Pubdate: Thu, 19 Sep 2002
Source: Guardian Weekly, The (UK)
Page: 3
Copyright: Guardian Publications 2002
Author: Sibylla Brodzinsky in Valledupar


To friends and neighbours he is a successful lottery agent. To police he is 
informant number 147, one of as many as a million civilians that Colombia's 
new government hopes to enlist throughout the country as secret agents in 
the war against leftwing rebels and rightwing paramilitary groups.

The network of informants - launched a day after President Alvaro Uribe 
took office last month - is a key part of the government's security 
strategy, which aims to turn the tide in the nation's 38-year-old conflict.

"Everyone must collaborate," Mr Uribe said when he launched the programme 
on August 8. "If we all get involved, we will defeat the violent ones."

One month later, informant number 147 is part of a 1,200-strong volunteer 
network that is on the alert for suspicious activity in Cesar province, 
long plagued by kidnappings and extortion by the nation's two main 
paramilitary groups.

The programme has spread to other provinces, and eventually the government 
wants to have similar networks throughout the country serving as the eyes 
and ears of the nation's cash-strapped and understaffed security forces.

But national and international human rights groups have warned that 
involving civilians - who already bear the brunt of the country's violence 
- - directly could turn an already brutal civil conflict into a wider, 
bloodier war.

Sitting safely behind the tinted windows of an unmarked police van as he 
rides through a small town outside Valledupar, informant number 147 
whispers in the ear of his police handler, signalling a man standing idly 
at the end of the street as a member of a paramilitary group. If 
information leads to an arrest or the prevention of an attack, an informant 
receives a reward that can range from four to 15 times the minimum monthly 

Cesar province's police chief, Orlando Paez, says informants have already 
helped to capture several rebels and to recover stolen vehicles. The army 
says one of its informants prevented an attack on a bridge. One rebel was 
killed and another captured when troops went to investigate the presence of 
suspicious men.

Accepting volunteers from the population opens the police and army to the 
possibility of recruiting rebel double agents, but officials say each 
informant is subjected to a strict background check.

The security forces have yet to try to recruit informants in areas 
dominated by leftwing rebels, where there is no military or police 
presence. "We have to get people there, but it is very hard. People don't 
want to get involved because they are afraid," a police officer said.

The greatest fear for informants is retaliation, and the only shield they 
are offered is anonymity. "Discretion is my flak jacket," said informant 
number 147. He added that his mother, with whom he lives, does not know he 
has volunteered.

That discretion may have saved his life when he was kidnapped last month by 
members of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia's second largest 
rebel group, who held him for four days.

"They investigated me but they didn't find out I'm a police informer," he 
said. "If they had known, I wouldn't be sitting here today."

In a letter to Mr Uribe on his inauguration, Amnesty International warned: 
"The [informant] strategy will only serve to drag the civilian population 
further into the conflict and expose those involved to revenge attacks from 
one of the sides in the armed conflict."

Another plan to recruit 15,000 part-time peasant soldiers and policemen in 
remote and unprotected areas has raised fears that such "support forces" 
could degenerate into illegal paramilitary groups.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, who stepped down 
last week, has written to Mr Uribe to say that such measures "can 
contribute, within the context of generalised violence and a degradation of 
the conflict, to the civilian population becoming involved in military 
operations or exposed to risk situations."
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