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Rebels Push Colombia Toward Anarchy

War: Guerrillas have killed officials and ravaged property to try to force the government back to the negotiating table.

June 29, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia — News of his impending execution came to Mayor Nestor Leon Ramirez on a white sheet of paper.

A guerrilla commander handed the note to a farmer, who delivered it to Ramirez. It read: "For the good of your health, you must leave the city. If you do not, you will become a military target."

But Ramirez, leader of this bustling town, decided to ignore the message, which arrived this month.

Now, death shadows him like a dark halo. He sits at his desk and wonders: When will they come? And how?

"Today, I am able to work," Ramirez said. "I can't say what will happen tomorrow."

Since the collapse of peace talks in February, democracy itself has become the primary target in Colombia's 38-year-old guerrilla war. Attacks on the symbols of state are part of a new guerrilla strategy designed to plunge vast swaths of the country into anarchy.

Every mayor in the country--more than 1,000--has been ordered to resign by the rebels or face death. Scores have quit. Some have fled to govern from fortified army bases. One of Ramirez's colleagues was killed in a nearby town this month.

The guerrillas have also destroyed roads and bridges, crippling public transport. They have attacked power, telephone and television towers, halting media and communication transmissions.

The rebel attacks have served to showcase one of the most fundamental problems in this nation's increasingly barbaric war. More than 180 years after Colombia's founding, the government has yet to impose control over its sprawling territory.

It is Colombia's lawlessness that has allowed the guerrilla war to fester for four decades. It also fostered the explosion of the drug crops here that now provide most of the cocaine and much of the heroin available on U.S. streets.

Before the collapse of peace talks, the rebels had maintained an uneasy coexistence with local officials in areas they dominated. Now, they have decided to wage a campaign to prove the state's impotence, embarrassing the government in a bid to force a return to negotiations.

Colombia's guerrilla war pits the army and growing right-wing paramilitary forces against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and a second, smaller rebel army.

"We're in the beginning of a new phase," FARC organizer Juan Pablo said as he relaxed at a restaurant in a riverside town a few miles from San Vicente del Caguan, in the heart of the former rebel zone. "We're going to demonstrate that we're in the position to control certain areas and that we can push that control to an extreme."

The problem is especially serious in Colombia's southern plains, where the guerrillas have long held sway. A weeklong tour found a region abandoned and chaotic. City councils have resigned en masse. Dozens of towns now lack judges, prosecutors or local police officials. Commerce has been strangled.

National government officials resist the idea that the guerrillas are successfully ridding the area of civilian control. But interviews throughout the region--which never had a strong government presence--indicated that it has descended into chaos.

What little order exists is imposed by the heavy military and police presences in urban centers. Beyond is a no man's land where leftist rebels run tollbooths, patrol destroyed roads and impose their own brand of law.

The problem has become so serious that U.S. aid officials are considering suspending development programs in the region designed to wean locals from drug crop profits by building new infrastructure like roads, wells and dams.

Such a suspension, in turn, would imperil U.S. efforts to halve the amount of cocaine produced here by 2005--one of the chief goals of the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia, launched two years ago.

*

The cinder-block Town Hall in Puerto Rico is mostly empty these days.

The mayor is gone. He quit this month, reading his resignation aloud in the town square after receiving a death threat. The City Council fled too. There are no judges or prosecutors.

The bridges around town have been blown up. The power substation lies in rubble. The phone exchange is damaged. The roads are under the control of guerrillas. There has been no electricity, water or phone service for months. There isn't even a town ambulance.

In short, there is little to indicate that this woeful town in the heart of southern Colombia has any connection to the rest of the country.

"We are completely alone," said the police inspector, one of the few town officials left.

Towns such as Puerto Rico in these sparsely populated plains have long been under the influence of the FARC, a guerrilla army of 17,000 mostly poor rural peasants who are nominally Marxist.

The guerrillas' de facto domination of the region was recognized in 1998 when the Colombian government ceded a big chunk of the country to the rebels for peace talks. The demilitarized zone was to be the catalyst for a new and brighter future.

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