On the morning of June 4, 2023, during a town celebration in La Playa de Belén in northwestern Colombia, armed men burst into the main square looking for the mayor, Ider Álvarez. Minutes earlier, gunfire on the way out of town had distracted police and military in the area. The mayor and a group of people who had taken refuge in the mayor’s office were trapped.
Álvarez and his family were in La Playa de Belén for the celebration, but they had been living in another municipality for almost a year. Criminal groups had been threatening Álvarez, forcing him from his hometown in the sub-region known as Catatumbo, which is a hub for coca cultivation and processing with easy access to Venezuela.
While his family managed to escape in an ambulance in the afternoon, Álvarez remained in hiding because his security forces said that there were snipers in the village.
Scenes like this are common throughout the country. In October, Colombia will hold local and regional elections. Anticipating this change of power, criminal groups are attempting to influence the results in order to maintain or consolidate their territorial control.
“Since March, there have been massive meetings with leaders by illegal organizations telling them who they should and should not vote for, which parties can and cannot enter the area,” the association that represents Colombia’s municipalities said in a recent statement.
At least 12 mayors in seven of the country’s departments have been forced to govern outside their territories due to threats from armed groups, according to the Ombudsman’s Office.
Ider Álvarez was one of these 12 mayors. And his situation would soon become even more complicated.
Governing Under Threat
Álvarez grew up in La Playa de Belén, a small municipality in the department of Norte de Santander. After leaving the area in search of other opportunities in his youth, he returned in 2016 to work as a radio broadcaster. By 2019, he was one of the candidates for mayor.
La Playa de Belén is a transit municipality that connects Sardinata, San Calixto, and Teorama — three of the municipalities with the highest rates of coca cultivation in Catatumbo — with the south of the department.
Several armed groups have operated in the area for decades, including the guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, signed a peace agreement in 2016 with the Colombian government. The demobilization of the FARC left a huge power vacuum in the country’s criminal landscape. In addition, several factions that did not want to disarm defected from the process over control of criminal economies and territories.
In the end, three armed groups remained: those who did not demobilize, known as the ex-FARC mafia; the ELN; and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), also known as Los Pelusos.
Between 2018 and 2020, La Playa de Belén was the scene of a dispute between the ELN and the EPL. Shortly after announcing his candidacy in 2019, Álvarez began receiving threatening messages from alleged EPL members demanding money.
“First, to let me campaign, they asked me for 50 million pesos ($15,000), and [if I won], another 50 million per year,” he told InSight Crime.
Álvarez was holding a campaign event in a rural area called Mesa Rica a month before the elections when men with long guns approached him. They identified themselves as members of Frente 33, one of the ex-FARC mafia, and told him that because his party was not affiliated with the dissident group, he was not allowed on their turf.
“They told me that these were orders, that I had to leave the area,” Álvarez said.
In spite of these threats, Álvarez did not give in, instead repeating his pledge for a transparent administration and refusing to pay the demanded sums throughout the rest of his campaign. In October 2019, he won the mayoral race.
But the criminal groups did not give up either. Álvarez heard from residents that armed groups threatened they would not “let him finish” his term.
Years later, he would recall that slogan with a certain bitterness.
By the time he took office, Catatumbo was immersed in a humanitarian crisis. Clashes between armed groups in January 2020 left at least 20,000 people confined to their homes for 17 days, according to figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
When the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed Colombia and the entire world a few months later, both the ELN and the ex-FARC mafia imposed curfews and set up roadblocks at the entrances to villages.
Once again, the ex-FARC mafia intercepted Álvarez during a visit to the rural area of the municipality. The armed men identified themselves and held him for several hours. Finally, they decided to release him, with the demand that Álvarez give them money from the town budget for medicines, food, cars, and even infrastructure projects.
Álvarez was not the only public official being targeted by armed groups. Due to the pandemic, both the ELN and the dissidents, as well as other groups in the area, increased their extortion schemes, especially targeting departmental and municipal government contractors in charge of public works projects.
It was part of a wave of extortion at the national level. Sometimes they asked for a slice of the budget, and if they did not receive the money, they hindered the projects. The same armed groups also infiltrated local administrations in different parts of the country, diverting resources for their own benefit.
However, Álvarez refused to comply with these requests. The groups then began a smear campaign against him among La Playa de Belén’s inhabitants. Both the ex-FARC mafia and the ELN questioned his abilities, branded him as a state informant, and said he was reneging on his promises. Taking advantage of their influence in rural areas, where they can move freely and have greater social control over the population, both groups sent a strong and clear message: Ider Álvarez is our enemy.
Mayor in Exile
In early 2022, the threats Álvarez had been receiving finally came to fruition. By that time he was no longer living in La Playa de Belén. He and his family had moved to the nearby town of Ocaña, and every day he traveled in an armored van with a government-assigned escort.
Álvarez met in mid-March 2022 with another local mayor who gave him a warning: The 33rd Front of the ex-FARC mafia had declared two mayors of Catatumbo a military target, and Álvarez was one of them.
According to Álvarez’s colleague, the dissidents had said, “We have to kill that little guy because he is making fun of us. And the best way to teach the other mayors a lesson is by declaring him a target and assassinating him.”
A week later, Álvarez arrived at the municipal palace to work. He had a meeting scheduled that afternoon in the nearby municipality of Abrego, so at around 2:40 p.m., he set out on the road.
As he left the urban area, Álvarez noticed a suspicious person with a cell phone near him. This worried him, but he continued on his way. A few miles later, in a winding section of the road, he noticed three people up ahead standing with their backs to the street — an unusual sight.
Coming out of the last curve, the van was attacked.
“The person who was in the middle bent down and picked up a rifle from the ground and started shooting. And the other two, one with a Mini-Uzi and another with a pistol, started shooting first at the engine, then at the driver’s seat,” Álvarez said. “It happened in just a few seconds.”
Álvarez got into a fetal position in the back seat. He called the police and the army, but when he realized that no one could reach them in time, he gave the order to drive on and try to get out of firing range. With three flat tires and the driver wounded, they made it to the army battalion a few miles away.
After the attack, Álvarez decided to leave the area completely and continue his work as mayor from Cúcuta, the department capital eight hours from La Playa de Belén. Other mayors in the region — among them the mayor of Tibú, Nelson Leal — and throughout Colombia have also had to leave their territories, governing from the capital of their departments.
Álvarez’s family moved with him. A few months later, the situation seemed calmer, and Álvarez and his family moved back to Ocaña, accompanied by a few bodyguards.
But the danger was not over.
‘The Pressure Is Extremely Strong’
About a year later, after being trapped for hours, Álvarez finally escaped the mayor’s office at around 10 p.m. Escorted by two army tanks, he left La Playa de Belén and traveled back to Ocaña where his family was waiting.
Once he knew that his family was safe and sound, Álvarez made a decision: Ocaña, 45 minutes from La Playa de Belén, was just too close for comfort. The more distance between Álvarez and the armed groups, the better. After moving his family to Cúcuta, this time for good, Álvarez denounced the attack on the Ombudsman’s Office and the police.
At a security council meeting a few days later, Defense Ministry officials insisted that Álvarez should return to La Playa de Belén to finish his term, Álvarez said.
The officials promised to increase his protection by providing more security forces. But entering a municipality in Catatumbo with increased security was not an option for Álvarez.
“That’s just daring the criminal groups,” he explained.
Faced with an impossible situation, Álvarez decided to resign. The governor’s office of the department of Norte de Santander accepted his letter of resignation on July 31. A few days later, trying not to attract attention, Álvarez left the country with his family.
Despite the 2016 peace accord between the FARC and the Colombian government, political violence has been on the rise since 2017, reaching peaks in election years, according to figures from the Colombian Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral – MOE). In 2022, for example, 418 acts of violence against political leaders were recorded in the seven months prior to the presidential and legislative elections, compared with 202 acts of violence recorded in the same period for the 2018 presidential and legislative elections.
In the run-up to local elections in Norte de Santander, a candidate for the council of Tibú, two leaders of Communal Action Committees (Juntas de Acción Comunal – JAC), and at least four social leaders have been assassinated so far this year. While judicial authorities have not declared who is responsible for the murders, the violent actions by armed groups in the area have risen in recent months.
While doing fieldwork in the area in April 2023, InSight Crime confirmed that criminal groups are regularly imposing restrictions on the mobility of residents in Catatumbo, compared to field observations in 2020 and 2021. Despite developing peace talks with the government, armed groups’ control over the communities appears to be growing throughout the country.
Members of the international community and social leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, agreed that ELN and ex-FARC mafia are increasingly active, threatening social and political leaders, imposing restrictions that confine citizens to their homes, mounting accusations and “war trials” against people in the community, and attacking humanitarian missions.
Compared to the 2019 election period, there has been a 37.7% increase in political violence across the country, according to a report by the MOE. “There is a lot of pressure,” Álvarez told us from his hotel room in another country, referring not only to his situation, but also to the upcoming elections. For the moment, the Norte de Santander governor’s office has delegated an interim mayor to replace Álvarez. But in both La Playa de Belén and in the rest of Catatumbo, the violence and threats against candidates and civilians continue.
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