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Reclaiming rural Colombia

In oil-rich towns where armed rebels reigned, Colombia's military fights back.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2003


SARAVENA, Colombia -- The mayor's welcome sign at the entrance to this bomb-scarred town reads like a prayer: "Welcome to Saravena where we all hope to die of old age."

Dubbed "Sara-bomba," or "Sarajevo" by locals, Saravena is one of Colombia's hottest war zones, where government troops battle drug-financed rebel groups.

A snapshot of the town tells the story.

Stores and homes lie abandoned for five blocks around the main square, many in ruins, as a result of rebel mortar fire in the last year.

For four decades of civil war, this town of 48,000 in Colombia's sweltering, oil-rich eastern plains was run by armed rebels of the National Liberation Army, ELN, according to military officials.

Now, the Colombian government is seeking to break the rebels' grip on the 350,000 inhabitants of Arauca province, a war-torn region the size of New Hampshire that borders Venezuela.

In a stepping up of U.S. aid, 70 elite U.S. Special Forces are also training Colombian troops in Saravena as part of a $91-million program to protect a 450-mile-long oil pipeline that passes just south of the town.

The U.S.-backed push into Arauca is a test case for a new hearts-and-minds strategy by President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in August on a platform of "democratic security." In a marked departure from his predecessors, Uribe is taking the war to the enemy in its rural strongholds.

Political and military analysts agree that reversing the state's historical neglect of large swathes of rural Colombia is key to solving the country's long-running conflict.

By restoring state control and public confidence in lawless areas such as Arauca, the government hopes to root out clandestine rebel civilian support networks. At the same time, officials want to cut off illegal armed groups from their lucrative financial ties to the drug trade, as well as extortion of local municipal governments.

"The new administration in Bogota is intent on reshaping Colombian reality," said retired Army Col. John A. Cope, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. "President Uribe is determined to confront the political and psychological challenge to the Colombian state's ability to govern and control territory."

But critics of the Arauca campaign say it has only increased violence, in the questionable cause of oil.

"Militarization has brought more violence than security," according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America, a private, U.S.-based policy watchdog.

Last year 79 people were slain in Saravena, all but three from bullets or explosives, according to official figures. After a brief lull from November through January, killings leapt again, with 22 shot dead in February alone.

The report also warned that the "United States, by betting on Colombian oil, has stepped into the heart of the war." Occidental Petroleum, a California company, owns the drilling rights to the oil fields.

After decades of ignoring rural areas, the Colombian government faces a credibility problem. Over the years an alphabet soup of irregular armed groups stepped into the vacuum.

The region hosts about 1,000 armed ELN fighters, and 2,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest rebel force. A smaller but growing number of paramilitaries belonging to the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, are also pushing into the area, competing for control of the drug trade.

In recent years Arauca has witnessed a dramatic increase in the cultivation of illegal coca crops, used to process cocaine, up from only 2,416 acres in the late 1990s, to between 12,000 to 44,500 acres, according to latest official estimates.

Saravena is a wild west frontier town settled by criminals from other parts of the country. Its growth took off after the discovery of oil in the late 1970s. Oil brought new wealth, but also attracted the ELN, a group of armed left-wing revolutionaries looking to finance their goal of overthrowing the government.

With historic roots in eastern Colombia and founded by radical priests, the ELN ideologically shunned the drug trade for years. Instead, it financed its social agenda through legitimate business fronts, such as cattle farming, as well as taxing, and kidnapping, local businessmen and farmers.

The Cano-Limon pipeline became a windfall for the ELN. While it was being built in the early 1980s, the German construction company Mannesmann reportely paid about $3.5-million to the ELN for the release of four kidnapped engineers.

The ELN also used its influence to siphon off oil royalties set aside for the province, worth about $35-million annually. The government estimates that over the past 16 years, as much as $100-million in royalties has passed into rebel hands. But lately some ELN units have also resorted to drug trafficking, officials say.

In the past five years, FARC units more deeply involved in the drug trade muscled their way into Arauca. The FARC operates training camps across the border in Venezuela, where it buys many of its guns and explosives in exchange for cocaine, according to Colombian intelligence reports.

"The failure of the state to provide social services made it very easy for the guerrillas to put down roots," said the Rev. Saulo Carreno, the Roman Catholic priest at Saravena's main church on the town square.

In the absence of state protection, local authorities found themselves obliged to cooperate with ELN commanders and their civilian militia, including negotiation of public works, such as construction of local roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. For a project to go ahead unobstructed, contractors were first expected to pay a 7 percent rebel tax known as "vaccination," according to local officials.

But Carreno said public tolerance of the rebels wore thin after attacks last year that destroyed the town center and the airport.

Carreno said he and other town leaders met with guerrilla commanders from the FARC and ELN to demand an end to mortar attacks.

"I told them the people were talking openly against the guerrillas," he said.

Hoping to capitalize on that mood, Uribe visited Saravena barely one month after taking office. His visit followed an especially ugly attack Sept. 13 by rebels using homemade mortars -- converted 100-pound gas cylinders packed with explosives, nails, broken glass and human excrement -- hidden inside an ice cream truck.

Aimed at the police station, none of the cylinder bombs hit their target, instead killing six civilians and wounding 31 others.

As a first step the government declared three municipalities in Arauca province -- Saravena, Arauca and Arauquita -- a special "rehabilitation and consolidation zone," giving authorities special search and arrest powers. The government also placed oil royalties under central government control.

Extra troops and police arrived. Saravena's hopelessly outgunned police force went from 30 to 200 men, although it still has no vehicles, even motorbikes.

Troop reinforcements from the local armored battalion in Saravena now patrol the streets on 175cc Yamaha dirt bikes and military trucks.

Other military units conduct psychological operations around town, including visits by army clowns to schools, cleaning up public places and "visual decontamination" of rebel graffiti spray-painted all over town.

Once a week Saravena's military base opens its doors to schoolchildren in a program dubbed Soldiers for a Day. The children get to ride tanks and take a dip in the officers' swimming pool, the only one in town.

"We decided to concentrate on the children because it's the fastest way to reach their parents," said the military base commander, Col. Santiago Herrera, who keeps a cupboard full of Big Tex Jelly Beans, candy straws and Luv Pops in his office.

Herrera said he suspected many of the parents were guerrilla collaborators, making them hard to approach directly.

Special prosecutors fly in periodically, working closely with military intelligence, to investigate accusations of guerrilla activity in the town.

Cash rewards of about $200 are offered to townspeople for information leading to the arrest of rebels or civilian militia. As a result, military officials say some 106 informants, all granted anonymity and confidential aliases, have come forward.

Their information led in November to the arrest of 43 people, accused of being rebel militia members, including local hospital workers and labor union members, now jailed on charges of "rebellion and terrorism."

Other military actions have led to important breakthroughs. In late December antiguerrilla troops captured Olimpo "El Indio" Rojas, a key commander in the FARC's 10th Front. He was found with bookkeeping records that revealed shipments of tons of cocaine to Venezuela during the previous eight months.

Officials add that rebel attacks on the pipeline have fallen from a record 170 incidents in 2001 to 49 last year.

But critics say the government rehabilitation of Arauca has focused too much on security, ignoring the town's social needs. The new restriction on oil royalties has dried up funding for local projects.

"All they have done is brought more war and violence," said Jorge Prieto, head of a local health workers union where pictures of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara adorn the walls. Prieto and others complain the military is conducting a witch-hunt against local unions and social activists.

"They smell guerrillas everywhere," he said.

His 25-year-old son, Nelson Prieto, a hospital administrator, was one of the 43 people arrested in in November. The older Prieto denied that his son, or any of the 43 detainees, was involved in illegal activity. They remain in two maximum-security prisons.

Military officials confirm they keep a close eye on Prieto and his union, suspecting it of being a guerrilla front.

Officials say they are pleased with the progress.

"Before, Saravena was a ghost town," said Sergio Jaramillo, a senior adviser to the Colombian Ministry of Defense. "It's not exactly a thriving metropolis today, but now you see people in the streets and sitting down outside shops."

Townspeople recognize there has been some improvement.

"Yes, there has a been a gradual change, but it's been minimal," said Mario Luna, head of the Chamber of Commerce.

Residents complain most of the military resources are devoted to protecting the pipeline.

"It's us, the civilians, who are under attack," said pawn shop owner Victor Gutierrez, whose Saravena storefront was blown out by a rebel mortar attack on the police station last year. "Here we live without authority, without law, without justice."

Local mayors face constant death threats from guerrillas and paramilitaries alike. The royalty cutoff has placed them in a tough position.

"Public works are a problem," said Arauca Mayor Jorge Cedeno.

"It's not easy being mayor," he added, describing how suspected rebels stole 550 head of cattle and 100 horses from his family ranch in November.

In response to increased military patrols and the arrest and prosecution of rebel collaborators and drug traffickers, the rebels increasingly use terrorist tactics to maintain their hold over inhabitants. In addition, paramilitaries opposed to the rebels have visited the town, killing 14 people in the space of 10 days in February.

When two reporters spent a week in the towns of Saravena and the provincial capital of Arauca last month, incidents were reported daily, involving mostly nighttime shootings and explosions.

Suspected guerrillas blew up the cellular phone tower in the middle of a commercial district of Saravena one night, cutting a vital communications link.

The FARC and the AUC have declared war on local journalists, killing two in recent weeks.

Last month a 600-pound truck bomb exploded next to a refreshment stand outside Arauca killing one person and injuring six. Authorities foiled another plot, to blow up the main bridge over the muddy Arauca river with a 3,000-pound bomb hidden in a gasoline tanker.

While local residents appear ready to abandon the guerrillas, they remain deeply suspicious of the government.

Last week prosecutors showed up at Saravena hospital under military escort to interrogate the administrator regarding alleged ties between staff and the rebels. Six hospital staff, including Prieto and two senior nurses, were arrested Nov. 12.

"Of course it creates ill will," said Argemiro Bustacara, the hospital's head of legal affairs and human resources. "Imagine, in what country in the world do investigators enter a hospital with armed soldiers."

The hospital inevitably treated victims of the conflict, he explained. He recalled an incident involving an injured guerrilla who was treated for gunshot wounds. After doctors operated to save her life, armed men broke into the recovery ward, carried her off in her bedsheets and executed her in the street.

Like others in the town, hospital staff complained of lack of financial support from the government. The 88-bed hospital could barely afford to pay its staff of 23 doctors and 100 nurses.

Colombian officials say economic assistance will arrive in good time.

They add that extra pipeline protection will save revenue lost to spills and interrupted production, nearly $500-million in 2001, because of guerrilla attacks.

"You first have to have security, otherwise the rest won't work," said Jaramillo, the defense ministry adviser. "Saravena is a tough nut to crack, and we are only at the beginning of this."

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