Pubdate: Wed, 22 Apr 2009
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A1, Front Page
Copyright: 2009 The New York Times Company
Author: Simon Romero
Note: Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed reporting from Bogota, Colombia.


NUNCIDO, Colombia -- Up and down the rivers of western Colombia, a new
breed of criminal armies is pressing deeper into this isolated jungle,
fighting with guerrillas for control of the cocaine trade and forcing
thousands of Indians to flee.

It is the kind of nightmarish ordeal that is an all-too-common feature
of Colombia's long war: peasants being terrorized by gunmen seeking
dominance in the backlands.

But as Colombia's war for control of the drug trade intensifies in
frontiers like this one, with new combatants vying for smuggling
routes and coca-growing areas where Indians eke out a meager
existence, it is adding to the already grave toll on the nation's
indigenous groups. At least 27 of the groups are at risk of being
eliminated because of the country's four-decade conflict, according to
the United Nations, and human rights organizations worry that the new
violence is pushing even deeper into the Indians' ancient lands.

Here in the Choco region's jungle, gunmen arrived as Jhonny Caisamo
was harvesting plantains. More than 100 strong, the men beat him with
the flat part of their machetes, then threatened to drown him in the
brown waters of the Cedro River.

"They wanted to know where the guerrillas were camped," said Mr.
Caisamo, 18, one of many Embera Indians to recount recent beatings,
rapes or threats by armed groups here. "They told me they would kill
me if I did not collaborate."

The battles are unfolding far from largely pacified cities like the
capital, Bogota, where a newly confident government acclaims recent
military advances against leftist rebels and the demobilization of
thousands of paramilitary fighters. In another region, officials
recently helped one indigenous group, the Arhuacos, reclaim land from
paramilitary fighters.

But the seeming stability in some places belies the conflict in remote
areas, where Indians like the Embera find themselves at the mercy of
armed groups. Colombia has about three million internal refugees --
second in number only to Sudan, the United Nations says -- and its
Indians bear a disproportionate share of the suffering.

"Our rulers in Bogota prefer to ignore that an entire section of the
country is surviving, just barely, as if we are in the 16th century,
when plunder and killing were the norm," said Victor Copete, who runs
Choco Pacifico, a foundation addressing the violence here in Choco,
one of the nation's poorest departments, or provinces.

The latest displacement of the Embera was set off by a collective
panic after reports that the Rastrojos, a criminal army, raped two
Embera girls in early March and killed an Embera man before burning
his body in front of his family.

Witnesses said the gunmen then went from village to village, beating,
torturing, abducting and temporarily detaining some Embera leaders to
get information about the gunmen's rivals, the Cimarron faction of the
National Liberation Army, or E.L.N., a small rebel group that has held
sway in the area for years.

"There is safety in numbers, so we moved here," said Dionel Isarama,
38, in a one-room hut with 27 other people from his hamlet, hours away
by foot. "We will not return as long as our fear of the armed men
remains with us."

Before the Embera Indians were displaced, the nation's main rebel
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, admitted
killing eight Awa Indians in February in Narino, another department,
accusing them of informing for the Colombian Army.

Late last year, tensions also flared in Cauca, a nearby province,
after the husband of a Nasa Indian leader was killed at a military
checkpoint, and it was reported that at least eight Nasa Indians had
been assassinated. Nasa leaders said those responsible included both
the FARC and paramilitary groups working with large landowners who
oppose land reform demands.

Here in Choco, the Embera fleeing during the first three months of
this year almost equaled the 2,400 displaced in all of 2008, said Luis
Enrique Murillo, the peace commissioner here. Many of their villages
lie in areas long under the control of rebel groups, but are now in
the cross hairs of the criminal armies trying to dislodge the guerrillas.

Choco may be an ideal theater for the latest phase of this ever
changing, labyrinthine war. Fighters are lured by its geography, with
outlets to the Pacific, the Caribbean and Panama, offering options for
smuggling out cocaine and shipping in arms.

In the conflict's latest incarnation, neo-paramilitary groups like the
Rastrojos, which originated as a cocaine-trafficking syndicate around
the city of Cali, have emerged from the ashes of demobilized groups.
At times they use some of the same fighters from groups that formed
years ago to combat the leftist guerrillas, but they also forcibly
recruit new combatants in areas like Choco, security analysts said.

Now these new armed groups, stripped of their old ideological bents,
are forging alliances with rebels in some parts of the country, while
going for their throats in others, like this swath of Choco, according
to security analysts. Either way, their objective remains the same:
dominance over coca-growing areas and routes to ship cocaine abroad,
predominantly to the United States.

The conflict has found new life in areas like Choco partly because of
the government's successes elsewhere. As American-financed eradication
projects have cut coca growing in some areas, Choco's cultivation of
the crop surged 32 percent in 2007, according to the United Nations.

Most of Choco's 450,000 people lack drinkable water. Thousands live in
wooden shacks on stilts. Grenade blasts like one in late March in the
regional capital, Quibdo, which wounded 13 people, go largely
unnoticed elsewhere in the country.

In isolated villages like Nuncido, where more than 100 of the Embera
have recently fled, children with distended bellies and light-colored
hair, a sign of malnutrition, asked for food.

The government has brought in some soldiers to help, but they said
they would leave soon. Some of the fleeing Embera Indians, however,
worry that the emergency will last for months, perhaps longer.

In Puerto Meluk, a river port with bars blaring vallenato music and
stores selling chemicals used to process coca into cocaine, some
Embera refugees cooked in a swamp reeking of raw sewage and recounted
stories similar to those upriver: of beatings and threats in their
villages, then displacement here.

At one house with 11 families crowded inside, Enrique Manyoma, a
42-year-old maize farmer, told of his escape from the village of Incira.

"That is my daughter, Marta Cecilia," Mr. Manyoma said, pointing to an
infant. "She was born here eight days ago.

"As long as the men with guns remain in the jungle," he said, "I do
not think her home will be in Incira."
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