Colombian army beefs up security ahead of regional vote

Interior minister claims election organization has never been better, despite death of over 40 candidates

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sent some 1,200 troops to patrol northeast Arauca department following the ambush last weekend of 10 soldiers by rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - one week before local and regional elections.

Saturday's attack was the worst loss in a single battle with the FARC since September 2010 when 14 police officers died when their convoy was attacked in the southern state of Caqueta.

Ten soldiers were also reported killed in a string of battles after their army patrol was attacked with mortar fire around midnight Thursday in a rural area near the southwest Pacific port of Tumaco. The Marxist rebel group's offensive is said to be part of a plan to disrupt this Sunday's elections.

Interior Minister Germán Vargas and Defense chief Juan C. Pinzón on Tuesday announced that law enforcement bodies and the military would be put on full alert to ensure that there is no violence at the ballot box and that voters would feel safe when they go to the polls.

"There has never been such a well-planned strategy against violence and crimes during an election," Vargas told the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

A week ago the 10-year-old daughter of the mayor of the town of Fortul was released after she had been kidnapped and held for three weeks. Despite Saturday's ambush and other criminal acts, Colombian government officials assured the public that the level of violence is down from the time of the last regional race in 2007.

Four years ago, Vargas said there were 116 crimes committed before the elections, where today only 97 have so far been reported. Murders are also down from 70 in 2007 to 63 this year. Colombians go to the polls on Sunday to elect council members, mayors and governors in regional and local races. The campaigns have been marred by pre-election violence with at least 41 candidates killed, according to the private NGO Electoral Observer Mission.

The 32 million Colombians eligible to vote will elect 1,102 mayors, 32 governors, 12,063 council members, 418 regional lawmakers and 4,627 members to local administrative boards.

Besides the FARC, law enforcement officials fear that other guerrilla groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the country's criminal gangs will try to disrupt the elections. "There are certain risk factors that are present but we have increased security in all regions," Vargas said.

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