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'Rebel' Roundups Stir Controversy in Colombia

Security forces conduct dragnets in two recently set up zones. Rights activists fear abuses.

November 24, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

SINCELEJO, Colombia — Edwin Montes was hooking up telephone lines in this hilly cattle town when police officers swept through the poor neighborhood where he was working.

They rousted every young man in the barrio and demanded identification. But Montes, 23, had lost his identity card years ago and didn't want to pay the $15 replacement fee.

That's how Montes and two dozen other men wound up in a temporary pen in a parking lot outside the police station one hot morning last month.

"My wife and my child depend on my work for food," he said as he lolled against the metal barricade. "What am I going to do? The government isn't going to do anything for them."

Montes was caught in the middle of Colombia's newest effort against leftist rebels who have waged war against the government for nearly four decades.

In September, President Alvaro Uribe declared two regions of Colombia "rehabilitation zones," giving the police and military sweeping powers of arrest and detention in those areas.

One zone covers the northern half of Arauca province, where Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. operates a key oil pipeline that is a target for the rebels. The second covers parts of Sucre and Bolivar, two provinces in northern Colombia surrounding this regional capital.

Police and military officials can now stop and detain for up to 24 hours anyone not carrying state-issued identification. They can conduct searches and seizures without judicial warrants. And they have the right to restrict the entry of foreigners, including journalists.

Other parts of the country may be designated as rehabilitation zones in the future, after the government determines whether the new powers are effective in shutting down guerrilla operations. The government has implemented areas of increased military control before, but the zones mark the first time that such powers have been declared since peace talks with the guerrillas collapsed in February.

Human rights groups are concerned that the new controls will be abused, especially by the military. In the past, the Colombian army has been linked to human rights violations, including cooperation with right-wing paramilitary groups that commit massacres, although in recent years complaints have dropped dramatically.

"I'm in favor of the zone, but my worry is this: In the rush to show results, the military or police may commit excesses," said Rodrigo Torres, citizen ombudsman for Carmen de Bolivar, a dusty crossroads in Bolivar province recently shaken by a series of guerrilla bombings.

The sweeping powers also have concerned journalists, who worry that the government will be able to control coverage. The Los Angeles Times and other media groups filed a letter of protest over the restrictions. The office of the president responded by imposing further restrictions on the press, demanding that even Colombian-born workers for foreign media request special permission to travel to the zones.

Colombian military officials, however, say that protecting human rights and the rule of law is a top priority. They have vowed to use their special privileges only in extreme cases. So far, all arrests and searches performed since the zones took effect Sept. 21 have had judicial approval.

The most hard-hitting measure to date came late last month when the military prohibited all traffic on regional roads between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Rural roads are closed after 7 p.m.

"The idea is to make it harder for the criminal elements here to operate," said navy Capt. Alejandro Parra, the top military commander for the zone for Sucre and Bolivar. "For ordinary citizens, we want to maintain a normal life without disrupting economic or individual liberties."

A tour through the rehabilitation zone established in this hilly, hot country in north-central Colombia revealed both the dangers and benefits of the new policy, which by and large has been welcomed by residents. The Times had to obtain government permission for the tour.

About 24 counties with a total of about half a million people make up the rehabilitation zone in Sucre and Bolivar, mostly poor, forgotten places where residents cling to a precarious existence as small farmers or cattle ranchers.

Running through the middle of the counties are the hills and valleys of the Maria Mountains that have long sheltered rebels. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, operate here, as does a third leftist army that is smaller still.

Despite that, the region is far from being the center of Colombia's bloody internal conflict. Nearly three years ago, paramilitary fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an illegal right-wing army dedicated to defeating the guerrillas, began a vicious campaign against the rebels here.

The fighters committed massacre after massacre in the hills, killing as many as 36 people at a time, sometimes with rocks.

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