People of Colombia caught in the cross-fire

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and E.A. Torriero of the Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 18, 2000

VEGALARGA, Colombia -- It was near dusk when more than 400 rebels, armed for invasion, arrived here in plain clothes.

Booms erupted from the edge of town, rimmed by mountains offering the illusion of safety. Mud-brick houses exploded as the rebels` crude mortars rained from the hills.

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.

"It was horrible," said Melva Perez, a 29-year resident, remembering the 14-hour rebel attack in July. She survived by hiding under a bed in a neighbor`s house outside of 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."

As the Colombian military prepares an onslaught against drugs, the rebels who control the illicit trade already are fighting back.

Convinced that a U.S. aid package of $1.3 billion is the start of an offensive against them, rebels this year have attacked several dozen isolated towns, leaving entire blocks in rubble and hundreds homeless.

The rebel strategy is intended to show Colombians that they are mightier than the police and army who have suffered embarrassing losses at their hands.

The rebels vow that if the government goes ahead with plans to fumigate the coca fields, federal forces will suffer even more 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 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.

They vow to target the 60 U.S.-leased helicopters expected to begin operating in the next few years.

And they promise swift retaliation against Colombian forces if they attack guerrillas defending coca fields and drug labs.

Colombian military and American intelligence reports say that thousands of guerrillas are training in the jungles of southern Colombia to repel the Colombian army and police.

At least 20,000 rebels -- who go by the Spanish acronym FARC -- are battle-ready throughout Colombia and are staging raids throughout the country.

At any price:

For much of the past 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 and other groups have transformed into the armed protectors of the lucrative drug trade, which supplies 80 percent of the world`s cocaine and a growing share of heroin.

Now the rebels are preparing to defend their business at any price.

Through routes from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union to Latin America, the rebels are shopping around for sophisticated weapons and are stockpiling huge caches capable of shooting down new $13 million U.S.-made choppers with a single blow.

Rebels promise 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 in an interview at headquarters in territory already under rebel control. "The characteristics of that conflict are not written anywhere."

So far, it seems, the strategy of the rebels is simply to produce terror and expand their influence. From land ceded to them by the government in late 1999, the guerrillas have staged attacks into mountainous, government-controlled towns.

Since June, seven of 12 villages just miles from the rebels` safe 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 television footage of the deadly raids, they are increasingly outraged. Residents -- mostly 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 newspaper clippings of the rebels` recent attacks.

Police have prepared a multi-video presentation complete with facts, figures, photos and stark footage of the rebel-created carnage.

Just this summer:

The wife and three children of a police agent in one town were killed in a raid.

In another hamlet, 14 policemen were killed in fighting.

In a third community, bone-weary policemen, their faces bloodied, described how they fended off rebels for nearly a day.

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, such as the one in Vegalarga, are riddled with bullets and shrapnel. In other towns, sandbags are stacked around police headquarters for protection.

Always on guard:

Police presence has been modestly beefed up in some areas.

In Vegalarga, there are two dozen officers, compared with fewer than a dozen before the July 12 rebel assault.

"We always have to be on guard," said an anxious young police commander as he stood outside Vegalarga`s bunkered police headquarters. "We hear shots through the night from the mountains. You always sleep with one eye open."

Police and the townspeople have an uneasy relationship 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 citizens.

"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 of the few hundred residents feel abandoned by Colombian leaders. Mostly, they harvest vegetables.

But in these highlands, many also grow opium poppy used to make heroin.

At least three dozen homes were destroyed and eight people were injured 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 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 in rubble because the rebels` aim was off and they missed the mark of the police station.

Sofia Gonzalez, 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 rubble of her house. "If I would have been in bed, they wouldn`t have found me."

Gonzalez cried for eight days until bitterness replaced her grief.

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.

Gonzalez, who has four adult children, makes from $1,000 to $5,000 annually, depending on the extent of the harvest. It would take four years of salary to rebuild her house.

"The war is being waged against the wrong people," said Gonzalez, who has no savings and is living with neighbors. The rebels, she said, "are hitting defenseless, unarmed civilians."

Rebel leaders say that terrorizing residents is not their aim. They blame the Colombian military for using townspeople 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."

After seeing the dismal performance of the army and police in recent months, though, residents can`t help but wonder how well Colombian forces will do against the rebels when they soon begin a major offensive 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 hardware to fight the rebels and drugs. They hope a federal offensive will force the rebels to the negotiating table.

But the guerrillas 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."

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at 407-420-5620 or by e-mail at pruz@orlandosentinel.com