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Election day for the Wayuu of Colombia

URIBIA, Colombia - The sun is not up, but election day has already begun in Colombia's northernmost province, La Guajira. Trucks are arriving with voters from the coastal settlements and those already here are preparing local goats for a large breakfast.

The flat and arid landscape of this province is a stark contrast to the steep mountainsides and lush jungles characteristic of most regions of Colombia. Dotting the horizon are wind-propelled pumps called molinas that extract desperately-needed water from the earth.

The absence of a strong guerrilla or paramilitary presence in this province is also uncharacteristic of Colombia; where more than 150 mayoral candidates throughout the country have been threatened with their lives during this year's campaign. However, this country's largest indigenous population, the Wayuu, are no strangers to political corruption. Numerous elections have been tainted before in Uribia, the semi-urban center of Wayuu life, and the standing mayor has even been stripped of her office because of her involvement with a current candidate. The difference this year is that the Wayuu will be electing their first indigenous mayor ever. Both of the top candidates have Wayuu blood, but there is a great divide between the classes they represent.

Rosa Valdeblanquez is running for mayor for a second time. She is an Uribia native whose family is well known and respected in the rural settlements where the majority of Wayuu live. In 2000 Valdeblanquez was responsible for facilitating the construction of 14 cisterns in these rural areas with the help of an international NGO. These Wayuu make traditional handicrafts and fish off the coast for their livelihood. Others live a more mobile life, traversing the tax-free border between Colombia and Venezuela bringing Colombian goods to Venezuelan merchants and returning with inexpensive Venezuelan gas.

Her opponent is Marciano de Jesus Gom?z. Gom?z is affectionately nicknamed "El Negro" due to his dark complexion. He represents the mostly mestizo or mixed-blood class of Wayuu that have accumulated considerable wealth over the last 30 years. Some run large shipping freighters between Panama and Colombia while others, like Gom?z, own businesses in the tourist beach town of Cabo de la Vela. Uribia's mayor was relieved of her duties for contributing a government truck to

Gom?z's campaign.

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Both Gom?z and Valdeblanquez have their own ideas on how to solve the region's ongoing water problem. Valdeblanquez would like to create more cisterns and then work on making transportation easier for those in the rural settlements. "Still people need to travel very far to get to the tanks and most people do not have vehicles so the amount of water they can bring back is limited. Working on our region's transportation would also allow more children to go to school," she said from her campaign headquarters the night before the election. Gom?z, on the other hand, would like to pump water from the Lim?n River in the south of La Guajira. Interestingly both candidates are relying on foreign NGOs to help them accomplish their plans.

When the polls finally open at 8 a.m. there are already 100 people waiting on line. Zorraida Pimiento is standing at the front. She has traveled seven hours from her ranch with a group of 30 people to vote for Rosa. "It hasn't rained in six months and all of my animals are dying. I think Rosa will get things done," she says as the polls start to open.

Saulo Gonzalez, a 20-year-old high school student from Venezuela is also voting today. "El Negro bought me a Colombian identification and paid to bring a group of us to Uribia from Venezuela. I want to go to University in Colombia because the education is superior to Venezuela." Gonzalez says he arrived in a caravan of 40 buses each carrying close to 100 people.

As the voting day winds down, Sgt. Marriano Serrano Victor Raul of the Colombian National Police is escorting an elderly Wayuu man to a waiting police vehicle. "We've arrested 60 people at this one voting station. It's sad because it's not their fault. Most of these people are illiterate. The candidates give them false identification and they don't really believe there will be consequences, but we're trying to correct the corruption problem here," he says.

The motivation for many Wayuu to take that risk and vote is a food ration the candidates distribute to their voters. At Valdeblanquez's campaign headquarters Wayuu men and women receive large white bags filled with cooking oil, corn, and coffee.

That night the town square is full of people. Some are eagerly awaiting the voting count and the returns to come in from the rural settlements. Others are talking to their relatives through the barred windows of the local police station. Most of the fraud perpetrators will be released by morning. "El Negro" Gom?z is entertaining the rest of the multitudes with a celebratory party anticipating his victory. Despite several complaints the election eventually concludes in a relatively untainted fashion and Gom?z wins by 700 votes.