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Rising violence precedes 'Plan Colombia'

Critics say the huge, U.S.-backed counterdrug effort will just add fuel to the fire in Colombia's fighting.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000

Fierce fighting between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries has forced thousands of residents to flee southern Colombia in recent weeks.

Some 400 people now are camped across the border in Ecuador, according to United Nations officials. Hundreds more cross the border each day, using routes through northern Ecuador to reach safer parts of Colombia.

Officials in Ecuador fear the trickle across the border could turn into a flood as Colombia's civil war intensifies.

The exodus comes only weeks before the United States and Colombia begin implementation of a controversial $7.5-billion plan to stamp out the drug trade in Colombia.

The sudden surge in violence has some analysts questioning the counterdrug offensive, dubbed "Plan Colombia." Rather than cure the problem, it may only make it worse, causing civilians to pay a heavy price.

But Colombian and U.S. officials are sticking to their guns. Plan Colombia isn't to blame for the current fighting, the Pentagon's top official for Colombia policy told the St. Petersburg Times last week.

"Far from being a failure of Plan Colombia, this is exactly why you need it," said Brian E. Sheridan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. He blamed the fighting on a battle for control over Colombia's most important region of coca cultivation.

"They are fighting over the heavy coca, the heaviest concentration of coca production in Colombia right now. They're fighting over money right now, that's all that's going on," he said.

Whoever is right, the situation is daily growing more dramatic.

Those fleeing are residents of the coca-growing department of Putumayo who, for more than a month, have endured an "armed strike" called by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's largest insurgent group.

Meanwhile, many of the 320,000 residents of Putumayo are trapped. Roadblocks have prevented the supply of food and other goods to the isolated department. In the town of Puerto Asis, shops have run out of many goods, including toilet paper and bottled water.

The FARC has burned cars and buses that defied the strike order. Power lines have been cut and gasoline supplies reduced to a trickle.

The FARC is using the strike to protest the buildup of illegal paramilitary groups in Putumayo, alleging that they enjoy close ties to the Colombian army. They are also demanding that the Colombian government call off its military offensive, which is backed by U.S. training and money.

In January, U.S.-trained Colombian counterdrug battalions will begin to make their push into Putumayo. They will be supported by as many as 33 UH-1 Huey helicopters, also supplied out of a $1.3-billion U.S. aid package approved by Congress this summer.

Analysts who monitor events in Colombia closely are concerned that the military push may only further fuel violence in the region. The impending arrival of U.S.-trained troops could have emboldened the paramilitary leaders to take the law into their own hands.

"My fear is that the paramilitaries are softening the area for the (military) push into southern Colombia," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy in Washington. "The paramilitaries may see themselves as the vanguard for this push."

The paramilitaries arrived in Putumayo 18 months ago from northwest Colombia. After a campaign of assassinations and threats, they now control several towns, imposing terror on the residents. Anyone suspected of aiding the guerrillas, with food or information, is quickly silenced.

What about the allegations of military collaboration? The Colombian government admits that this may have been the case in the past but insists it is acting to sever those ties. Several generals who allegedly supported paramilitary operations have been fired.

But in Putumayo that does not appear to be the case. Paramilitary gunmen openly walk the streets in Puerto Asis. They proudly identify themselves as former government soldiers. Some advertise their official allegiance, wearing Colombian army shirts -- with the insignia of anti-guerrilla battalions.

Although the army has sent in reinforcements to Puerto Asis, it has not tried to regain control of rural roads. Colombian and U.S. officials say Plan Colombia will change all that.

"Putumayo is a poster child for why you need Plan Colombia," Sheridan said. "The FARC and the paramilitaries are running roughshod all over the Putumayo right now, killing each other, blockading roads, holding villages hostage . . . and the military and police are nowhere to be found."

But Colombian military strategists, and by association, their U.S. paymasters, run the risk of alienating local citizens. The average peasant farmer has little sympathy for the FARC. But they are equally scornful of the Colombian military's passivity toward the paramilitaries.

The refugee crossings also have alarmed officials in Ecuador. Church and civic leaders in Lago Agrio, the nearest town to the border, have issued an "open letter" calling upon the international community "to unite with us against Plan Colombia."

At talks in Washington next week, Ecuador says it plans to ask the United States for additional logistical support to bolster its border security.

Meanwhile, residents in Putumayo are deeply pessimistic.

Despite an airlift of 300 tons of food, they complain the government has not done enough. In Puerto Asis, the mayor says the town is on the point of major social unrest. He is asking the government to negotiate directly with the rebels.

"The government has abandoned Putumayo," said Mayor Manuel Alzate. He doubts Plan Colombia will make much difference. "The government would have to station its troops every 50 yards along the highways, and they lack the manpower to do that. And even if they did, the rebels could creep up and kill them."

- Material from Times wires was used in this story.

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