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 step." 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 casualties. 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.