Pubdate: Mon, 18 Dec 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Robert Collier
Bookmark: Reports about Colombia:


CURILLO, Colombia-Ever since a year ago, when leftist guerrillas
captured this southern farm town in a hail of bullets and grenade
explosions, Washington's adversaries have run things just the way they

The rebels have reorganized the local coca-growing business into a
booming, tightly run enterprise. Curillo's streets are clean, common
crime has nearly disappeared and justice is simple. Those who disobey
the rebels have a choice: Leave town or be killed.

This is the growing empire of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC.

Demonized by government officials in Washington and Bogota, despised
by much of the Colombian public and treated as a pariah by many
international human-rights groups, the FARC has succeeded not only in
becoming a major military threat but in creating a vast network of
grassroots power.

As Colombia's drug war heats up, with peace talks collapsing and a
huge new U.S. military aid package kicking in, the FARC is moving
toward the top of the rogues' gallery for American foreign

The rebel army controls nearly one-third of Colombia's territory and
is growing fast, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual
revenue from taxing the cocaine trade and running the world's largest
kidnapping and extortion racket.

U.S. and Colombian government officials routinely call the rebels
"narcoguerrillas," and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug
policy director, has called the FARC "the principal organizing entity
of cocaine production in the world."

A new $1.3 billion U.S. aid program is intended to help the Colombian
army drive the FARC out of coca-producing regions, cut its revenues
and weaken it militarily. But the offensive, dubbed Plan Colombia,
does not appear to take into account the rebels' strong social
networks in countless villages and poor urban barrios throughout the

In Curillo, for example, which the FARC captured from the government
in an attack last December that killed dozens, the guerrillas'
strength comes not just from military muscle. In fact, the rebels are
nowhere to be seen - openly,  at least.

FARC undercover troops circulate through town, springing into action
only when needed. Their presence is more apparent out of town, where
uniformed guerrillas stop travelers to check identification and
interrogate any suspicious out-of-towner.

"Nothing happens here that they don't touch," said one local farmer
who asked to remain unidentified. "Everything is under control.
Everything is in order."

The rebels have expelled from FARC zones the middlemen who trade in
coca paste - the crack-like substance produced by coca farmers that is
eventually purchased by cocaine laboratories - and replaced them with
local peasants who are loyal to the rebels. The move gives the FARC
near-complete power to set coca prices, levy taxes and freeze out the
rightist paramilitaries, who are the rebels' drug-trade competitors
and military archenemies.

The guerrillas act as a sort of commercial police. "We set prices,
levy taxes and check the weights, making sure nobody gets cheated,"
said Jhon Jairo,  a local FARC commander in El Luzon, a town south of
Curillo. "And we make sure that no buyers come from outside. We only
allow locals we know."

The rebel tax varies from region to region, averaging 500 pesos per
kilo - about 22 U.S. cents, or one-quarter of the price that middlemen
pay farmers.

Some Colombian and U.S. officials contend that the FARC has gone
beyond the middleman stage, becoming directly involved in the next two
levels of the business: the laboratories that process coca paste into
cocaine and the export of cocaine to the United States and Europe.

However, many experts say the accusations are unfounded. "We have seen
no evidence yet that the FARC is directly involved in cocaine
production and export," said Klaus Nyholm, director of the U.N. Drug
Control Program in Colombia.

The FARC leadership admits regulating and taxing the drug trade, but
denies any direct involvement in cultivation or trafficking. In
interviews, top commanders are defensive and jumpy when discussing the
topic, which they know gives them a bad image.

They insist they are willing to help fight drug trafficking, and cite
FARC communiques earlier this year that called cocaine "a scourge on
humanity" and proposed a rebel-run coca eradication program.

But there's a catch: The rebels say they will cooperate only if such
drug-consuming nations as the United States legalize narcotics
consumption, much as the Netherlands and Portugal have done, and
concentrate resources on substance- abuse programs and just-say-no
public education.

"We realize that cocaine is a bad thing and does lots of damage to the
poor people in the United States," said Commander Ivan Rios, a member
of the FARC's high command. "But we say that simply persecuting the
poor peasants who grow coca is not the answer. Instead of bombing and
fumigating Colombia, the United States must make its own

For Rios and other commanders, the income from taxing the drug trade
is simply a means to the end of creating a "New Colombia," a
forerunner to a socialist-run revolutionary nation.

While such Marxist concepts seem wildly out of place in 21st century
urban Colombia, there is no doubt that the FARC is a power to be
reckoned with.

"The FARC has been misinterpreted as just a bunch of criminal thugs,"
said Alfredo Rangel, a well-known authority on military affairs and a
national security adviser to then-President Ernesto Samper in the mid
1990s. "In fact, although it does engage in a lot of criminal
activities, it is a coherent, political-military organization with a
clear ideology and a clear plan for undermining the state."

The FARC, which is estimated to have 18,000 fighters, has more than
doubled in size over the past decade despite nearly $1 billion in U.S.
aid to the government. Shaken by this failure, the United States has
ratcheted up a military effort unparallelled since President Ronald
Reagan's crusade against Central American Marxists in the 1980s.

Under a new, two-year aid plan that was approved by Congress in June,
Washington is spending $1.3 billion and sending hundreds of Green
Berets and other military advisers to help get Colombian troops into
fighting shape.

Although many FARC critics say the rebels have been corrupted by the
drug trade and have lost their Marxist ideology, rebel documents and
interviews with commanders and low-ranking rebels indicate that this
view is only partly true. Both the FARC and the smaller National
Liberation Army (ELN) espouse a mix of Marxism and nationalism -
reminiscent of 1980s Latin American leftists such as Nicaragua's
Sandinista government. The rebel agenda includes partial
nationalization of major industries, distribution of large farms to
landless peasants, increased social spending and a purge of the armed

"The FARC are ideological Marxists, but they are also very pragmatic,"
Rangel said. "You won't hear any 1980s-style slogans of socialism or
death.' "

The rebels' pragmatism can be seen in their unusual justice system.
They have created a network of "complaint offices" - rural courts in
which FARC commanders try a vast gamut of rural cases, from
chicken-stealing to drunken brawls.

The FARC courts have become popular, with many local residents saying
the rebel commanders give fast and fair results, unlike drawn-out
trials in government courts that often require multiple bribes to
produce a ruling.

"I like the (FARC) because I get a solution," said Myrna Ledesma, a
resident of the rebel-held town of San Vicente del Caguan, as she left
a hearing at which a commander brokered a compromise in a rent dispute
with her landlord.

But for many observers, "FARC justice" is an oxymoron. By nearly all
accounts, the FARC's human-rights record is poor. In San Vicente del
Caguan, for example, the rebels have killed at least 19 people since
they were given control of the area by the government as a venue for
peace negotiations. Rights groups generally blame the FARC and ELN for
about 20 percent of the several thousand extrajudicial killings in
Colombia each year. The rightist paramilitary groups are blamed for
about three-quarters of the killings, and the government's armed
forces are blamed for the rest.

An example of the rebels' dirty hands is their penchant for
kidnapping. The FARC and ELN routinely abduct wealthy Colombians as a
means of enforcing what they call a "peace tax." These huge,
meticulously run extortion rackets net both groups an estimated $100
million a year.

"Of course I pay the guerrillas. Everybody does," said Gabriel
Castaneda, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Caqueta province,
in the heart of the drug war. "We have no choice; otherwise we'll be
kidnapped or killed."

The rebels' kidnapping racket has left them the losers in the battle
for Colombian hearts and minds - not just among the rich but also
among millions of average citizens. And, unlike their ideological
cousins in Central America, the FARC has drawn little support among

"The guerrillas are very politically isolated, despite their growing
military strength and their niche among certain poor sectors of the
population, " said Fernando Cubides, a political scientist at the
National University in Bogota.

"There's growing sentiment among the public for a total military
solution against the rebels, a scorched-earth campaign to wipe them

The FARC's isolation springs in part from its bitter experience with
compromise at the peace table. In the 1980s, the movement sponsored
the formation of a legal political party, the Patriotic Union. But the
death squads and the army carried out a brutal campaign to decapitate
the new party, assassinating about 4,000 of its top cadres.

"The FARC lost its entire political leadership, its best and most
flexible thinkers," Cubides said. "Now it's left with the warriors,
many of whom will never believe in peace negotiations."

As the peace talks crumble, FARC commanders make little attempt to
disguise their viewpoint that a military triumph is the only solution.

Cmdr. Julian Conrado, a member of a FARC team responsible for talking
with civilian groups, alluded to the gradual breakdown in civil
society that Colombia has endured ever since the fratricidal 1948-58
period known simply as La Violencia, when more than 200,000 people
were killed in massacres by the country's two rival parties, the
Conservatives and Liberals.

"In this country, it's easier to recruit people for the guerrillas
than for a student discussion group or a labor union," he said.
"There's so much violence, the regime is so corrupt, that many people
see no other alternative."

Conrado, a gregarious man who also serves as lead singer in a rebel
band that plays vallenato - a folkloric music popular in Colombia -
sees little but bloodshed in the nation's future.

"We're not warmongers, but this war is going to get a lot worse before
there's any resolution. Until this country feels a lot more pain, it
won't change."

Law and Order, Rebel Style

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have
imposed a parallel justice system in areas they control. Critics say
it is arbitrary and harsh, but no one denies that it is efficent.
Examples of rebel rule include:

Middlemen: The rebels have expelled coca traders from FARC zones and
replaced them with loyal supporters. The move gives the rebels
near-complete power to set prices for coca paste, levy taxes and keep out
the rightist paramilitaries, who compete with the FARC for control of the
cocaine business.

Courts: The rebels have created a system of courts that metes out
punishment for crimes - most of which are the usual rural crimes of cattle
theft, property disputes and drunken feuds. Penalties include, in
ascending order of severity: verbal warnings; fines; work on local
road-building crews; permanent expulsion from the zone; death.

Morality: The rebels also work hard to stamp out domestic problems such as
wife-beating, drunkenness and even what is termed "malicious gossiping."
Late-night curfews are enforced, residents must participate in weekly
street cleanups and prostitutes get weekly health checkups.

Drug use: Despite the rebels' extensive involvement in the cocaine
trade, they strictly prohibit local consumption of cocaine products or
any other illegal drugs. Punishment is usually fast and severe.

Municipal spending: The rebels use threats of violence to coerce
elected officials to obey rebel dictates on how to spend their
budgets. Anti-poverty programs, education and road-building get top

Corruption: Any suspicion of graft by municipal officials prompts a public
trial - and, usually, punishment.

Roads: The FARC controls a large fleet of road construction equipment,
which it uses to repair and build farm-to-market roads. The FARC's
obsession with road-building comes from its top commander, Manuel
Marulanda, who was a local highways department boss in Tolima province in
the 1950s, before he and a handful of others founded the FARC.

Price controls: The rebels set prices for a wide variety of basic
goods, ranging from farm products such as coca paste to consumer items
and locally consumed food.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake