Peace worker is surprise victim in Colombian war

Sunday, November 11, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Driving her green pickup truck over rutted dirt tracks into Colombia's civil war, Mireya Mejia Araujo believed the opposing sides knew her well enough to let her do her job.

But in Colombia, where 3,700 people were kidnapped last year alone, not even the local peace counselor, a sort of wartime social worker, is safe.

Authorities confirmed Friday that Mejia was kidnapped by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a rural northern village, prompting protests from national leaders and demands that she be freed.

On Wednesday, Mejia was traveling with two other government officials who were also taken hostage. But she insisted the rebels release them, Cesar state Interior Minister Anibal Martinez said.

As the state's peace counselor, Mejia, a soft-spoken, petite single mother, often ventured into Colombia's lawless backcountry, meeting with leftist guerrillas and rival right-wing paramilitary units. Her job: to bring state services like education and health care to isolated areas contested by the warring sides.

She was the face of the state government in villages that even the governor was afraid to visit. She traveled unarmed, usually alone, relying on her frequent contacts with all sides of the conflict to keep her safe.

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