In Colombian mountain town, security buys votes

PASCA, Colombia — The concrete walls of the police station in this farm town are still pocked with bullet marks from rebel attacks in the 1990s.

Back then, nearly every business owner here was forced to make extortion payments to the guerrillas — in cash or supplies — or risk being kidnapped.

“They would come in here and tell my boss: ‘Give me boots, flashlights, compasses and jackknives,’” said a hardware store manager. “You had to do whatever the guerrillas ordered.”

But these days, the violence has dissipated and most of the guerrillas have scattered. The townsfolk no longer live in fear and that’s why many of them plan to vote on Sunday for Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia’s presidential runoff election.

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As defense minister for outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, Santos was one of the architects of a highly successful national security plan that has severely weakened the guerrillas and led to a steep reduction in kidnappings, murders and extortion schemes.

In addition, the Santos campaign has also benefited from a highly popular government welfare program that distributes monthly stipends to poor families.

Last month, Santos handily defeated five other candidates in the first round of balloting. But he came up just short of the majority of votes required to avoid Sunday’s runoff.

Santos is the heavy favorite to defeat opposition candidate Antanas Mockus, a former Bogota mayor who was runner-up in the first-round.

The popular Uribe would likely have won a third term had he been allowed on the ballot. But the Colombian constitution prohibits presidents from serving more than two terms, thus Uribe endorsed Santos, his partner at the defense ministry from 2006 to 2009.

During that period, the Colombian military scored some of its biggest victories against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, including a dramatic sting operation that rescued 15 rebel-held hostages.

On Sunday, the Colombian commandos rescued four more hostages, including Police General Luis Mendieta, who had been held captive by the FARC for nearly 12 years.

“This is a country that used to be dominated by drug traffickers,” Santos said in a televised debate with Mockus last week. “Guerrillas and paramilitaries controlled more than one-third of the national territory … . But that’s all history.”

Pasca is located just 25 miles southwest of Bogota. Yet its mountainous terrain provided plenty of hiding places and gun-running corridors for FARC rebels.

But with the help of about $5 billion in U.S. aid, the Uribe government doubled the size of the police and army. The army built a series of mountaintop bases, including one near Pasca. More police were stationed here and in other small towns where the government had long been absent.

All the while, military strikes killed hundreds of guerrillas and convinced many others to surrender and turn over valuable information to the authorities.

The offensive has pushed the FARC out of the most populated areas of Colombia and the improved security has led to local and foreign investment and an economic boom.

“Santos worked with Uribe and they got rid of the guerrillas,” said Hugo Torres, who grows potatoes and other crops on the outskirts of Pasca, a town of 11,000. “He knows how to move the country forward and that’s what you look for in a candidate.”

Rather than repelling guerrilla attacks, Pasca’s police chief, Martin Diaz, said his men now focus on more mundane chores like highway checkpoints and investigating domestic disputes.

During a recent meeting of the Pascua town council, security wasn’t even on the agenda. Instead, council members discussed which musical groups would play at next month’s Independence Day celebration.

Yet many Colombians suspect their hard-won security gains could quickly evaporate if the next government lets up. Indeed, there’s still much work to be done. Pasca Mayor Alexander Hortua points out that his cousin was kidnapped by the FARC last year.

“People fear that the guerrillas could come back,” Hortua said. “But if Santos is elected, he will continue with Uribe’s security policies.”

Critics point out that better security has come at a huge cost.

They claim health and education programs have been neglected by the Uribe government. Amid the army’s push for battlefield results troops have been accused of killing hundreds of innocent civilians then dressing them up as rebels to collect bonuses.

In addition, there have been widespread accusations that a government welfare program, known as Families in Action, has been manipulated to drum up support for Santos.

The program provides poor families with monthly stipends in exchange for keeping their kids in school and making sure they receive vaccines and other health care. In their debate last week, Mockus accused the Santos campaign of spreading false rumors that, if elected, he would end the program.

According to Hortua, that’s one of the reason why turnout in Pasca for last month’s first-round vote was enormous.

“Usually, to get people to vote, you have to provide them with food and transportation and all kinds of incentives,” Hortua said. “This time it wasn’t like that. There was an avalanche of voters because they were worried that Families in Action would be canceled.”

All of these concerns produced a first round blowout for Santos in Pasca. He received 3,398 votes compared to 1,516 for Mockus.

Nationwide, Santos could be headed for an even bigger victory in the runoff. A poll published last week by Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper showed Santos leading Mockus 65 percent to 28 percent.