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Team Hopes to Unravel Colombia Necklace Bomb

May 19, 2000|RUTH MORRIS and JUANITA DARLING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia — Investigators struggled Thursday to decipher the newest weapon in violence-plagued Colombia--a necklace bomb--as they tried to determine who was responsible for its debut Monday in a bungled extortion attempt that decapitated a woman.

Giving serious weight to denials of responsibility issued by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, this nation's oldest and largest guerrilla group, bomb experts were looking for clues that could reveal who designed the heinous weapon that claimed the life of Elvia Cortes, a 53-year-old dairy farmer.

They have determined that the tube of explosives clamped around Cortes' neck early Monday was an extremely sophisticated device with three detonation mechanisms: chemical, electrical and mechanical. That made it "almost impossible to deactivate," a government bomb expert said.

The masked intruders who fastened the bomb on Cortes had warned her family of that likelihood in a recorded message that demanded $7,500 before they would return and remove the necklace. The explosive detonated as soldiers, called to the scene by neighbors, sought to disarm it.

Cortes and an army bomb disposal expert were killed, and four other soldiers were wounded.

The only similar device that explosives experts here have seen was a belt bomb that was clamped around the waist of a bank manager a year ago during a bank robbery in Boyaca province, where Cortes also lived.

The belt was removed when the bank manager gave the robbers $55,000. That robbery is believed to have been committed by the FARC, investigators said.

Both bombs were circular and designed to explode if an electric current traveling around them was interrupted, the government bomb expert said. The belt bomb, however, lacked the additional chemical and mechanical triggers used in the weapon that killed Cortes and the soldier, said the expert, who requested anonymity.

Furious at Cortes' slaying, which he blamed on the FARC, President Andres Pastrana on Tuesday suspended a May 29 meeting of the government, the rebels and delegates from countries that are being asked to help finance Colombia's peace and anti-drug efforts.

Guerrilla leaders Thursday took the public relations offensive, scolding the government for being quick to blame them.

"We're asking the government to commit itself to . . . not make these unilateral decisions," FARC spokesman Raul Reyes said in a radio interview, referring to Pastrana's announcement.

Still, after the two killings, Colombians are increasingly questioning the paradox of negotiating peace with a rebel band that has become more blatant in its attacks on the civilian population. The FARC finances its 36-year-old fight with the government by kidnapping, extortion and "taxing" drug crops grown in areas under its control. Highway travelers are routinely stopped at guerrilla roadblocks and detained until their families pay ransom.

"The idea of procuring peace in the midst of war has led us to tolerate and almost legitimize the worst abuses," columnist Abdon Espinosa wrote in the respected newspaper El Tiempo. "Whether or not the FARC is responsible for the torture and death of Elvia Cortes, a re-framing of the peace process is called for."

The National Assn. of Industrialists called on Pastrana to suspend all talks with the FARC except those related to a cease-fire.

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Times staff writer Darling reported from San Salvador and special correspondent Morris from Bogota.

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