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National Agenda : A Culture of Violence : Murderous 'social cleansing' does not even spare children in Colombia.

March 08, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — The first time Calvo escaped death, he ducked to avoid bursts of machine gun fired by a passing motorist. The second time, shrapnel from a grenade hurled at him nicked his chest.

Death is nothing mysterious or distant for Calvo, who is 15, nor for millions of Colombians living in what may well be the most violent country in the Americas.

When Colombia's war with cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar ended last December, the most savage "narco-terrorism"--in which bombs wiped out entire shopping malls and downed jetliners--also ended. But the violence that is an inexorable part of Colombian culture and history only seems to worsen. And with elections approaching in March and May, many Colombians fear that murders and kidnapings will continue to soar.

In just a single week's time in January, the finance minister narrowly escaped an assassination attempt; two American missionaries were kidnaped, and 35 peasants sympathetic to a leftist political party were slaughtered in a regional power struggle.

Guerrillas continue to wage the longest war in South America, and the murders of street urchins by police, vigilantes and others in Colombia last year exceeded that of Brazil, which has nearly four times the population.

"What is happening in Colombia is that there are many forms of violence, all mixed up, crossed over and feeding on each other," political scientist Alejandro Reyes said. "Violence has metastasized, like a cancer, leaving its original organism and invading all of society."

It is into the category of slain street children that Calvo may one day fall. He belongs to one of the many gangs of children and teen-agers who roam Bogota's roughest downtown streets. They mug and pick pockets, turn tricks as prostitutes and consume drugs, primarily glue sniffed from plastic bags.

In response, vigilante death squads roam the same streets, picking off young thugs and other street people in a campaign of "social cleansing."

Police often form part of the death squads, according to human rights organizations, which estimate that one person is killed every two days through "social cleansing." The real number is believed to be higher because many of these deaths are not reported.

Calvo says he has survived two attempts to kill him by what he believes was a death squad. In both the machine gun and grenade attacks, a car passed the corner where many of the young gangsters hang out, slowed down and then opened fire.

"I threw myself on the ground," Calvo said, describing the attacks as he sucked on a glue-filled plastic bag.

A few feet away, two uniformed police officers gave chase to a girl who had apparently robbed a passer-by. One of the officers took off his helmet and began beating the girl as they ran.

The girl escaped, and, the chase over, the officers approached a reporter and launched into a vivid description of the street horrors they feel they confront every day.

"Seven muggings in the 10 minutes it took me to walk around the block!" one policeman complained. "The only thing you can do with these people . . ." He completed the sentence by slicing a finger across his neck.

"La limpieza social, " his partner said. "Social cleansing."

"These people . . . " the first officer began.

"Are a lost cause," his partner finished.

*

The vigilante killings by police, civilians and paramilitary hired guns, both in the cities and in the vast countryside, make up a large part of Colombia's murder and mayhem--but only a part. Violence is also traced to leftist guerrillas, to drug traffickers, to army anti-insurgency campaigns, to large landholders trying to get rid of peasants.

Moreover, in a country where the judicial system is perceived as weak and ineffective, the violent resolution of conflicts has become a way of life, experts say.

There is a certain historical continuum to Colombia's fratricide.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Colombia lived through a period known as "La Violencia," where its two dominant political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, battled over land and political power. More than 200,000 people were killed.

A power-sharing pact, imposed by the military, ended the fighting in 1958 but excluded the Left. Remnants of the warring factions continued to operate in the countryside, joined in the 1960s by disaffected leftists who formed guerrilla armies.

Wealthy ranchers and farmers responded by organizing paramilitary bands to fight the rebels and to protect their properties, often by eliminating peasants who may or may not have sympathized with the guerrillas. The violence swelled as cocaine traffickers entered the picture in the 1970s, reaching its most pitched savagery with drug lord Escobar's declaration of war on the Colombian state in 1989.

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