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Violent Colombia: Toll Rises Amid Drug Wars, Rebel Massacres

September 09, 1988|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — The perennial violence of Colombia has taken some deadly new twists this year.

Colombian drug-trafficking gangs, long known for their lethal treatment of outside enemies, now appear to be embroiled in a bloody vendetta among themselves. Colombian leftist guerrillas, at war for decades with the government and its security forces, recently turned heavy fire on rural townspeople. And while killing after killing punctuates Colombia's current history, the latest chapter has been marked by a rash of brutal death-squad massacres with dozens of victims.

"In general, the crest of violence on all levels has grown," Reinaldo Gary, a presidential adviser, said in a recent interview.

Rise in Homicides

With 33 million people, Colombia has the second-largest population in South America and the highest homicide rate. A recently published study on violent deaths in Colombia showed that homicides tripled to 52.8 per 100,000 in 1987 from 16.8 per 100,000 people in 1975.

"This probably continues to increase in the current year," said Rodrigo Losada, a social scientist who helped direct the study. Confirming what is obvious to many Colombians, Losada said the rise in killings is linked mainly to increases in guerrilla activity and drug trafficking.

Colombia's most violent cocaine traffickers are based in its second-largest city, Medellin, where the homicide rate is double the national rate. Medellin also is the main recruiting and training ground for squads of hired assassins, known as sicarios , who do much of the killing there and elsewhere around the country.

In the past, drug traffickers have been accused of hiring sicarios to kill numerous government officials, including Supreme Court justices and Cabinet ministers, as well as other Colombians who defy them or get in their way.

'Busiest Guy Is Coroner'

"The busiest guy on Monday morning in Medellin is the coroner," a diplomatic observer said.

In recent months, sicarios have been busy in a war between two cocaine cartels, one with headquarters in Medellin and the other in the city of Cali, about 200 miles to the south.

The war has escalated since January, when a powerful car bomb ravaged an apartment building owned by Pablo Escobar Gaviria, the Medellin cartel's top leader. Authorities say that more than 80 people, mostly sicarios themselves, have died in the feud.

In July, five men shot to death near Medellin were identified as former members of the Colombian army who had gone to work for the Cali cartel.

Cousin of Kingpin Arrested

"Members of the Cali cartel executed for attacking Medellin personnel," said a blue card left near the bodies. Army agents investigating the slayings later arrested Jose Luis Gaviria Rivero, a cousin of Escobar Gaviria.

Gen. Jaime Ruiz Barrera, commander of the army brigade in Medellin, has told reporters that the war started late last year when the Medellin cartel began trying to move in on the Cali cartel's New York cocaine market.

"The goal, as I analyze it, is to seek the supremacy of one cartel over the other to take the profits from that big market in New York," Ruiz Barrera said.

While fighting each other, drug traffickers have also taken deadly aim at leftist guerrillas and their suspected supporters in some areas of Colombia.

Easter Massacre

Last Easter, 36 people were killed when gunmen with automatic weapons opened fire on a gathering of leftists at the village of Mejor Esquina in the northwestern department of Cordoba (Colombia is divided into 23 departments, or administrative districts). Police investigators later blamed the massacre on sicarios hired by two drug traffickers who were also local landowners.

As more and more drug traffickers have invested in land, they have shown an increasing interest in fighting guerrillas and other leftists.

"Some drug traffickers have elected themselves as colonels in the fight against communism," said Gary, the presidential adviser. "They have used sicarios against sectors of the population and leaders of the opposition and the left."

What began with selective assassinations of leftist activists, he said, has become "a new stage of indiscriminate retaliation against population groups--that is, from assassination to massacre."

No Clear Links

But other massacres in recent months have no clear links to drug traffickers:

-- On Feb. 21, a leftist guerrilla group entered the village of Pinalito in the central department of Meta and singled out 14 peasant farmers by name, then shot them dead.

-- On March 4, near the northwestern town of Currulao on the Gulf of Uraba, unknown gunmen executed 22 workers from two banana plantations that had been troubled by leftist-led labor strife. A report by police investigators linked landowners and some military men to the crime.

-- On June 14 and 15, death squads in the rural township of San Rafael carried away 11 leftist miners and six peasant farmers. Parts from some of their bodies, hacked by machetes, were found later.

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