U.S. Pledges More Anti-Terror Aid As Colombia’s War Rages

Mayor Jesus Antonio Nunez of Ambalema was shot and killed late Wednesday as he was traveling without a bodyguard in the Department of Cundinamarca, a rural zone populated by leftist guerrillas, local officials said. Nunez is the thirteenth mayor assassinated this year.

Authorities believe that rebels from the FARC, Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, targeted Nunez as part of its statewide campaign to kill or kidnap any mayor who refuses to resign.

“We have information that [Nunez was shot by members of] a front of the FARC that operates in this zone. This is part of general terrorist threats aimed at mayors from armed groups,” said Gerardo Montoya, the official spokesperson for the Tolima Department, where Ambalema is located.

Montoya said 25 of the 47 mayors in Tolima, along with officials from Ambalema, continue to receive death threats.

“We, as representatives of Tolima’s government, condemn this situation. We ask that all Colombians remain united and strong through this grave situation; we must stop this conflict,” Montoya said.

The mayor was apparently headed to Beltran to meet with members of a FARC front, Gilberto Toro, president of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities, told the Associated Press.

“He is one of the ones who believed that the FARC could be talked to, that things had gotten better,” Toro said. “This experience tells us that they can’t be believed because killing people, ambushing unarmed people doesn’t matter to them.”

Toro said Nunez had initially fled Ambalema, located some 60 miles west from Bogota, when the FARC first issued warnings, but recently returned.

More than 300 of Colombia’s 1,098 mayors have left their cities to conduct local matters from distant locations, including the capital of Bogota, under heavy security because of the FARC’s campaign against municipal leaders.

News of Nunez’s murder came hours after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Bogota to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other officials.

During his 22-hour visit, Powell emphasized America’s support for Uribe’s war against armed groups and drug traffickers, pledging he would seek an additional $500 million for Colombia in the U.S.’s 2004 budget. That funding would be used for Colombia’s drug eradication programs, military and police forces, and to renew support for drug interdiction flights, which rely on intelligence from U.S. surveillance.

“We are firmly committed to President Uribe and his new national security strategy… Our commitment has grown even stronger as we stand together against the threats of terrorism both our countries face,” Powell said, remarking that he was impressed with Uribe’s accomplishments thus far.

Powell praised Bogota’s steps to negotiate a truce with the country’s largest right-wing paramilitary, the AUC, which announced a cease-fire late last month. He cautioned that the AUC’s announcement was “a good sign, but there was a long way to go.”

Uribe is currently studying the AUC’s declaration, which includes a request for government financing as the group ceases fighting and abandons its drug trafficking trade. The group also wants the government to guarantee protection from rebels for people living in AUC territory.

Colombia, already the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, is expected to receive $537 million in 2003, bringing the total U.S. aid for Colombia to more than $1.8 billion since 2000.

Under the first phase of a $129 million program passed by Congress this year, 23 U.S. military advisers arrived this week to train Colombian forces to protect a 500-mile pipeline regularly targeted by left-wing guerillas. The U.S. is expected to dispatch 60 military advisers to Colombia by the end of next year.