U.S. Aid To Colombia Prompts Guerrillas 

U.S. Aid To Colombia Prompts Guerrillas 
Posted by FoM on September 18, 2000 at 10:21:56 PT
By E.A. Torriero, Sun-Sentinel  
Source: Sun Sentinel
It was almost dusk when more than 400 rebels, armed for invasion, arrived here in plainclothes. Booms erupted from the mountains that pinch the edge of town and offer the illusion of safety. Mudbrick houses exploded as the rebels' crude mortars rained from the hills. Windows blew out.  Next came bursts from AK-47s followed by explosions of grenades tossed into the heart of the town. The town's few cops, surrounded and pinned in, fired back and hunkered down in the police station for a long night. 
Townsfolk scurried down the hill as bullets skipped at their feet.  "It was horrible," said Melva Perez, a 29-year resident, remembering the 14-hour-long rebel attack in July. She survived by hiding under a bed in a neighbor's house outside the town, which is only 20 miles from rebel-controlled territory.  "There were loud explosions throughout the night," she said. "The guerrillas hid themselves in people's homes and were shooting. It went on until the next morning. I thought they would never leave."  As the Colombian military prepares an onslaught against drugs, the rebels who control the illicit trade are fighting back. Convinced that a U.S. aid package of $1.3 billion is the start of an offensive against them, rebels have attacked several dozen isolated towns this year, leaving entire blocks in rubble and hundreds homeless.  The rebel strategy seems to be to show Colombians that they are mightier than the Colombian police and army, who have suffered embarrassing defeats at their hands. The rebels vow that if the government goes ahead with plans to fumigate the coca fields, federal forces will suffer stinging defeats.  At least 57 police officers have been killed in rebel attacks in recent months in this region of lawlessness. At least 560 officers and soldiers are being held hostage -- most in the rebel zone the size of Switzerland where the Colombian forces dare not set foot.  Overwhelmed police forces have abandoned police stations in several areas, leaving residents to defend themselves by begging the rebels to go easy on them.  And the rebels swear that their backlash is just the beginning. If, in the next few years, the U.S. delivers 60 helicopters as promised and Colombian forces attack rebel outposts defending drug labs, the guerrillas vow swift, bloody retaliation.  Colombian military and American intelligence reports say that thousands of guerrillas are training in the jungles of south Colombia to repel the Colombian army and police.  Battle Ready:  More than 17,000 rebels -- who go by the Spanish acronym FARC -- are battle ready and are staging raids throughout the country.  For much of the last 40 years, the leftist rebels with Marxist roots have caused upheaval in Colombia. In their early incarnation, their cause was an ideological desire to control Colombia. But in recent years, the FARC has transformed into the armed protectors of the drug trade, which supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine and much of the opium.  Now the rebels are preparing to defend their lucrative business at any price.  Through routes from the Middle East to South America, the rebels are shopping for sophisticated weapons and are stockpiling huge caches capable of shooting down a $13 million, U.S.-made chopper with a single blow.  Rebels vow to unleash far more potent attacks than they have in the past to repel the government offensive. "They will force us to show a new face," Andres Paris, a guerrilla commander, said at rebel headquarters in a territory they already control. So far, the revealed strategy of the rebels is simply to produce terror.  From land ceded to them by the government in late 1999, the guerrillas have staged attacks into mountainous, government-controlled towns.  Since June, quiet villages just miles from the rebels' haven have come under siege, sometimes for days. The guerrillas say they are aiming to roust the Colombian police and army from the towns. But innocent people are caught in the middle.  As Colombians watch TV footage of the deadly raids, they are growing increasingly outraged. Residents -- mostly poor peasants -- cannot comprehend why the rebels are using them for targets.  "Their aim is to kill innocent people and get public authority," said Rafael Cely Vega, the regional police commander whose squads are under almost daily siege. "What we don't understand is why they attack the civilian population."  A table in the conference room at the police headquarters in the central plateau city of Neiva, a regional capital, is decorated with grim newspaper clippings of the rebels' recent attacks. Police have prepared a video presentation with facts, figures, photos and stark footage of the rebel-created carnage.  Just This Summer:  In one town, the wife and two children of a police agent were killed in a raid. In another hamlet, 14 police officers were killed in fighting. In a third community, bone-weary officers, their faces bloodied, described how they fended off rebels for nearly a day. And outside a fourth enclave, rebels ambushed a bus thinking it was a military vehicle. Eight people were wounded and six killed -- most of them children.  In all, hundreds of victims were killed, wounded or left homeless. Police stations like the one here are riddled with bullets and shrapnel. In other towns, sandbags are stacked around police headquarters for protection.  Police presence has been modestly increased in some areas. Here, there are two dozen officers, compared to less than a dozen before the July 12 rebel assault. "We always have to be on guard," said an edgy young police commander as he stood outside the bunkered police headquarters here. "We hear shots through the night from the mountains. You always sleep with one eye open."  Police and the townspeople have an uneasy relationship with each other that is based on suspicion more than trust. In 1998, during fierce fighting between guerrillas and government forces, the town was in the hands of rebels for more than six months.  As part of a government-brokered peace plan, the rebels pulled out of Vegalarga and into nearby territory that stretches toward the Amazon jungle.  But rebel informers continue to live here, police say, and guerrillas sometimes walk boldly down the town's main street disguised as ordinary people.  "We know they are watching us," the police commander said.  Police officials admit they are overwhelmed by the surprise invasions that usually come just after sunset. When police try to respond with reinforcements, rebels blow up bridges so vehicles cannot reach the fighting. If police arrive by air, rebels are ready to ambush them as they jump off choppers.  "It is very difficult to move rapidly when they dynamite the roads," Cely said.  In this sleepy village of a few hundred people, a two-hour drive over pocked, dirt roads from Neiva, many residents feel abandoned by Colombian leaders.  At least a dozen homes were destroyed in the rebel attack in July. Guerrillas use homemade bombs -- gas cylinders filled with dynamite and other explosive materials -- that are set off from makeshift mortar launchers.  The bombs are potent but are not accurate. In the town's center, the police station is one of the few structures still standing. But a school and several houses nearby are rubble because they missed the mark of the police station.  Sofia González, a field hand, was picking crops when the rebels descended on the town. She returned the next morning to find her house in ruins.  "That's where I slept," she said, pointing to the remains of her house. "If I would have been in bed, they wouldn't have found me."  González cried for eight days until bitterness replaced her grief.  Civilians Suffer:  After the rebel onslaught, government officials toured the town and promised money for rebuilding. But not one peso of government relief has reached the region where it will take millions of dollars to rebuild churches, schools, and houses. Police have taken to rebuilding some destroyed police garrisons by hand and with makeshift tools and a patchwork of materials.  González, who has four adult children, makes from $1,000 to $5,000 annually depending on the harvest. It would take four years of salary to rebuild her house.  "The war is being waged against the wrong people," said Gonzáles, who has no savings and is living with neighbors. "They (the rebels) are hitting defenseless, unarmed civilians."  Rebel leaders say that terrorizing the populace is not their aim. They blame the Colombian military for using residents as shields to protect the police stations.  "We are sorry that civilians have to die in our mission," said Paris, the rebel leader. "But these are military targets we are going after."  But after seeing the dismal performance of the army and police in recent months, residents can't help but wonder how well Colombian forces will do against the rebels when they begin a major offensive some 200 miles to the south in the coca growing regions. Colombian officials promise that $1.3 billion in U.S. aid will provide a needed boost of military expertise and 60 new helicopters to fight the rebels and drugs. They hope a federal offensive will force the rebels to the negotiating table.  But the rebels do not seem in the mood for concession.  In the rebels' 40-year battle with the government, "They haven't been able to finish us off," Paris said. "We come back stronger. History will repeat itself."  E.A. Torriero can be reached at: etorriero sun-sentinel.comComplete Title: U.S. Aid To Colombia Prompts Guerrillas To Step Up War Efforts Colombia: The War on Drugs Series: Part 2 of 4 Published: September 18, 2000Source: Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (FL) Copyright: 2000 Sun-Sentinel Company Contact: letters Website: Forum: Loosening Cocaine's Grip on Colombia - Part 1 Articles - Colombia
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