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In Colombian mountain town, security buys votes

Presidential front runner reaps the benefits of anti-FARC security measures.

Colombia soldiers
Colombian police in La Uribe, which was once a FARC rebel sanctuary, March 12, 2009. In Pasca, also a former guerrilla stronghold, residents are voting for Santos because of the improved security situations.(Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

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.

Read also: High stakes in election for border town

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.