Pubdate:  Mon, 15 Sep 1997
Source:  International Herald A Latin American Bosnia: "Dirty War" Rips Colombia Apart
By Ana Carrigan and Robert O. Weiner
NEW YORK"Your time has come.... We have come to clean up this
region just as we are doing in other provinces, and we will start with
you. We know your movements very well. We are following step by

This threat was not issued by Serbs engaged in ethnic cleansing
in Bosnia. It carne from paramilitaries in Colombia who slaughter
civilians in that country's growing civil war. The reality it reflects should
cause the international cornmunity to recast the common image of
Colombia as a cocaine republic whose civilian "democracy" has been
corrupted but whose military, cornmitted to the rule of law, remains
steadfast with its American ally in the war on drugs and leftist guerrillas.

Colombia, in reality, is something different: a failing state
where murderous warlords; with the tacit cooperation of the military
and narcotrafficking organizations, have pushed the country toward de
facto partition. In the process they have marginalized many of
Colombia's democratic institutions.

Colombia is tearing itself apart. It is fast becoming a Bosnia, or
the closest thing to it in the hemisphere. There are tiree parties to
Colombia's struggle:

Private paramilitary armies: Sponsored by wealthy landholders
and protected by the regular Colombian army, they now operate with
murderous impunity across half of the national territory. 	Leftwing
guerrilla organizations: Long the de facto authority wherever the state
failed to establish its presence, they have expanded their reach to more
than half the nation's rural municipalities. They kidnap wealthy foes,
extort "war taxes" to fund their activities and mete out their own brand
of justice, contributing to a third of Colombia's political killings. 	The
government: Increasingly irrelevant, it is struggling to regain its
authority over the military and its ability to protect the people. It is in
this situation that the
United Nations set up a human rights field office in Bogota in May. Its
job IS to ensure official compliance with UN recommendations on
human rights.

Ensuring the success of this delicate mission will be among the
complex and urgent challenges facing the new High Commissioner for
Human Rights, President Mary Robinson of Ireland. Her work is cut out
for her. The "dirty war" in Colombiathe great exception to Latin
America s phoenixlike emergence from dictatorship and civil warhas
exterminated or driven into exile a generation of grassroots leaders,
and is producing human suffering on ascale reminiscent of Europe's
worst chapters.

As was the case in Bosnia, civilians are the main target in
this struggle, with the paramilitaries inflicting some 60 percent of the

Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velasquez, the former No. 2
commander in northern Colombiahe was cashiered by the high
command last December for criticizing of ficial failure to address the
savagery of the paramilitariessays the military has adopted a logic that
regards civilians in contested zones as part of the guerrillas' political
structure. The paramilitaries massacre these civilians, fulfilling the
military's desire for high guerrilla body counts and enabling their
sponsors to consolidate and expand their land holdings.

T he killing is displacing families on a scale never seen south of
the Panama Canal. Unicef reported earlier this year that one million
Colombians   about one out of every 40 citizenshave been forced
from their homes.

Out of the war zones of rural Colombia virtual rump republics
are emerging, accountable only to paramilitary warlordsto men like
the cocaine millionaire and landowner Carlos Castano. Described by
Newsweek as "Latin America's most notorious death squad leader" and
by the U.S. State Department as a "known drug trafficker," Mr.
Castano is the most powerful of a dozen or so paramilitary chieftains
who operate autonomously yet increasingly see the benefits of working
together to maximize their political clout.

The Ratko Mladic of Latin America, Mr. Castano has
murdered his way to control of a neofeudal empire stretching across
half of Colombia.

In Mr. Castano's criminal career can be traced Colombia's
institutional collapse. According to Colombian prosecutors, he was a
star pupil at notorious hitsquad training schools sponsored by the
Colombian Xirmy, funded by the Medellin cartel and run by Israeli and
British mercenaries. The school's graduates deiivered protection for the
drug barons' properties and provided the army with cover for "dirty
war" practices. Later, Mr. Castano switched allegiance to the Cali cartel
when the Cali capos joined with the state's security forces to destroy
their chief rival, the Medellin druglord Pablo Escobar.

Despite several arrest warrants for murder, Mr. Castano enjoys
a spotless criminal record. He has never been arrested. When reporters
from The New York Times and Newsweek arranged to visit and
interview Mr. Castano this spring, he noted blithely that the local army
base was "just over the hill" from his headquarters.

With the civilian political opposition decimated by four de
cades of murderous powersharing schemes among corrup,t elites, the
struggle against V1olence and impunity has fallen almost exclusively to
human rights groups.

Ten years of dogged research and advocacy before the UN
have begun to pay dividends. The Colombian government, bombarded
by critical reports and recommendations from every expert body in the
UN system, reluctantly agreed to permit the High Commissioner to
establish an office in Bogota.

The office faces two main obstacles: Nativists and demagogues
have attempted to whip up resentment against the UN's presence in
Colombia, while the government seeks to put a political spin on the
High Commissioner's role that would downplay serious public scrutiny.

And, like other offipes of the High Commissioner, the Bogota
office has been hampered by an institutional
vacuum in Geneva, the home of the UN's Human Rights Center.
Norninally responsible for giving direction and support to its rnissions,
the Geneva center has been remarkably ineffective.

Mary Robinson will need to revitalize Geneva's human rights
structures if the new office in Bogota is to succeed. By so doing she
would maximize the chances of the UN intervention's leading the
Colornbian government to dismantle the paramilitaries, confront the
military's impunity, clean up an abusive justice system and restore the
rule of law.

Ana Carrigan is a freelance writer and the author of "The
Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy." Rohert 0. Weiner coord
inates the Latin America and the Caribbean Program of the Lawyers
Committeefor Human Rights. This comment was contributed to the
Irish Times (Dublin) and to the Herald Tribune.