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Violence Soars in Colombia Despite President's Initiatives

The crackdown on rebels and paramilitary fighters has only intensified the conflict.

May 20, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

SARAVENA, Colombia — President Alvaro Uribe's attempt to crack down on leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups by creating a special militarized zone in this war-torn region has failed, top human rights and government officials declared Monday.

Instead of reducing violence in the oil-rich province of Arauca, where Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum operates, the increased military presence has only intensified the conflict, the officials said.

Deaths and terrorist attacks have soared. Guerrillas as well as paramilitary groups continue to threaten public officials. Complaints of police and military abuse have flooded into the offices of rights groups.

On Monday, Colombia's inspector general and its top human rights official delivered a sharply critical report that declared Uribe's move a "failed experiment."

"It has not been sufficient to contain the violence in the region," Inspector General Edgardo Maya said.

A recent trip through Arauca largely supported that assessment, revealing a province racked by violence, despair and fear.

Mayors work under the watchful eye of armed bodyguards. U.S. special forces training Colombian soldiers to protect Oxy's oil never leave their base for fear of attack. Only one journalist continues to work in the area; the rest fled en masse after a series of death threats.

The massive military presence has turned the region into a virtual police state. Soldiers regularly stop pedestrians for pat-downs. Police conduct random searches in homes and stores without warrants. In November, police rounded up and detained more than 500 people for several hours in Saravena's stadium. About 40 eventually were charged with crimes.

"If they are trying to win over the civilian population, they are doing the opposite," said Jose Murillo, director of a local human rights group. "The ones who have suffered the most are civilians."

Arauca has long been one of the most violent provinces in Colombia. Two leftist rebel groups -- the FARC and the ELN, as they are known by their Spanish initials -- are locked in a battle with the Colombian military and the paramilitary groups, illegal private armies dedicated to wiping out the guerrillas.

Uribe declared the three northern counties of Arauca a special military "rehabilitation zone" in September, promising both military and social aid to overcome the guerrillas, who had turned the province into a stronghold.

The president nearly doubled the number of police, to 800, and sent in 1,200 of Colombia's most elite soldiers.

His declaration also gave the army the power to make arrests and conduct house searches without warrants. The Supreme Court declared the zone and those powers unconstitutional last month.

The augmented military presence yielded some improvements. Guerrillas have mounted fewer attacks against military bases and police stations. Several local people who were interviewed said they felt safer as a result of stepped-up patrols.

Attacks against the oil pipeline dropped to 11 during the zones' eight months of existence, compared with 44 during the same period a year earlier.

But the increased protection given to the pipeline and military bases seems to have simply changed guerrilla tactics. Now attacks on civilians are more frequent. And killings in counties of the province that were not part of the militarized area have soared as increased patrols in the north have pushed the fighting south.

For the province as a whole, violence rose to 449 attacks against military and civilian targets in the eight months of the zones' existence compared with 175 in the corresponding eight months a year earlier, according to military statistics.

Civilian killings increased almost 700%, from 21 to 166, many of them the result of a war between the paramilitary groups and the guerrillas in which each side has sought to rid the province of the other's sympathizers.

Meanwhile, the social aid never materialized. Despite being the largest source of oil in Colombia, the province has only a single completely paved road. Many rural communities remain without power, water or telephone service. There are no jobs to speak of, other than oil work.

"The only thing that has happened with the zone is an increase in the number of soldiers and police officers. We have had no social investment -- zero," said Jose Trinidad Sierra, Saravena's mayor.

Col. Santiago Herrera, in charge of the military base sheltering the U.S. troops, insisted that things have gotten better since Uribe flooded the region with troops.

He noted that the army sponsored a circus that drew more than 400 children to visit the base -- no easy task when any association with the military makes ordinary people into rebel targets.

"There has been an improvement in the security environment," he said. "We've now gone 17 days without a terrorist attack."

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