Pubdate: Tue, 15 Jan 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Frida Ghitis
Note: Frida Ghitis, a native of Colombia, is a journalist and author. Her 
latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live 


The villagers of El Salado know why thousands of people in southern 
Colombia are fleeing in terror. A few months ago, El Salado endured an 
ordeal that could soon be reenacted on a much larger scale elsewhere in the 
country: a massacre of civilians by right-wing paramilitary forces, with 
the acquiescence of the country's military.

With peace talks now officially over and leftist guerrillas ordered to 
abandon the Switzerland-size zone they were allowed to control, the 
Colombian military forces are poised for a major escalation of the civil 
war. Now is precisely the moment for Washington to tell Colombia, in 
absolutely unequivocal terms, that paramilitary fighters must not be 
allowed to target civilian populations in that region or anywhere else.

In scores of towns throughout Colombia, the paramilitary's particular brand 
of horror has left scars that may never heal. On a Friday morning several 
months ago, the people of the tiny village of El Salado in northern 
Colombia were startled by a terrifying sight. Hundreds of armed men were 
marching into the center of town. One pulled out a list and started calling 
out names. In the next three days, those on the list would be tortured, 
beaten and stabbed.

Later, the men would identify themselves as members of Colombia's 
paramilitary force, the so-called United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC), 
right-wing antiguerrilla vigilantes responsible for most, though not all, 
of the civilian deaths in the civil war. The AUC was started by ranchers 
and relatives of those killed by the country's leftist guerillas.

AUC accused the people on the list of helping left-wing guerrillas. A few 
miles away, the official Colombian army had set up roadblocks, keeping 
villagers from escaping and human-rights monitors from entering the town.

In the first six months of 2001, the Colombian army reported almost 100 
separate massacres that left 568 civilians dead. True, the guerrillas are 
guilty of many of the murders, but, as mentioned, most are committed by the 
paramilitary AUC, often with the complicity of the country's army. And it 
is the AUC whose actions the United States can prevent by demanding that 
government forces refuse to permit death squads to do their horrific work.

After all, the United States is the principal sponsor of Colombia's 
military. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel 
and Egypt. The aid program is a controversial structure designed, in 
theory, to fight the drug trade. Because the many parties to Colombia's 
conflict, principally the leftist guerrillas, receive funding from the drug 
cartels, the United States can claim to fight drugs while, in fact, 
supporting the government's war against a guerrilla insurgency that has 
gone on for decades.

With Black Hawk helicopters and American military advisers, the Colombian 
military has taken on two leftist armies: the Revolutionary armed forces of 
Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army or ELN. The fourth 
army in the bloodbath is the AUC.

During the last three years, the government of President Andres Pastrana 
has engaged in a peace process with the guerrillas, granting FARC full 
control of a section of the country as an incentive to negotiate. But now 
that negotiations are all but over, the war in Colombia is about to get 
much worse. The Colombian army is about to take on FARC head-on. And there 
is every reason to believe the paramilitaries will punish the people of 
that region as accomplices of the guerrillas. Such a bloodletting will 
guarantee that the civil war continues to escalate.

The United States, which has branded FARC as a terrorist group, no longer 
needs to rationalize its support of the Colombian military as being part of 
its "war on drugs." In the new, post-Sept. 11 reality, the United States 
can act more bluntly. It will no doubt side firmly with Colombia's 
government in this war, as it should.

But it must also stand with Colombia's people in protecting civilian lives.
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