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A Tool of War at Age 10

Irwin Orlando Ropero was used and discarded by guerrillas. His death illustrates the depths of brutality that mark the conflict in Colombia.

June 10, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

FORTUL, Colombia -- The last day in the short and humble life of Irwin Orlando Ropero began at dawn.

When he awoke on Maundy Thursday, after spending the night at his aunt's house, he ran home to his grandparents' house a block away. There, he washed his face, ate breakfast, and went out to play.

Four hours later, he was dead, used and discarded in a ruse by leftist guerrillas that shocked even hardened veterans of Colombia's long conflict.

"It was one of the worst brutalities that I have ever seen," said Gen. Santiago Herrera, the commander of the local military unit. "All norms of war have vanished here."

Irwin was a 10-year-old with a round face, close-cropped hair and almond eyes. He liked soccer and vallenato, Colombia's accordion-laced version of country music. He was his grandparents' helper, sent to live with them by his mother, who worked on a distant ranch. He was quiet, shy and dirt poor.

He was not the youngest child to die in Colombia's war. Nor was his death on April 17 big news: In a nation where 2,000 children die violently each year, many in armed conflict, his killing merited a 500-word story on Page 4 in the nation's paper of record.

Rather, his death was remarkable for a different reason. After 40 years of fighting, it was a symbol of how degraded Colombia's conflict has become.

Leftist rebels, squeezed by a Colombian military offensive backed by U.S. trainers, intelligence and equipment, have responded with a series of unconventional attacks over the last year intended to demonstrate their continuing strength.

Taxi drivers are turned into unwitting bombers, their cars loaded with explosives without their knowledge, then detonated. Crowds of people are raked with machine-gun fire. Bombs go off in shopping malls, private clubs and fast-food restaurants. A child is used as an instrument of death.

In turning ordinary people into both weapons and targets, the rebels have opened themselves to sharp criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups and even leftists sympathetic to the rebels' stated desire for a Colombia with a more equitable distribution of land and wealth.

"What is the military advantage in killing a kid? None," said Jose Murillo, director of a local human rights group.

Irwin lived in Fortul, a town of 7,000 set at the base of the Andes, which hover blue-black in the distance. It lies at the start of Colombia's vast and shimmering llanos, a verdant savanna of thick, green grass and thin, tall palms where rebels and soldiers have long battled for control.

His home was on the edge of town, in a neighborhood locals call "the slums." His mother had sent him to live with his ailing grandparents, to run errands and take care of them.

A Humble Family

Miguel Angel, 77, and Isabela Ropero, 75, live in a shack made of rough wood boards at the end of a loam road. The roof is palm thatch, the floor dirt. A small garden sits to one side. A hibiscus blooms with bright red flowers. A wild white rose fills the air with scent, sweet and heavy.

Inside, sun streams through cracks in the walls, dimly lighting the single room. A brown mattress without sheets lies in one corner, where Irwin would sleep with his grandmother. A radio hangs on the wall. It is the only appliance in sight.

Miguel is stooped and slight, his face cracked like the desert floor from a lifetime spent working as a ranch hand under the hot sun. His eyes are still lively, though, and his mind is clear. His wife, Isabela, shuffles uncertainly through the home. She wears flowered skirts and seems at times to not know what day it is or where she is.

When Irwin left his grandparents' house on that hot, clear morning, he said he was going back to his aunt's house to play with his cousins. It was Easter week, and school was out.

"Bye-bye," he called out as he ran off, clad in a red-and-black-checked shirt and black jeans. "I'll be back in a little while."

He ran across the dirt path and a crude bridge of boards over a sewage canal that drains into the tall, green grass of the pastures that surround the town.

There, outside the home of his aunt, Marina Ropero, he met up with his cousins and other neighborhood friends in the street that runs toward the middle of town. One of the children had a wooden top, and they took turns hurling it onto the hard-packed dirt.

At around 10 a.m., Marina, a no-nonsense woman who makes a living sewing clothes, sent her son to buy brown sugar from a store on the town square three blocks away. The boy asked Irwin to go with him.

"He was a very quiet child," Marina said of Irwin. "If you told him to do something, he would do it.''

Like so many small towns in Colombia, Fortul's central square is a monument to faded dreams, proof that progress has been slow in reaching the country's impoverished millions.

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