Pubdate: Fri, 17 Sep 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Page: D5
Author: Kirk Semple, Chronicle Foreign Service


BOGOTA - If Latin America were a neighborhood, Colombia would be the house
that always seemed to have cop cars and social-service vans parked outside.
The country is analogous to a big, colorful family going through a very
rough time - beset by drug trafficking, armed conflict and economic problems.

But the neighbors appear to be getting fed up.

In recent days, Colombia's troubles have once again spread across its
borders and into adjoining countries, reigniting long-standing charges that
the Andean nation - which touches Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and
Ecuador - is a threat to regional stability.

Last weekend, unidentified gunmen kidnapped one American, seven Canadians
and three Spaniards in Ecuador near the Colombian border. Top Colombian
security figures and a State Department official have blamed the crime on
the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC).

Then this week, Carlos Castano, the leader of Colombia's feared right-wing
paramilitary militias, threatened in a letter to the government to attack
security forces in Panama for allegedly supporting the leftist guerrillas
and also accused Venezuela of protecting the rebels.

After Castano's threats, Panama declared a "state of alert" and moved ahead
with a plan to shift 2,000 national guardsmen to the border - an enormous
allocation of. the country's small security resources, said Roberto Jovane,
Panama's acting ambassador in Colombia.

To the east, the defense minister of Venezuela, which months ago dispatched
thousands of troops to patrol its 1,400-mile border with Colombia, warned
that his military would "crush" Colombian rebels if they entered Venezuela.

Since the kidnappings last week, a joint Ecuadoran and Colombian search
force, including a reported 5,000 Ecuadoran troops, has been combing a vast
swath of jungle straddling the border between the two countries. U.S.
officials warned that the FARC, has an estimated 17,000 fighters
nationwide, had set up bases in the Ecuadoran jungle.

last month, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who has bolstered border
patrols along his country's 1,000-mile northwest border with Colombia to
guard against attacks from leftist guerrillas and stem drug smuggling,
proposed a law authorizing his armed forces to draft new recruits in case
Colombia's internal conflicts spilled into Peru.

And local Colombian television this week broadcast reports from Brazil of
security forces patrolling the waterways along the country's northwest
border in an effort to control the illegal flow of supplies to Colombian
guerrillas in the region.

The overflow of Colombia's conflict into neighboring countries isn't a new

Fighters from the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have
frequently crossed borders to kidnap or extort people, hide kidnapped
victims and rest after military offensives.

In addition, guerrilla-controlled gunrunning routes pass through several
bordering countries. U.S. officials recently testified that the FARC has
established bases or drug supply routes in Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and

The paramilitary death squads have also strayed outside Colombian territory
to do their dirty work, crossing into Panama and Venezuela to ferret out
alleged FARC troops and sympathizers. Ecuadoran officials say the death
squads were responsible for the assassination of a Marxist Ecuadoran
congressman in Quito earlier this year.

Perhaps more insidious, violence has driven thousands of Colombians into
neighboring countries in search of safer lives.

"The (influx of refugees) in other countries generates economic and social
instability, and that's part of the reason that Colombian violence is seen
as a threat to the region," said Linadel Castillo, an analyst at Bogota's
Javeriana University.

Hawkish U.S. officials have of late tended to characterize Colombia's
problems as hemispheric issues-that need to be confronted through a
regional approach.

Colombia is slated to receive nearly $290 million in U.S. anti-narcotics
aid this year, but White, House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey has said the
country needs more than double that amount as part of a $1 billion regional
anti-narcotics package.

McCaffrey told a congressional panel last month: "(Colombia's) neighbors
are worried. They ought to be."

President Andres Pastrana continues to dismiss the notion that his country
poses a threat to regional security and stability.

Panama's Jovane also refuses to go that far. "We are still able to defend
Panama ourselves," he said. "I think that the Colombian conflict can still
be controlled by the Colombian authorities."

Colombian political analyst Rodrigo Losada believes that the recent events
are simply a continuation of what's been going on for years militarily and
do not indicate a change in strategy among the insurgencies. The
difference, he says, is in the tone and volume of the reaction by
Colombia's neighbors - which he attributes to U.S. diplomacy.

"There's a new context in that the governments of Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador,
Panama and Brazil have shown a preoccupation with the guerrillas in recent
months," Losada said.

In late August, McCaffrey made a whirlwind tour of several of those nations
during which he tried to rally regional support for a concerted effort to
combat the drug trade.

"For me," said Losada, "what's been going on ... is a reaction to pressure
from the United States."

Wednesday, however, brought a grim reminder that Colombia' problems strike
deepest at home.

Jesus Bejarano, a respected economist who participated in peace
negotiations in his own nation and fired at Central America, was shot to by
two gunmen at a Bogota university heightening fears that the internal
"dirty war" is widening.

The media yesterday batted about two principal theories: that the rebels
wanted to silence an advocate of government toughness in peace talks, or
that the death squad were seeking to sow instability or torpedo the peace
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake