Colombian peace a faded dream Terror: For decades, warring factions have been locked in a pointless, brutal struggle, with the nation's rural villagers the clear losers.

Sun Journal

January 26, 1998|By Victoria Burnett | Victoria Burnett,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LA HORQUETA, Colombia -- La Horqueta was a quiet place: a steamy, one-telephone hamlet 30 miles west of Bogota, where local farmers came to sell passion fruit, oranges and mangoes. Left-wing rebels have a strong presence in the area, but the violence that claims thousands of Colombian lives each year had yet to leave its mark here.

But on the morning of Nov. 21, masked gunmen burst into the village store, dragged out three men and shot them dead in front of horrified bystanders. Five more villagers were killed in a hail of bullets after a local person pulled a gun on the attackers. Another five, including boys 14 and 15, were later found outside the village, bound and shot through the head.

Terror has gripped the village. Most of the dozen houses are boarded up; their occupants have fled. The store where the massacre began is abandoned.

Village massacres are all too common in rural Colombia, where paramilitaries and rebels are locked in a bitter struggle, and where state control is negligible. The opposing sides drag local people into the conflict, seeking collaboration and frequently killing those suspected of helping the enemy. Each year, according to Amnesty International, about 3,000 Colombians die the war.

Only the oldest Colombians can remember when their country was free of violence. Half a century ago, Colombia's ruling parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, fought a decade-long civil war in which about 200,000 people died. Formally, it was settled by a power-sharing agreement, but rival guerrilla groups emerged almost immediately.

The two main groups and many splinter organizations consist of about 15,000 fighters. They espouse a vague leftist ideology, but their principal activities today are extortion, kidnapping and drug-running on a scale estimated to exceed a billion dollars annually.

Paramilitary organizations started out in the 1980s as small groups paid by cattle ranchers to defend their property and families from the guerrillas. But they soon started to operate like private militias, targeting anyone they suspected of having rebel ties.

Individual squads of security guards grew into small armies of dozens or hundreds of armed men. The largest is the Autodefensas de Cordoba y Uraba, estimated to number 4,000 to 5,000, which operates in the northwest under the command of Carlos Castano. He is the son of a cattle-ranching family, several of whose members were killed or kidnapped by guerrillas.

The battle between paramilitaries and rebels has intensified in the power vacuum left by President Ernesto Samper's weakness. Evidence that he won the 1994 election with the help of a $6 million donation from the Cali cocaine cartel stripped him of the credibility to govern.

Publicly, the state condemns paramilitary groups, and it has put bounties on the heads of several bosses. But when the state intelligence corps published a "wanted" photo purporting to show Carlos Castano, public skepticism turned to derision. The man in the picture was not Castano, but a local journalist's chauffeur, who had posed as a paramilitary for a magazine cover.

The army is known to collaborate with the paramilitaries, and allegedly even uses them as a scapegoat for atrocities committed by its own men.

In the past 12 months, more than 20 massacres have been blamed on paramilitary groups. In July, as many as 30 died after paramilitaries took over Mapiripan, a tiny village in the southern coca-growing department of Meta. According to witnesses, the men occupied the hamlet for several days, selecting victims for torture, dismemberment and disemboweling, then throwing them into the nearby river. A severed head was left on the doorstep of one social worker's house.

Nearly as alarming as the barbarity of the Mapiripan massacre was the fact that it took place in the middle of a guerrilla stronghold, far from paramilitary territory. Government military support allegedly made it possible. At best, the army turned a blind eye to the arrival of dozens of heavily armed paramilitaries at the San Jose del Gauviare airstrip, 30 miles away. At worst, they helped orchestrate the whole operation.

"The significance of Mapiripan was not just the number of dead, but what it meant in geopolitical terms," says Daniel Garcia Pena, the government's peace commissioner.

The La Horqueta attack suggests that the paramilitary offensive continues to gain momentum. It was one of a spate of gruesome massacres that claimed more than 60 lives in a month.

In a recent interview with the local magazine Cambio 16, Castano, the paramilitary leader, said his forces are "launching the final blow against the guerrilla" in the northwest region of Uraba, traditionally rebel territory. Within a week, an intense battle between the sides broke out in the area.

The paramilitaries' aim, say analysts, is to rid rural areas of the peasants who provide the guerrilla with its power base.

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