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Facing death threats, a Colombian mayor makes a daring visit to the town he runs

Mayor Edilberto Molina (right), alongside Lt. Col. Óscar Usme aboard a well-armed Colombian Navy boat, tour the Caguán River which flows past Cartagena del Chairá.
Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Mayor Edilberto Molina (right), alongside Lt. Col. Óscar Usme aboard a well-armed Colombian Navy boat, tour the Caguán River which flows past Cartagena del Chairá.

CARTAGENA DEL CHAIRÁ, Colombia — When Mayor Edilberto Molina strolled through this farm town in southern Colombia on a recent morning, some residents were astonished by the sight of him. Drug-trafficking guerrillas have threatened to kill Molina so many times that last year he fled for his life.

He now manages Cartagena del Chairá largely by phone and teleconference from a nearby town and comes here only sporadically. He flies in on an army helicopter, surrounds himself with bodyguards, crams in dozens of events and meetings, bunks down at night next to the police station, then flies out.

Molina became a target after he ran afoul of guerrillas in this area, which is home to vast cattle ranches and fields of coca — the raw material for cocaine. Besides drug trafficking, Molina says, the guerrillas reap huge sums by extorting the town's business owners — and its politicians.

To avoid being ambushed by rebels on the road out of town, Molina — who is wearing a black backpack and climbing aboard the chopper — flies in and out of Cartagena del Chairá on army helicopters.
/ Harold García
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Harold García
To avoid being ambushed by rebels on the road out of town, Molina — who is wearing a black backpack and climbing aboard the chopper — flies in and out of Cartagena del Chairá on army helicopters.

"When I ran for mayor in 2019, the guerrillas demanded that I pay them 1 billion pesos," about $285,000, Molina tells NPR at his spartan office on the town's central plaza, during a recent two-week visit he made. "All of the previous mayors have had to pay off the guerrillas. I didn't want to. So, I became a thorn in their side."

After he was sworn in in 2020, guerrilla demands for money — and their threats when Molina refused — escalated. Finally, after army intelligence discovered a rebel plan to bomb the town hall last year, Molina packed up his wife and two young children and fled to the provincial capital of Florencia, 75 miles away.

He's not the only Colombian politician forced out by criminal gangs. Over the past three years, a dozen mayors have fled from their municipalities after being threatened, according to Carlos Camargo, the Colombian government's human rights ombudsman.

Molina, pictured with his family, moved with his wife and two young children to the provincial capital of Florencia last year after rebels threatened to bomb the town hall.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Molina, pictured with his family, moved with his wife and two young children to the provincial capital of Florencia last year after rebels threatened to bomb the town hall.

In the most harrowing case, Ider Álvarez, the mayor of the northern town of La Playa de Belén, narrowly escaped an ambush by gunmen in June by hiding inside an ambulance that eventually drove him to safety. He later fled Colombia.

Government officials and political analysts are sounding the alarm about rebel violence ahead of regional elections to be held Oct. 29, when Colombians will select new mayors and governors. According to Camargo, there's a "high or extreme risk" that criminal groups will interfere in the voting in 399 of Colombia's 1,101 municipalities.

In many cases, these groups are demanding money from candidates in exchange for allowing them to carry out their political campaigns. They are also intimidating residents to force their support of candidates the criminals consider allies, says Mauricio Vela of the Bogotá-based Electoral Observation Mission, an independent group that monitors the country's elections.

As he tours Cartagena del Chairá, the mayor is surrounded by police officers and bodyguards.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
As he tours Cartagena del Chairá, the mayor is surrounded by police officers and bodyguards.
Because he leaves office on Jan. 1, Molina crams as many meetings and events into his schedule as possible, including this visit to a soup kitchen for the elderly.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Because he leaves office on Jan. 1, Molina crams as many meetings and events into his schedule as possible, including this visit to a soup kitchen for the elderly.

After so much intimidation, many incoming mayors will feel compelled to use part of their town's budget to pay off these criminals, Vela says — leaving less money for street paving and other public works.

"It's a huge problem for Colombia's democracy," Vela says. "It is the worst thing that can happen to a town."

Overall security has improved in Colombia, thanks to a 2016 peace treaty that disarmed the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. However, levels of violence are creeping back up as smaller rebel factions throw their weight around, according to Human Rights Watch.

For the most part, these groups avoid confronting government troops and instead focus on making money by smuggling drugs, illegally mining gold and extorting businesses and public officials.

The mayor inside the home of a resident who wants him to pave the street that runs past her house.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
The mayor inside the home of a resident who wants him to pave the street that runs past her house.
When Molina arrived back at the town hall for the first time in four months, he found this card with messages of support taped to the wall.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
When Molina arrived back at the town hall for the first time in four months, he found this card with messages of support taped to the wall.

President Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla who disarmed and jumped into electoral politics in the early 1990s, has announced a series of cease-fires with different rebel groups, designed to protect civilians. His envoys are trying to negotiate peace deals, but so far, there's been little progress.

That has left towns like Cartagena del Chairá — home to 35,000 people and just 30 police officers — vulnerable. Aristo Rodríguez, Molina's chief of staff, claims that everyone from cattle ranchers to motorcycle-taxi drivers makes extortion payments to the guerrillas.

"It's an impossible situation," he says.

Molina is one of the few mayors in Colombia willing to loudly denounce rebel blackmail, and he lists his reasons for going public. For one thing, he says, guerrillas killed his father in 1986, when Molina was a 6-year-old child. What's more, he grew up in Cartagena del Chairá and doesn't want to see his hometown completely taken over by criminals.

Meetings between Molina and community leaders are often tense. At this one, he accused them of spreading rumors that he is corrupt — which led to more death threats from the guerrillas.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Meetings between Molina and community leaders are often tense. At this one, he accused them of spreading rumors that he is corrupt — which led to more death threats from the guerrillas.
A construction worker at the town's soccer stadium. Despite running the town from afar, Molina has managed to push forward renovation of the stadium.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
A construction worker at the town's soccer stadium. Despite running the town from afar, Molina has managed to push forward renovation of the stadium.

"When I raise my voice, I'm not doing it just for myself," Molina says. "I am trying to be a voice for all those people who are scared and intimidated and cannot speak out."

Despite the risks he's taken on, he says: "I like being a politician. It makes me feel alive."

But that means he's constantly on guard for rebel reprisals. During his visit to Cartagena del Chairá last week, his first in four months, he was flanked by four bodyguards and two police escorts. He restricted his rounds to the town center because it was deemed too dangerous to venture into rural areas.

Like most mayors, Molina receives both complaints and compliments. His term in office coincided with the pandemic, which put many projects on hold.

Daisy Díaz is waiting for the mayor to make good on his promise to pave the muddy street that runs in front of her house.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Daisy Díaz is waiting for the mayor to make good on his promise to pave the muddy street that runs in front of her house.
As a bodyguard keeps watch, Molina holds an outdoor meeting to discuss public works projects with neighborhood residents in Cartagena del Chairá.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
As a bodyguard keeps watch, Molina holds an outdoor meeting to discuss public works projects with neighborhood residents in Cartagena del Chairá.

Colombian mayors cannot run for immediate reelection. So, before his term ends on Jan. 1, Molina is scrambling to accomplish what he can, including building parks and renovating the soccer stadium.

But some things slip through the cracks, says Daisy Díaz, a seamstress. She's still waiting for the mayor to make good on his promise to pave the muddy street in front of her house.

"The mayor needs to be here to take care of these projects," she says. "They get delayed because he's not here."

Molina agrees.

Despite the many threats against the mayor, Héctor Pérez, a town council member, insists that he has had no run-ins with the rebels.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Despite the many threats against the mayor, Héctor Pérez, a town council member, insists that he has had no run-ins with the rebels.

"It's hard to govern by long distance," he says. "I can never go to ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The other day, I inaugurated a roller rink on a Zoom call."

Another problem, Molina says, is that rebel leaders force town council members to attend clandestine meetings where they are bullied into opposing the mayor's initiatives. For example, he says council members recently derailed his plan to renovate the town plaza.

Asked about rebel interference in town business, one council member, Héctor Pérez, insisted to NPR that it was not a problem.

Campaign posters in Cartagena del Chairá. Voters here and in the rest of Colombia will select new mayors and governors on Oct. 29 amid warnings that armed groups are interfering in the elections.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Campaign posters in Cartagena del Chairá. Voters here and in the rest of Colombia will select new mayors and governors on Oct. 29 amid warnings that armed groups are interfering in the elections.
Asked how he would react if he is also threatened by the rebels, Darwin Florez, a mayoral candidate in Cartagena del Chairá, was evasive, saying that he is focused on winning and would deal with that issue once he is sworn-in.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Asked how he would react if he is also threatened by the rebels, Darwin Florez, a mayoral candidate in Cartagena del Chairá, was evasive, saying that he is focused on winning and would deal with that issue once he is sworn-in.

Meanwhile, four candidates are campaigning to replace Molina — who predicts that the winner will face similar pressures to pay off the guerrillas.

One mayoral candidate, Darwin Florez, acknowledges the guerrillas' presence in the region. When asked by NPR how he would deal with rebel demands to fork over part of the town's budget, Florez smiles and says: "For now, I'm just worried about winning. After that, I'll figure the other things out."

Early this month, after two tense weeks in his town, it was time for Molina to leave. So, to avoid getting kidnapped or ambushed on the road out, he called the army, which, after a two-day delay, sent in a helicopter.

Aerial shot of the Caguán River, which flows past Cartagena del Chairá where, according to the mayor, nearly every business owner and politician is forced to make extortion payments to the rebels.
/ Carlos Saavedra for NPR
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Carlos Saavedra for NPR
Aerial shot of the Caguán River, which flows past Cartagena del Chairá where, according to the mayor, nearly every business owner and politician is forced to make extortion payments to the rebels.

Molina climbed aboard, the chopper lifted off. And soon his hometown was just a speck on the horizon.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.