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Punished for Helping the Rebels, They'd Be Dead if They Hadn't

In an Andean town, 250 residents have been jailed by troops retaking a zone after 40 years.

September 16, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

ALGECIRAS, Colombia — The transition from guerrilla to government control has not been easy for this town in southwestern Colombia. Just ask Dr. Alejandro Moreno, the head of the local medical clinic. He's been jailed twice for suspected "rebellion" and collaboration with leftist guerrillas, charges he denies.

The doctor is one of 250 residents of this town in mountainous Huila state taken into detention starting in 2002, when army troops of the government of President Alvaro Uribe began wresting control of this area. The zone had long been dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.

Most of those jailed were accused of giving aid and comfort to the FARC, which has been locked in a civil war with the Colombian government for four decades. Indeed, many youths in this town of 20,000, at the end of the remote Neiva River canyon and at the foot of the eastern ridge of the Andes, have joined the rebel ranks.

Moreno and the other residents who have been detained, most of them merchants, do not deny having dealt with guerrillas during the decades the town was largely left unprotected by the government. But they say they had no choice, that to resist selling clothes, vegetables, livestock or hardware to the guerrillas would have meant death at the hands of one the most ruthless FARC units, the Teofilo Forero battalion.

Thousands of Colombians have been caught in a similar bind. Human rights advocate David Martinez said at least 6,600 Colombians were detained "on political charges" over a three-year period ended August 2005, the majority on what he termed "groundless evidence."

The army says it has extraordinary arrest powers under state-of-emergency decrees signed by Uribe after he took office in 2002. Martinez said that a study by his group, the Human Rights Coordinating Organization in Bogota, showed that the majority of the arrests were "unconstitutional, or based on misapplied or out-of-date special powers."

Moreno to this day doesn't know why he was jailed, but suspects it was for providing medical services that he is ethically bound to provide to anyone in need.

"As a doctor, my Hippocratic oath compels me to give service to who needs it, no matter what their politics, religion or race," he said.

Arriving here fresh out of medical school in 1993, Moreno, now 39, attended to sick and wounded guerrillas who lived in the hills surrounding Algeciras an average of twice a month for nine years. The call would come when he was out in the country making rounds to one of the 64 poor, remote villages that, along with the town, constitute the Algeciras municipality. Invariably a couple of armed fighters would approach him and "request" he attend to rebels holed up in a nearby safe house. They were sometimes wounded, but more often suffering from malaria, yellow fever or leishmaniasis, common to the jungles near the town, about 185 miles southwest of Bogota.

In December 2002, Moreno was arrested and spent nine months in jail until his lawyers succeeded in having the charges dropped. The townspeople hadn't forgotten him: They named him director of the local hospital upon his release.

Although he had not made country rounds since his release, Moreno was arrested again in July, on charges of being a front for guerrilla assets, including five farms. He laughs about the charges, which were dismissed after he rallied support from friends and family here and in the United States -- but only after he spent two weeks in jail.

The issue of unlawful or abusive detentions by the Colombian army has been taken up in the United States by human rights groups and congressional critics of Plan Colombia, the billion-dollar U.S. aid package to fight drugs and terrorism. Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group in Washington said the Bush administration should make the aid conditional on better human rights practices by the Uribe government.

Col. Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla, who commands the 9th Army Brigade in control of the Algeciras area, said the bottom line was that the government had reclaimed control of an area that for 40 years was a "colony" of the FARC. All arrests are made in strictest observance of the law, he said.

"We do them only with an arrest order that is registered in advance and with photographs of the suspects as the result of investigation and intelligence," Lasprilla said in a telephone interview. "Other times, we arrest people [who are] in flagrant violation of the law, in the possession of arms and explosives, who then indicate others who are part of the FARC's organization."

Algeciras Mayor Samuel Vasquez said in a phone interview that security had improved in recent months with the increased presence of the army and that business, after fleeing the area when the army moved in, had picked up.

But bitterness remains among the merchants, truckers and taxi drivers who made up the majority of those detained. Among those recently released was Alvaro Rodriquez, owner of the Sandal restaurant.

"All it does is create fury, frustration and resistance against the state," Rodriquez said.

The rights-monitoring office run by the state of Huila reports that of the 250 people arrested in the Algeciras area since 2002, about 100 are still held on political or so-called rebellion charges.

Mercedes Santo of the state rights office said residents were reporting more troop-committed assaults and abuses, including rape and robbery. The attacks may be intended to frighten peasants into leaving the area to make it easier for the military to control the area. The town has already lost a significant number of residents.

Moreno believes that was the army's intent when it arrested him this year. But he says he is staying.

"Not everyone can abandon the place," he said. "Someone has to stay here and face up to the situation."

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