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A Town's Nightmare Lingers

La Macarena was the capital of a guerrilla empire for three years. Colombia's troops have ousted the rebels, but residents' fears remain.


LA MACARENA, Colombia — This little town on the edge of Colombia's lush eastern prairies seems a place of secrets and unsettled accounts, a place just

waking up from a dream--or perhaps a nightmare.

For three years, it was the capital of a rebel empire, the epicenter of a huge chunk of land ceded to leftist guerrillas by the government for peace talks.

During that time, the gun-toting guerrillas reigned supreme here, dispensing justice, even building a prison camp nearby to hold hundreds of Colombian soldiers.

It was a place where the absurd became routine, where daily life turned into an all-too-real "Fear Factor" episode: What must I do today to survive?

Both the kidnap victims and the guerrilla warlords who once held them contributed money to build the handsome yellow church that dominates the town square. It is a house of God built by money from crime.

The local high school lost half its soccer team. The players were recruited along with other students to join the rebels, who were seeking new and improved guerrillas, ones with enough education to read and write.

The guerrillas acted as judge, jury and executioner in a town that lacked any other official authority. More than 140 locals once were rounded up and held in squalid pens. Their alleged crimes? They had stolen a rebel leader's prized hog, among other things. Killers openly boasted of their intent to murder those deemed guilty.

Now, four months after peace talks collapsed and the rebels fled, fear still fills the dirt streets and cinder-block saloons, and strange stories of the rebels' dystopia abound.

This is perhaps one of the best places in Colombia to see the warping influence that the grinding, 38-year-old guerrilla war has had on a people, and a place. It's the Wild West meets Alice in Wonderland, where the violent and the bizarre came together to produce a surreal world.

Here, the rebels were heroes who built roads, then later became tyrants who murdered townspeople. The government consisted of distant bureaucrats who abandoned the town, but later rescued it.

"We just got used to it," said a doctor in town, who, like most locals interviewed, did not want his name used. "Seeing a guerrilla was like seeing a police officer."

Surrounded by Rebels

La Macarena was one of five towns in a demilitarized zone about four times the size of Los Angeles County that was created in 1998 to spark peace talks with the rebels. The Colombian government pulled out all symbols of state authority--the army, police and prosecutors, leaving only civil officials such as mayors and town treasurers.

As it turns out, this dusty frontier town at first did well under the guerrillas. The town had always been a favorite of Jorge Briceno, the No. 2 commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Briceno, better known by the nom de guerre Mono Jojoy, built a permanent base just outside town after the zone was established. It had wooden barracks to hold 5,000 fighters, as well as computers and space for warehouses--even a statue of one of the group's founders.

It also would eventually be the place where hundreds of Colombian soldiers and police officers were held captive in miserable conditions until a prisoner exchange last year. They lived behind barbed wire, some in wooden huts, some chained to trees. Many suffered from malnutrition or malaria. The townspeople knew, but could do nothing--there was no government to call, no police to alert. Some of the soldiers are still in the hands of the FARC, now approaching five years in captivity.

Almost as soon as he arrived, Briceno set out to provide the one thing the town had always lacked: transportation routes. The FARC paid a contractor to build two dirt roads, one of them 60 miles long, to connect La Macarena to larger towns nearby.

Suddenly, a voyage that had taken as long as two weeks by river became a trip of a few days.

Town leaders acknowledged that the roads also benefited the FARC, improving their military mobility. But they credited the rebels with achieving what the government had long failed to do.

"During the detente, we benefited," said Father Ricardo Cantalapiedra, the town priest. "The government had left this town totally incommunicado."

"If it's good, it's good, no matter who's doing it," he said of the roads.

Cantalapiedra's church benefited as well from the presence of the guerrillas. The priest would often intervene on behalf of people seized by the FARC, which kidnaps hundreds of wealthy and middle-class Colombians each year. At least two of those families expressed their gratitude by making sizable donations.

It didn't stop there. Over the years, Cantalapiedra won the respect of several of the FARC's top leaders. Jojoy himself gave nearly $10,000 to help build the church, which by the standards of a Colombian frontier town is a veritable cathedral.

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