Gunmen kill man running for mayor of Colombia town

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Gunmen on a motorcycle shot and killed a mayoral contender in a Caribbean coast city Tuesday in the 15th assassination of a candidate in Colombia's upcoming state and municipal elections.

Liberal Party candidate Jose Castillo was shot at by two gunmen as he left his home in Soledad, a city near the provincial capital of Barranquilla, police reported.

Castillo's six bodyguards did not have time to return fire before the assailants fled.

The candidate was rushed to the hospital, where he died.

Castillo, who had not reported any threats, was the sixth mayoral candidate in the Oct. 26 elections to be assassinated. Eight people running for city councils and one candidate for governor also have been killed.

Authorities blame the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for most of the attacks.

A smaller leftist rebel group, National Liberation Army, or ELN, pledged earlier this month to cease fire during the elections, which includes an Oct. 25 referendum on proposals by President Alvaro Uribe to reduce government spending.

On Oct. 26, voters will elect 30 state governors, 914 mayors, 398 members of state legislatures and 9,000 city council members.

Both main rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary fighters have threatened candidates in more than 100 towns.

In a dozen other municipalities with open seats for mayor or city council, no one has registered to run, fearing attacks.

In some other towns, candidates have tried to negotiate their platforms with the armed groups to avoid assassination.

Uribe has ordered the Colombian army and police to protect candidates who receive threats. On election weekend, 300,000 troops will secure roads so voters can safely travel to polling sites.

Police, meanwhile, have received requests for protection from 50-100 candidates each week, the Interior Ministry said.

Sandra Devia, director of the ministry's national security office, insisted that the killings and threats were isolated incidents that "neither affect nor put in danger the electoral process."

In a Tuesday speech to the United Nations in New York, Uribe also minimized the threat posed by the rebels and paramilitaries.

Uribe said Colombia has dramatically reduced the number of killings and kidnappings spawned by its four-decade civil war but still faces unacceptable levels of violence in its efforts to "free our people from terrorism."

Uribe itemized his country's progress in the past year, saying the amount of illegal drug crops is down 70 percent, homicides are down 22 percent and kidnappings are down nearly 35 percent, while the number of hostage rescues has increased by almost 23 percent.

"However, what country can feel at peace with itself with 1,485 kidnappings in nine months?" Uribe asked rhetorically.

"We can claim victory only when we completely eliminate these attacks," he said, listing bombings blamed on rebels that have killed dozens of people in the past year, including last weekend's explosion outside a nightclub in Florencia.

The death toll in that bombing, also blamed on the FARC, increased from 11 to 12 Monday.

The FARC and the ELN have been waging war against the Colombian government for nearly 40 years, and against the outlawed paramilitary forces which sprung up in the 1980s. About 3,500 people die in the fighting each year.

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