Pubdate: Sat, 06 May 2000
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2000 The Irish Times
Contact:  11-15 D'Olier St, Dublin 2, Ireland
Fax: + 353 1 671 9407
Author: Ana Carrigan
Note: Ana Carrigan is the author of The Palace of Justice, a study of
conflict in Colombia in the 1980s. 


While guerrillas and government representatives talk peace, Colombia
is being destroyed by savage warfare and a US "aid" package may tip
the scales into chaos. Ana Carrigan reports from Bogota

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed
upon the world; The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the
ceremony of innocence is drowned . . "

The words of W.B. Yeats might seem like an odd introduction to a
report from this distant Latin-American city high in the Andes
mountains but his prophetic vision of the descent of the 20th century
into darkness has haunted me ever since I arrived here a month ago,
and I can find no better way to convey the mood of despair which has
seeped into this isolated, deeply troubled city.

Bogota has always been a dangerous, lawless place. But since I was
last here four months ago, the powerful FARC guerrillas, those same
people with whose leaders the government of Andres Pastrana has been
holding peace talks, have been closing in on the city and the
residents are feeling besieged. A new and insidious fearfulness,
mingled with resignation, pervades the atmosphere. Sightings of FARC
roadblocks within 10 minutes of the city outskirts are not unusual.

Ever since the guerrillas initiated random mass kidnappings on the
roads, people no longer dare take a spin out of town at the weekend.
Family Sunday lunch in the country house or roadside cafe is a thing
of the past. The country houses on the beautiful savannah stretching
north from the city are empty.

Between 800 and 900 people a week are leaving for the US. They are the
lucky ones: doctors, architects and engineers who already had valid
visas. Those who apply for a visa at the US embassy now must wait for
a year to get an appointment.

Until recently, for most of the upper and middle-class residents, the
people who essentially run the country, the insurgency war was
something they watched on their televisions at night. It was a
virtual, sitting room war occurring in some other country, some
far-off tropical jungle on the other side of the Andes.

As long as the carnage affected only campesinos and villagers, it did
not connect to their lives. Year after year, the war remained
invisible and the root causes were ignored.

Today it is the peace process which is seen to exist in the virtual
world, insulated from a violent, deeply confusing reality.

What goes on in the conversations and the lunches between the FARC
commanders and the VIPs the government brings to meet them in a model
village in the jungle which has been spruced up and painted in bright
fashion colours bears no relation to the mayhem in the rest of Colombia.

When, in the early 1990s, the FARC built a powerful peasant army on
the proceeds of the drug crops grown by peasants it controls, and this
guerrilla army started to overrun army bases, taking soldiers and
police hostages, the shocking scenes on the nightly news triggered the
realisation that the Colombian army might not quite cut the mustard.

But that worry remained someone else's problem. No middle-class son or
daughter enlisted to fight in this messy, undeclared war among peasants.

Now the guerrillas' new strategy has changed things radically. The
intimidating presence of the barbarian at the gate has brought the
rural war to the city, and the intensification by the guerrillas of
their indiscriminate kidnapping and extortion campaigns has projected
the civilians on to the brutal front lines of a war in which
terrorism, directed at the civilian population, has become the chief
strategic weapon.

Like many modern cities, Bogota is really two cities - a well-off
northern enclave and a southern slum. Between the two, downtown Bogota
is a no-man's land. Decayed, overcrowded, chaotic. On a clear, moonlit
night, from the slopes of the northern mountains where the people with
money live in pleasant, fortress-like apartment blocks, protected by
private security, you can see clear across this city of eight million
people to where a myriad naked light-bulbs shimmer in the teeming slums.

Of course, the guerrillas have always been in that city, organising,
recruiting, controlling crime, dispensing "revolutionary justice,"
making alliances and building a clandestine urban militia. Today, the
shadowy presence of that militia is what frightens people in the north
the most.

If the stories about the maid who was discovered bringing suitcases of
weapons into the apartment, or about the ransomed kidnap victim who
came face to face at the supermarket checkout with her "guard" are
true, then the FARC has infiltrated into the most exclusive

In the past year, the government of President es Pastrana has been
buffeted by one crisis after another and the authority and credibility
of his presidency have been dangerously eroded. Now in the 20th month
of his four-year term, many seasoned political analysts are worried
about the stability of his besieged presidency.

The fratricidal, territorial war between the FARC and the right-wing
death squads, known as "paramilitaries", continues to rage. Every day,
the paramilitaries continue to turn the Colombian countryside into a
human slaughterhouse.

Paramilitary massacres, last year and this, have occurred on average
once a day. In the phrase of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, all of the
massacres in Colombia have been "foretold". Despairing appeals for
protection in the days leading up to the torture and the butchery have
been ignored by army and police commanders stationed in the immediate

Two weeks ago, Mr Anders Kompass, the highly respected Swedish
diplomat who directs the Colombian office of UN Human Rights
Commissioner Mrs Mary Robinson, laid the responsibility for what he
called "the magnitude and complexity of the paramilitary phenomenon"
directly at the door of the Colombian government. He claimed it had
failed to develop any active policy to combat them.

Asked by the press what recommendations he could make to tackle the
horrific human rights crisis in Colombia, he went right to the point:
"To the government: combat the paramilitaries. To the FARC: stop
kidnapping and release all those in their power."

There is little chance that either message will be acted upon. The
government is too weak to take on the paramilitaries. The FARC's use
of indiscriminate kidnapping and extortion is intimately connected to
its long-term ambitions, which it has never denied, to take power by
force if the negotiations fail. Besides, today the FARC has yet
another reason to step up its fund-raising.

Next week, the US senate is expected to clear a $1.6 billion package
of military aid for "counter-narcotics" operations in FARC-controlled
territory. Washington's obsession with fumigating drug crops in
faraway places will draw the US another fateful step closer to the
vortex of the war and into direct conflict with 40,000 coca farmers.

Even before the senate votes, the FARC has taken action. In the
Putumayo coca fields where US-trained and equipped counter-narcotics
battalions will support the Colombian police teams when they fly in to
fumigate, the FARC is arming and training the coca farmers to resist.

All the elements of a major tragedy are in place here. The US action
provides the militarists in the FARC with precisely the excuse they
need to withdraw from the negotiations at minimum political cost. The
war will spread to new areas, with new actors, at the precise moment
when changing conditions in the coca fields offer a unique opportunity
to get rid of the coca peacefully, with the active collaboration of
the farmers.

In Putumayo, and other areas also, the Colombian farmers who grow the
coca are looking for a way out. They are tired of the war, violence
and death which their crops bring. But they are trapped, by the FARC
and by the paramilitaries. Both depend on the coca to finance their

What the farmers desperately need is government protection: soldiers
capable of providing a shield between them and the FARC and the
paramilitaries. And then they need a guaranteed subsidy from the
government for their produce: a commitment to fly in and purchase at
market rate whatever they produce.

Theirs is not a mega-dollar plan. The structural development of the
Putumayo, the roads, schools, clinics and markets which they need, can
come later. But they face an emergency situation. They are in great
danger from all the violent players in the area.

There is very little time left before the US scenario closes the
escape hatch and the way out from drugs and fumigation and war will be

For the past 16 months, Presidentes Pastrana has stubbornly sought to
keep open the door to a rational settlement of the political violence
which is tearing his country apart. On the surface, the talks have
often appeared to be on the point of breaking new ground. The promise
has never held.

This may be the crunch moment, when only the international community
can help. The FARC wants belligerency status. It also wants a big
meeting in the coca fields with all the governments to explain how
they would eliminate coca.

Perhaps this is the time to exchange international recognition in
return for signing on to international humanitarian law and abandoning
kidnapping. There may not be another chance to put some brake on the
savagery of this war.
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MAP posted-by: Derek Rea