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Tipping the Scales in a War

Colombia is forming an army of citizen informers to help stem bloodshed. Peace and cash are the lures in the controversial program.

October 31, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

MARIANGOLA, Colombia — As in the past, the guerrillas blocked the road just after dawn outside this tiny way station at the foot of snowcapped peaks in northeastern Colombia.

They stopped all traffic, seized five commercial trucks carrying food and supplies and forced the drivers and passengers to head toward the rebels' redoubt in the mountains.

But this time, a livestock dealer saw the caravan pass by. He stopped, placed a call on a pay phone, and within 30 minutes, the Colombian military was on the scene. There was a brief gun battle, and the guerrillas fled, leaving behind the trucks, the supplies and the captives.

"I just want the violence put behind us," said the tipster, a 52-year-old man who travels the dusty back roads of this province to buy and sell goats, sheep and cattle. "I am tired of it."

Ordinary as the tip may sound, it represents a revolution here in Colombia, where the government and citizenry have long been indifferent to each other.

The bust was the latest success in Colombia's new and controversial program to encourage ordinary citizens to play a bigger role in ending this country's four-decade-long civil war. President Alvaro Uribe is trying to create a nationwide, million-member network of citizen informers as the centerpiece of his new plan to crack down on the leftist rebels fighting for control of the country and the outlawed, right-wing paramilitaries who are their sworn enemies.

But the network is not only an effort to quell the bloodshed that leaves nearly 4,000 dead each year, the majority of them civilians. It's also an experiment in governance, a countrywide Civics 101 lesson.

Perhaps Colombia's most fundamental problem is that there is no government in many parts of the country. About 10% of counties have no police force. Mayors and city council members have fled scores of communities under threat of death. The only law in huge chunks of rural Colombia is either the guerrillas or the paramilitaries.

The network, then, is an attempt to convince Colombians who have become apathetic in the face of government neglect to get involved in their country's future: You trust us and we'll respond.

"People have learned to live with pressure from the armed groups, to get along with them," said Army Lt. Martin Martinez, who participated in the operation this month against the guerrillas a few miles down the road from this tumbledown town of tin-roofed shacks and roadside snack stands. "If we manage to get rid of them, the people's trust will return."

Human rights groups and others, however, have denounced the program, saying it risks turning civilians into military targets and opens the door to anonymous accusations by neighbors who want merely to settle scores.

Several groups were horrified this summer when the government began distributing reward money on live television to hooded participants in the program. To many, it raised the specter of a Stalinist state. The practice has since been suspended.

"The army and police have their own intelligence networks. They need to strengthen those structures, rather than rely on ordinary people," said Mireya Mejia, the peace and conflict resolution advisor to the provincial government. "This network of [civilian] informants inserts the population into the conflict."

'Adding Fuel to Fire'

No one has been hurt so far, but such fears may not be unfounded. A local rebel commander claimed that the guerrillas had already infiltrated police ranks and were developing a list of those participating to be targeted for assassination.

The guerrillas, he said, had formed their own "network of informants in the network of informants."

"The moment that a citizen turns into an informant, they have stopped being a civilian," said Comandante Domingo, a leader in the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the second-largest Colombian guerrilla group. "They have become helpers of the army.

"Uribe's plan is only adding fuel to the fire," he said in a telephone interview arranged through an intermediary.

In concept, Uribe's plan is no more threatening than a Crime- stopper program in the United States. Citizens call in with a tip and are given rewards of up to $4,000, depending on the value of the information.

But there's a Colombian twist: Citizens who want to participate must first pass a background check, to make sure they have no guerrilla or criminal history. After passing, each gets a code to use during calls. Each province has a tip line. Callers can dial in and speak with a 911-type operator; the master list of codes and participants' names is closely guarded.

The day after he took office Aug. 7, Uribe inaugurated the network here in the province of Cesar, where two soaring mountain ranges hover over vast plains filled with cattle. Haunting plantations of African oil palms stretch for miles, the long, regular rows of towering trees creating forests of dark shadows and hidden places.

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