In Remote Colombia, Prospects For Peace Are Clouded By Corruption The country's president and insurgents have pledged to sign a treaty, ending the Americas' longest-running conflict. But peace relies on small-town mayors, whose campaigns are often founded on favors.
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In Remote Colombia, Prospects For Peace Are Clouded By Corruption

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In Remote Colombia, Prospects For Peace Are Clouded By Corruption

In Remote Colombia, Prospects For Peace Are Clouded By Corruption

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SAUL MINDIOLA: Saul Mindiola, mucho gusto.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Saul Mindiola is running for mayor of Pueblo Bello. That means beautiful village in Spanish, a name inspired by the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains that surround this farm town of 16,000 residents.

MINDIOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mindiola, who grew up in the mountains, is a member of the Arhuaco indigenous group. The Arhuacos have long distrusted Colombian politics. Mindiola is the group's first-ever mayoral candidate.

MINDIOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mindiola wears the Arhuaco's traditional robes and woven white hat. And even while addressing voters, he constantly chews coca leaves. But he's got a college degree in business administration. On the campaign stump, he speaks earnestly about women's rights and the environment. But Mindiola fears he will lose due to electoral fraud. He claims his main rival is illegally bussing in people from other towns and paying them to register as voters in Pueblo Bello.

MINDIOLA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's not the residents of Pueblo Bello who will elect the mayor, but people who are brought in from the outside," Mindiola tells me. Watchdog groups say widespread vote-buying and voter registration fraud could affect the outcome in nearly half of Colombia's towns and cities. Many are remote, making the electoral process difficult to monitor. What's more, impoverished residents often sell their votes for cash or favors.

ANDRES CEBALLOS: You vote for whoever gives you a little bit of groceries, a little construction material, a little bit of money. But you don't vote for the best person that benefits the community. That's just insane. Unfortunately, that's been the logic here.

OTIS: Andres Ceballos works for the Bogota-based Electoral Observation Mission. He says it's vital for voters to choose wisely. The new crop of mayors will be involved in disarming the guerrillas and other key programs under a peace treaty.

CEBALLOS: This is what's going to define - especially now that we're in the midst of peace talks - who's going to implement at the local level whatever's agreed to.

OTIS: But in Pueblo Bello, free from rebel attacks for the past decade, voters have more immediate concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This woman tells Mindiola that she and her friends will vote for him if he gives them roofing materials for their homes that were damaged by a storm. Mindiola turns them down. Later, I meet David Hernandez, an electoral fixer for a rival candidate.

DAVID HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says he was hired by Francisco Villazon. His job was to scour nearby towns and find people willing to vote for Villazon. Each recruit, he says, will receive about $30 plus lunch on Election Day. He admits corruption like this has helped produce a string of terrible mayors in Pueblo Bello.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Still, Hernandez says he needed the $200 that he was paid to buy food for his 11 children. A spokesman for Villazon denied that his campaign was engaged in electoral fraud. But poll-watcher Andres Ceballos has documented irregularities in plenty of towns. And at a time when Colombia is trying to put a peace treaty into place, he's concerned.

CEBALLOS: Many people concentrate on national elections because it's the big picture thing, but I think it's locally where elections can be decided and can affect where the country's going.

OTIS: For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

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