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Colombia Launches Informant Plan

Latin America: New president rushes to implement citizen watchdog program, which is expected to face a stern test from rebels.

August 09, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — A day after guerrillas attacked in the vicinity of his inauguration, President Alvaro Uribe responded Thursday by speeding up the rollout of a controversial program designed to turn 1 million people into government informants.

But there were worrisome signs that the Colombian leader's plan for using citizens to plug holes in the state intelligence network would face challenges from an increasingly sophisticated rebel force that is gaining expertise in urban warfare.

Showing the resolve that has often marked his political career, Uribe made no mention of the mortar barrage that fell on this capital Wednesday, killing 19 people and wounding 60.

Instead, he showed up as planned Thursday morning in Valledupar, a provincial capital, to inaugurate the citizen police program. He then made a surprise announcement that he would meet with Bogota's mayor to plan the enrollment of about 2,000 more members to help safeguard this city.

The exact nature of the citizen watchdog program, which Uribe calls Plan Meteor, remained unclear Thursday. Some of the watchdogs would provide "army support" or "police support" and, he suggested, could be armed. Others would simply be citizens who provide information to local authorities. All would be given money for their efforts.

Human rights groups have sharply criticized the plan, fearing that the informants would become targets for guerrilla attacks and that armed civilians could quickly spin out of control and form paramilitary groups, as they have in the past.

One Colombian analyst noted that similar problems arose with private armed groups in the 1940s and 1950s, contributing to a period called La Violencia, a bloody civil uprising in which about 200,000 people were killed. "Colombian history, it would seem, doesn't move in a progressive line but a vicious circle: We always return to our past mistakes, not to correct them but to perfect them," wrote Oscar Collazos, a leading columnist.

But Uribe dismissed such concerns while divulging few details about the program or its participants.

"We're not going to talk about problems," he told reporters. "We have to move forward."

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, leading a delegation that attended Uribe's inauguration, did not specifically address the citizen police groups. But he said Thursday that he had been impressed by Uribe's plan to convince Colombians that the guerrillas must be defeated.

Washington has held out the promise of more aid but has asked that Colombians first do more themselves, such as raising taxes to support more troops.

"What he's trying to do is get everybody in Colombia to recognize that they have a stake in beating these people," Zoellick said. The rebels "are murderers. They're undermining the economy."

But if Wednesday's attacks are any measure, Uribe's program will be difficult to implement as well as uncertain of success.

Authorities said that urban guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia launched mortar attacks from two sites Wednesday, apparently using technology gained from the Irish Republican Army.

Three alleged IRA members were captured last year upon leaving a rebel enclave in southern Colombia. They were charged with teaching explosive techniques to the rebels. The men deny the charge. The trial is scheduled this fall.

Both launch sites Wednesday were private homes in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods, places with no inclination toward the guerrillas' class struggle rhetoric. In both cases, the attacks apparently were planned for months without anyone noticing or caring what was going on.

The first round of mortar fire came about 11 a.m., launched from a home in wealthy northern Bogota. Neighbors told police that two women lived at the site. At least 11 shells were fired, apparently aimed at a military school. Two hit a golf course. The rest fell on homes and in streets, wounding 13.

The neighborhood from which the mortar shells were fired toward the presidential palace later in the day is firmly middle class. Three-story brick row houses stretch down a potholed street. Small restaurants and fix-it shops line a commercial district. Retirees, office workers and students hurry across the sidewalks.

The elderly man, woman and young man who lived in the home attracted little notice when they moved in about two months ago. They kept regular hours, parked their car in the garage and said little more than hello to other neighbors. Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus said the threesome had paid six months' rent in advance.

The only thing that attracted suspicion was that shortly after moving in, they replaced the apartment's curtains with dark ones that allowed no glimpse inside.

Neighbors occasionally heard tapping on the walls but thought nothing of it.

"I figured they were putting up paintings or something," said a next-door neighbor who did not want her name used for fear of reprisals. "They seemed normal."

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