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Colombia Must Declare War on Rebels, Official Says

Interview: Andean nation's main guerrilla group is out to destroy the state, adds Otto J. Reich, the U.S. point man on Latin America.

July 03, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The State Department's senior official for Latin America said Tuesday that the administration of Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe needs to move aggressively to "take the war to the guerrillas" who are trying to drive out the country's mayors and lower-court judges.

Otto J. Reich, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an interview that the new Colombian government will need to intensify military action against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels, who have adopted a "perverse strategy ... of trying to destroy the government from the lowest level up."

In recent days, the group, known by its Spanish initials as the FARC, has threatened to kill or kidnap Colombia's municipal judges and more than 1,000 mayors if they do not resign. Several dozen mayors have quit.

The offensive is a direct challenge to Uribe, who won a landslide victory in May after campaigning on a promise to increase military pressure on the FARC and the other main insurgent group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. Uribe, who takes office next month, has promised to sharply increase military spending and double the size of Colombia's professional army.

The Bush administration is backing Uribe's plans to intensify the battle and is asking Congress to increase U.S. aid to Colombia, which has totaled nearly $2 billion since 2000.

Reich said the FARC's goal is to kill "just enough to get the others to resign." If the mayors resign, "then they'll do the same with the governors," he said, "and who'll run the government?

He said the new rebel offensive demonstrates that Uribe is correct in his assessment that the rebel groups do not sincerely want to negotiate a peace with the government, despite 3 1/2 years of talks.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana broke off discussions with the FARC in February and with the ELN in late May.

Uribe, a former governor, has been criticized as a firebrand who could dangerously escalate Colombia's 38-year civil war.

But Reich, who flew to Bogota, Colombia's capital, five days after Uribe's election, said Bush administration officials believe that the new president is "not an extremist," but is "very level-headed."

"He's somebody who realizes his government is under attack, just like our country was under attack last Sept. 11, when we had to take very strong measures," Reich said.

He said the United States has tried to help Colombian authorities respond to the new rebel campaign by helping to strengthen security and protect local officials.

But "that's not the answer," Reich said. "The answer is to take the fight to guerrillas and isolate them."

Reich acknowledged that Colombia's eagerness to put up the blood and money necessary to fight the rebels has come into question. Only last month, a General Accounting Office report noted that many U.S. government officials expressed frustration that the Colombian military was not carrying out the anti-rebel effort more forcefully.

But Reich insisted that Uribe is committed to increasing Colombia's effort.

On another subject, Reich said the U.S. relationship with Mexico is "very good," despite Mexican President Vicente Fox's disappointment that he has not convinced U.S. officials to accept more of his proposals for a liberalized American migration policy.

Fox has urged Washington to grant more visas, legalize the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States and reduce the dangers involved in border crossings. His promises of such steps helped propel him to a landslide victory two years ago.

Reich said American and Mexican officials have cooperated closely on law enforcement, security and anti-narcotics efforts, among other areas.

"You have to take things in a historical perspective," he said. Only two decades ago, the working relationship between the countries was "just terrible. It was easier to work with the Eastern bloc countries ... than with Mexico."

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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