BOGOTA, Colombia — Right-wing private militias killed 14 people in the jungle town of La Hormiga on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to at least 39 in their 11-day offensive in the remote, cocaine-producing province of Putumayo, according to Roman Catholic Church officials.
"The murders are still going on," said Marta Lucia Perez, human rights officer for the archdiocese of Pasto in the neighboring province of Narino. The offensive, which began with 25 killings in the river-port town of Puerto Asis, appears to be an attempt to wrest control of the province from Marxist guerrillas by slaying suspected civilian supporters.
Private armies have successfully used that tactic in northern Colombia, taking over expanses of land. In interviews late last year, paramilitary leader Carlos Castano declared that his army of about 5,000 men would soon be making forays into three southern cocaine-producing provinces, including Putumayo.
International human rights groups accuse the Colombian army, which suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of guerrillas last year, of failing to protect civilians from the private militias.
Perez said 300 heavily armed men arrived in the Putumayo region Jan. 30. They carry a list of 200 suspected guerrilla sympathizers: local government officials, teachers and growers of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, she said. Those citizens are marked for execution.
"The armed groups are circulating with list in hand and committing all types of atrocities," according to a statement released late Wednesday by the Committee for the Reconciliation and Peace of Narino, a citizens group opposed to the mounting violence from guerrillas and right-wing private armies.
News of the killings in Putumayo has reached Narino through the peasants who are fleeing their province via the Putumayo River, the only viable means of transport in the jungle region.
"Telephone communication has been impossible," Msgr. Fabio Jesus Morales, bishop of Sibundoy, a town in Putumayo, told the Colombian radio news station Radio Net. Morales said the area has been heavily militarized since guerrillas destroyed a nearby mountaintop communications base in December. "Now, it is a higher level of violence than ever," Morales said.