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Colombia Cursed by Bloody Heritage of Violence : From Political Strife to Drug Wars, Killing Continues to Plague Nation

March 05, 1987|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — There are some days, while the new dead are being counted, when Colombia can seem a nascent Lebanon.

A heritage of violence courses through the fabric of this nation of 28 million that will soon overtake Argentina as the most populous Spanish-speaking country in South America.

Violence and Colombia are synonyms. Last year there were more than 11,000 homicides in Colombia. That is about seven times the homicide rate in the United States.

"In no country in the world without a declared war do so many people die violently as in Colombia," a Bogota columnist has observed.

For the past five years, homicide has been the leading cause of death for Colombian males between the ages of 15 and 44 and the fourth-ranking cause of death for the entire population, according to the National Health Institute.

"The value of human life in Colombia drops every day; Colombians live in a situation of barbarity," Dr. Alfredo Vasquez, head of a Colombian human rights group, told researchers for Americas Watch, a human rights group based in the United States.

Violent Past

And these are the good times. The assassination of an opposition politician here in 1948 triggered an orgy of violence that passed into history as the "Bogotazo." There followed a savage struggle between rival political parties-- la violencia-- that claimed 200,000 lives from 1948 to 1953. In this hemisphere, in this century, only the Mexican Revolution was bloodier.

The killing and the lawlessness that it fuels are endemic and perplexing. Colombia is one of Latin America's longest-lived democracies. It has avoided the foreign debt woes of most of its neighbors and, particularly last year, has enjoyed enviable economic growth.

Colombia's bloodshed, which has bedeviled successive governments, is many sided and deep seated. People sometimes wonder when it all began--with a bloody conquest, some say, and generations of internecine warfare. Mostly, people wonder when it will end.

The government of first-year President Virgilio Barco is embarked on structural reforms that it hopes will eventually snap Colombia's skein of violence.

The elegant and aloof Barco has ended a political agreement called the National Front under which the dominant Liberal and Conservative parties, whose supporters waged la violencia, shared power. The government is all Liberal now. Barco believes that a more open political system with a real opposition will lure back dissidents who turned to violence in protest against the tidy Liberal-Conservative agreement.

$1-Billion for Development

Barco is also moving to reform the police, to expand the small armed forces and to overhaul the justice system and protect its magistrates.

For the long term, he promises a $1-billion development package over four years to eradicate the "absolute poverty" that is the wellspring of so much of Colombia's violence.

Barco's program is a long-shot response to the violence, which reaches from a poor man's Caribbean shack to an elegant apartment behind thick bars in Andean Bogota, where a young magazine editor mused about his country on a recent evening.

"It is sometimes hard to know if we are suffering a perpetual civil war or a simultaneous series of mini-civil wars," he said.

Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictional Col. Buendia, who lost three dozen wars, is a familiar figure to his countrymen.

The magazine editor, like everyone else in Bogota and other major Colombian cities, is worried about crime. The thief who leaps onto a bus clutching a bloody finger, the ring still attached, is part of Colombian folklore.

Overwhelmed police in Bogota say that crime increased 22% last year, but thousands of lesser crimes are never reported by a people who have lost confidence in their police and in the justice system. Police investigation is nil. More than 1.6 million criminal cases are backlogged before judges who have no defense against systematic intimidation, the stepchild of Colombian violence.

Fear of Drug Lords

The editor, though, has more to worry him than street crime. He is an outspoken journalist, and he fears attack by Colombia's cocaine traffickers. They kill with impunity.

Among everyday targets such as judges, policemen and government officials, the cocaine bosses also murdered three newspaper editors last year. A fourth journalist was one of 22 people killed by a madman in a Bogota restaurant. A fifth was murdered in Miami by her son, who also slaughtered his father and sister.

"Other Latin Americans are scared of violence-wedded Colombians, the traffickers particularly," said a foreign law enforcement official who lives a tenuous existence here. "Their only code seems to be: 'Kill everything.' "

In a fight between two Colombian drug families in New York, the winner killed his enemy and wife, their children, their maid and the family parrot.

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