival right-wing paramilitary force
seeking to influence the vote in key areas by allowing only loyal supporters to cast ballots.

In addition, three congressional candidates have been killed during the campaign and five incumbents are running despite being held captive by the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whose 18,000 members make it the country's largest guerrilla group. Half of the more than 3,000 congressional candidates
fall into what government officials describe as the "high risk" category that qualifies them for bodyguards and armored cars, a higher proportion than ever before.

"There are places that these candidates just cannot go because of the risk," said Interior Minister Armando Estrada Villa. "If it is an area of guerrilla influence, rightist
candidates will have a big problem. The same happens to leftists in paramilitary areas. But we are doing our best to protect them."

The next Congress will help decide on the next phase of Colombia's 38-year war, which has taken a sharp turn since a three-year peace process with the FARC
collapsed last month. Violence against voters, candidates and electoral officials has risen commensurate with the stakes as the FARC and the United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia -- or AUC, as the paramilitary group is known -- seek to choose who decides those questions of war and peace.

The FARC, which has battled the state since emerging from a collection of rural self-defense groups in 1964, is waging a more direct military campaign of
assassinations and death threats against dozens of candidates in an effort to undermine voter turnout. The AUC, which is fighting alongside the Colombian military, is
seeking less to destroy the electoral system than to influence it, fielding sympathetic candidates and denouncing FARC sympathizers on the ballot.

"Our method will not be to pressure people in our zones to vote for our candidates, but [to] prevent the election of candidates favored by the FARC," said Carlos
Castaño, the paramilitary chief, during an interview this year at a borrowed farm in central Colombia. "This means we will be making telephone calls to candidates
whom the FARC is pressuring people to support. If you are elected thanks to the FARC, we will keep an eye on you."

Caught between the armed groups are people like Almario, a 6-foot-2 electrical engineer and a large presence in the politics of Caqueta province since his election to
Congress a decade ago. His security team has at times numbered 50 men, the result of threats by guerrillas, paramilitary fighters and drug traffickers who have a large
stake in this province's southern coca fields.

But government resources are slim as the campaign ends, and Almario is down to a dozen bodyguards. "I am nearly impossible to protect," he acknowledged.

Almario's split-level house in a comfortable neighborhood of Florencia sits in front of a small park and basketball court, a prime selling point for his three children
when he bought it years ago. But he failed to predict its use as a military staging ground. At midnight on Nov. 10, a guerrilla unit took position under the basketball
hoops and attacked the house with machine guns, grenade launchers and powerful bombs made from spent propane canisters.

Almario, 45, was asleep in his upstairs bedroom. He immediately dived to the floor and crawled into the guest room away from the park. After the attack, two
guerrillas entered the ruined house to make sure he was dead. They failed to see him hiding amid the dust and smoke.

Almario attributes the attack to his success in bringing public works money to Florencia and to the rest of the mostly rural province, which until last month hosted a
large portion of the rebel haven.

In campaigning and in representing a war zone, Almario rarely offers ideology. Instead, he presents himself as a pipeline bringing money from Bogota to address the
unfinished roads, poorly equipped schools and powerless villages around the province.

"What I do represents the state doing good things for the people, a state presence, and the guerrillas don't like that," Almario said, picking through the rubble of his
former home.

Even the most benign projects have brought Almario and his colleagues grief, making a campaign based on achievement a dangerous one. For years, the Bello
Horizonte neighborhood clamored for a community sports center for its children. And Almario obliged by securing a portion of the money for the project, which he
triumphantly calls a "mini-coliseum." It was inaugurated on March 3 in a ceremony that brought out 800 neighborhood residents. Almario, who like hundreds of
candidates had been advised to cancel last-minute campaign trips home, stayed in Bogota.

But Claros, a fellow member of Almario's Popular Party, attended the celebration. As the program concluded, a man wearing civilian clothes weaved through the
crowd and pressed a 9mm pistol against his head. The bullet shattered his jaw, left a wound low on each cheek, and punctured the lung of an 18-year-old woman
standing nearby.

It was not difficult for Almario to find Claros in Room 305 of the Immaculate Mary Hospital. Two officers from the national police never leave the room, and a dozen
of their colleagues are posted throughout the airy building. Claros appeared dazed as he struggled to sit up, extending his left hand to visitors. His face was swollen,
misshapen. He could not speak.

"He's going to continue with this campaign," Almario said, clutching his friend's forearm, more a question than command. Claros looked up at him and nodded.

                                               © 2002