*** Today December the 22th 2007: Fourth FARC intent to kill Cielo
González, she survived again... ***
It's not easy being mayor in Neiva, Columbia
Mayor Cielo Gonzalez travels with 10 guards, has received a gift from President Uribe of a heavily armored SUV, and her house is buttressed by stacks of sandbags to absorb any blasts.
In the three years since she was elected mayor, would-be assassins planted 2 bombs outside the readio station where she took citizen calls every Thursday. One bomb was in a parked sedan that draw authorities' attention: it exploded as it was being towed away.
Why is she the object of these attempts on her life? Because she supports the tough anti-guerrilla policies of the President.
Colombia rebels target survivor mayor in stronghold
Wed Mar 21, 2007 12:45pm EDT
By Patrick Markey
NEIVA, Colombia, March 21 (Reuters) - A grenade blasted Cielo Gonzalez's home, her father narrowly survived a kidnap attempt and she recently escaped a car bomb attack.
As the prominent mayor of Neiva city near Colombia's drugs heartland, leftist guerrillas want Gonzalez dead to send a message that President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-backed security campaign is failing.
Killing Gonzalez would rid the guerrillas of a staunch Uribe supporter in a province that has traditionally been a rebel stronghold and a corridor to important drug-producing areas in the south.
Earlier this month, guerrillas managed to sneak two bombs close to a radio station where she was speaking. One car bomb exploded after a bodyguard ordered the suspicious vehicle towed away; the other, hidden in a pipe nearby, failed to go off.
"If that bomb had gone off then, there would be no trace of Cielo Gonzalez," she told Reuters recently. "If they kill Neiva's mayor then they kill off institutions, kill off democracy, it tells the government its project has failed."
Gonzalez has nine months left as mayor and says she will not back down by resigning. She is Colombia's most protected woman politician with more bodyguards than some government ministers.
Violence and urban attacks have dropped off sharply since Uribe took office in 2002 vowing to combat the illicit drug trade and rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with the help of billions in U.S. aid.
But with elections for mayors and governors set for October, rebel bombings and threats in Neiva highlight the complex task Uribe faces stamping out violence from Latin America's oldest guerrilla insurgency.
Gonzalez has ten bodyguards and travels with motorcycle guards and three armored cars. Bomb dogs check buildings she visits and two officers with M-16 rifles perch in a green sandbag bunker behind her house.
"I used to jog everyday and that is out, prohibited now because it is the routine that kills," she said. "I know I have to put up with this until I finish my mandate."
Uribe has sent out troops to retake areas once under the control of illegal armed groups. Rebels have been driven back into the jungles and 31,000 right-wing paramilitaries who once fought the guerrillas have disarmed in a peace deal.
Neiva, a steamy city of 300,000 people about 190 miles (300 km) south of Bogota in Huila province, has suffered its share of violence involving the paramilitaries and rebels, who are both involved in the lucrative cocaine trade.
Guerrillas stormed an upscale Neiva building in 2001 and snatched a senator, his family and twelve others. Rebels once planned to use mortars to shoot down Uribe's plane as he arrived in the city in 2003.
Those darker days are gone as Gonzalez and other mayors of small Colombian cities seek to attract tourism and investment for construction projects and development as the economy booms and security improves.
But Huila remains a key drug transport corridor from nearby rural Cauca and Narino provinces, where illicit coca leaf is grown for cocaine production.
"Huila is one of the three strongholds of the FARC, where they have traditionally had civilian support and networks," said Pablo Casas, an analyst at Bogota think tank Security and Democracy.
Last February, rebels burst into a Huila hotel and massacred seven town councilors and wounded more as they dined. Five Huila lawmakers are still being held by guerrillas.
"Their objective is to intimidate, discourage and create fear," said Huila police commander Col. Miguel Angel Bojaca.
Gonzalez was broadcasting a weekly radio program at the start of the month when the FARC tried to set off the car bomb. One bodyguard noticed a suspicious vehicle and ordered it towed away. It exploded blocks away, wounding ten people.
Two days later, police found a second explosive tucked away in a pipe outside the radio station. It was positioned just where Gonzalez had stood, but failed to explode. It then went off when police removed it, killing five people.
"Sometimes I ask what am I doing, why don't I just leave?," Gonzalez said, but she insists she will not give up. "From the start, I was always clear that I would keep going."
Targeted for death, Colombian mayor stays. Latest attack was third on her life.
By Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times | April 1, 2007
NEIVA, Colombia -- Mayor Cielo González's house looks like a Marine outpost in Fallujah, 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 sport utility vehicle in Colombia.
"I am often very afraid or very bored," said González, a tall, athletic 38-year-old who looks a bit like British actress Elizabeth Hurley. "The guerrillas have made me a prisoner."
Early in March, González emerged unscathed from the third 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 was embedded 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 victims was Officer Alexander Peralta, 32, one of the mayor's bodyguards. González, a single woman 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 antiguerrilla policies of Uribe. She refuses to quit her job, although her life has been changed utterly.
"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 González, a lawyer who comes from a political family. "I already had stopped doing everything in my old routine, except the Thursday radio shows. And look what happened."
González is hardly alone among Colombia's locally elected officials who fear for their lives. According to a national mayors association survey , 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 González the only member of her well-connected family to come under threat. Both her father, a former Bogotá city councilman, and brother, a Colombian senator, also have been targeted.
Politics has always been González's calling and is not something she is willing to give up. To do so would be "making way for killers," she said. "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 Bogotá 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 elected office, to the state Legislature, in 2000.
"Politics allows you to see your ideas materialize, to improve people's quality of life, which is the most important thing for me," González 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 cars and crowds for possible threats.
"I can't get out and just talk to people because you never know who might be there waiting," González said, her expression tense. "I've lost the closeness to the people. The security creates a fence around you."
The FARC has declared six mayors in Huila, including González, and their city councils to be "military objectives." In short, they are marked for death for their insistence on staying on the job.
Despite the danger, González stays in office, out of stubbornness, commitment, and ambition. She admits to having plans to run for Huila governor in 2011 and wants to cut the ribbon and take credit for a host of public works projects nearing completion.
"I'm not leaving before I turn the projects over to the
people," she said.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.