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Armed Civilian Groups Add Fuel to Ongoing Colombian Firefights

Violence: Government aims to counter insurgents by giving ordinary citizens guns. Critics say move only adds to chaos.


BOGOTA, Colombia — For four years, cattle rancher Felix Antonio Velez felt victimized and helpless.

He could do nothing when guerrillas kidnapped and murdered his 80-year-old mother. As they demanded ever-larger fees to "vaccinate" his two sons against the same fate, he could only pay the extortion money.

Velez was finally forced to abandon his land in Antioquia province, a battleground among guerrillas, the Colombian army and private armies.

Then he found a way to take action: He joined a Rural Security Cooperative--one of 414 civilian groups, known here as the Convivir, that the government has authorized and armed over the past 2 1/2 years to help fight the insurgents.

He told a human rights worker last summer that, for the first time, he saw a hope for returning to his ranch and protecting his family.

A month later, Velez was dead--killed by Marxist guerrillas.

The deaths of Velez and other Convivir members in recent months have provided a chilling indication that the warnings of those who opposed arming civilians are coming true.

"They are involving civilians in the conflict," said Robin Kirk of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "This has served to increase the violence."

Rather than being the decisive factor in stopping the fighting, as they were meant to be, the Convivir have further blurred the line between combatants and civilians in Colombia's 36-year civil war, opponents charge.

As a result, the organizations represent a threat to the people whom they purport to protect, human rights groups argue.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, this nation's oldest and largest guerrilla group, has declared Convivir members to be military targets and has killed at least four this year, according to radio communications intercepted by intelligence services.

Further, by handing out machine guns to private individuals with no training and by keeping their names secret, the government greatly increases the risk that other civilians will be abused by Convivir members, opponents claim.

"These are improvised soldiers who not only lack the training needed to confront the enemy but are also completely ignorant of the principles and rules imposed by international rights in order to humanize armed conflicts," said Prosecutor General Alfonso Gomez Mendez, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Convivir inside the government.

But military leaders and their supporters in Congress respond that they need civilian support to mount an effective fight against the guerrillas.

"None of us can fail to see that Colombia is losing this war," Rep. Pablo Victoria said. "Convivir is the best and cheapest way to defend citizens against guerrilla attacks."

Convivir leaders insist that they have a right to protect themselves and their families when the government has proved that it cannot.

"Do you actually think that the [civilians] who have been killed were not involved in the conflict?" asked Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri Mejia, referring to the high proportion of civilian deaths in the fighting.

In the coming weeks, Colombia's highest judicial panel, the Constitutional Court, will decide who is right.

The issues before the court are whether the government's responsibility for national defense and public order can be delegated to private groups and whether the existence of the Convivir violates Colombia's obligations under international human rights agreements.

Those narrow questions are being considered against the backdrop of the bloody history of Colombian private armies and the growing conviction--shared even by Echeverri--that neither side can win the civil war.

The Convivir--which means, literally, to live together--are not the Colombian government's first attempt to win civilian support for its fight against the insurgents.

In the early 1980s, armed civilians began an anti-kidnapping movement called MAS--the acronym for the Spanish words meaning "death to kidnappers"--to arm and protect themselves against abductions for ransom, one of the main sources of guerrilla income.

By the end of the decade, MAS units had become standing armies with such a record of brutality that the government outlawed them.

Rather than disperse, they became the illegal private armies, known as paramilitaries, that today control large areas of Colombia, chasing out any farmers who refuse to join their ranks and committing 62% of Colombia's political killings, according to international human rights organizations.

Opponents argue that the Convivir are the roots of another set of private armies. "The Convivir are the new legalization of the paramilitaries," charged Gustavo Gallon, a member of the Colombian Jurists Committee.

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