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COLUMN ONE

A Family Undone by War

The story of five Colombian brothers, pushed by tragedy down different paths, is a microcosm of the country's long conflict.

October 04, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

ARENAL, Colombia — The five Arias brothers grew up here in this land of sorghum and gold. They played soccer together on the town's dusty field. They made cards for their teachers in the four-room schoolhouse. They said their prayers in the whitewashed Catholic church.

Then, on a day burned in their minds like a brand, leftist guerrillas killed their father. The rebels tied Plutarco Arias to a tree and shot him twice in the chest and once in the head, punishment for what they called collaboration with the Colombian army.

Their father's execution on that day 16 years ago ended the Arias boys' childhood, tore the brothers apart and hurled their lives down different paths.

One joined the guerrillas. A second became a right-wing paramilitary fighter bent on vengeance. A third won election as president of the town council. A fourth began dealing drugs to escape the poverty that engulfed the family. And the fifth was bludgeoned by paramilitary fighters and buried alive.

The Arias story is Colombia's tragedy in microcosm, chronicling how a spasm of violence turned children into soldiers, pitted brother against brother and destroyed a family.

Amid nearly 40 years of internal conflict, tens of thousands of Colombians have grown up in a world saturated by violence. Like a family business, generation after generation inherits the work of killing. Each death produces a new crop of recruits, many of them young like the Arias brothers, who ranged in age from 6 to 16 when their father was killed.

About 11,000 children fight for Colombia's guerrilla or paramilitary groups -- one of the highest totals of child soldiers in the world, according to a recent a Human Rights Watch report.

The story of the Arias brothers -- William, Yubin, Herman, Jimmy and Elias -- also helps explain the savagery of the Colombian conflict, in which ideology has all but disappeared from the battlefield, replaced by motives such as profit, power and revenge.

The fighting flares in forgotten towns like Arenal, where guerrilla and paramilitary fighters clash over control of the lucrative drug crops that fund the war. The battles are small, brief and cruel, waged with AK-47s and homemade bombs, chainsaws and machetes.

Frequently, they are personal: The Arias brother who joined the paramilitary fighters once nearly assassinated his rebel brother. Now the two have deserted their respective groups and entered a government program that they hope will lead to new lives. They want to reunite one day with their brother the town council president.

"The only thing that violence brought us was more violence," said Elias Arias, now 22, the youngest of the brothers. "It ruined us."

Yubin Arias was 15 when he buried his father.

He remembers the day, May 6, 1987, clearly. A neighbor came to the family's palm-thatched hut and whispered to his mother. She collapsed on her knees on the dirt floor and began sobbing.

"Now I have no one," he remembers her crying. "Now I have no one."

At the time, guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, a rebel group known as the ELN for its initials in Spanish, freely wandered the towns around Arenal, a remote region of central Colombia known as Sur de Bolivar.

Plutarco Arias had been hauling lumber with his mules when an army officer commandeered the animals to transport supplies for his troops fighting guerrillas in the hills.

Soon after, the guerrillas captured Plutarco, tried him and sentenced him to death for cooperating with their enemies -- even though Plutarco insisted that the mules had been stolen from him. They left him dead by the road as an example to other villagers.

"This was no-man's land. The guerrillas killed whoever they wanted. They ruled here," said Merly Fonseca, the mayor of Arenal, whose brother was also killed by guerrillas for allegedly helping the military.

Upon learning of his father's death, Yubin and his mother borrowed a horse to retrieve the body, in a small town about four hours away.

There, villagers refused to help with the burial. In a country where people are afraid to do anything that will attract the attention of the men with guns, they thought that aiding the dead man's family would make them targets. The local mortician refused to sell Yubin and his mother a coffin.

In the end, Yubin moved his father by himself. He found one of his father's mules and tied the body behind it. The trip to the town cemetery stripped the skin from his father's back.

The boy and his mother dug a 3-foot-deep hole in the cemetery, then lined the sides with three boards they had scavenged. Because they could not find a cover for the makeshift coffin, they had to fling the dirt on Plutarco's face.

Yubin remembers muttering to himself over and over: "Damn the guerrillas. Damn this world."

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