Tales of Colombia: A war weaves common thread of terror

A young guerrilla fulfills her dream of joining the insurgency; an ex-guerrilla switches sides to fight for a right-wing paramilitary squad; a coca grower finds himself caught between rival armed groups and the Colombian police; a boy is evicted from his childhood home and forced to live on the bloody streets of a commune; a mother agonizes over her 3-year-old son kidnapped at gunpoint from their home in an affluent Bogota neighborhood. Latin America's longest-running civil war unfolds through the lives of five people.

Rafael, 'the poet'

"Let me introduce myself, as no one knows who we are.
I am one of the displaced that came here from Cesar."

Young Rafael Redondo and his mother try to avoid staying outside in their city where almost 300 people have been murdered this year  

Sometimes the 11-year-old author of these lines, Rafael Redondo, awakens in the middle of the night and remembers gunfire. He is startled from sleep by memories of the day when a right-wing paramilitary squad stormed into his village in northern Colombia, killed two men and threatened to make the entire hamlet "disappear." Days later, on Christmas Eve 1996, Rafael, his parents and five brothers and sisters joined 14 other terrified families and fled the village for their lives.

When he wakes, Rafael discovers his nightmare is not over. Now resettled in a violent neighborhood in Colombia's oil center, Barrancabermeja, he still hears gunshots. A wave of murders has terrified his new hometown, leaving nearly 300 people dead so far this year.

"You can't stay out on the streets for long," Rafael said. "You never know when a shooting will break out and someone could fall over dead."

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Instead of escaping the violence, Rafael's family moved into the middle of a widening war being fought by leftist guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army for possession of one of the country's most valuable regions. The target: Barrancabermeja, the largest city in a strategic river valley rich in oil, gold and, most recently, coca, the shrub used to produce cocaine.

Rafael hides his fear well. The smiling boy is playful and quick to compose poems describing his daily life. When he talks about the violence, however, he begins dreaming of home.

"I liked it there, back when we were still not in the middle of the conflict."

Rafael's words are echoed by a growing number of Colombians who have been swept up in the country's civil war, now nearly 40 years old, a conflict that has claimed more than 35,000 lives in the past decade and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Young guerrillas drill at a FARC camp in Los Pozos. Teen-age guerrillas are becoming more common on the battlefields of Colombia.  

In October 1999, millions of people marched through cities across Colombia to demand an end to the bloodshed. Despite their pleas, the war continues unabated.

In recent weeks Colombia's largest guerrilla army, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, has launched a series of bloody attacks on police stations, killing dozens of officers. Kidnapping, one of the main sources of funding for guerrilla groups, is on pace to reach an all-time high.

Production of cocaine, which the government says provides guerrillas and paramilitaries hundreds of millions of dollars a year in profits, is booming. The number of families forcibly displaced is surging: Nearly 135,000 people were evicted from their homes by armed groups in the first half of this year, according to Codhes, a Colombian human rights organization.

The Colombian government, vowing to finally end the conflict, has launched "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion strategy to negotiate peace with guerrilla groups (luring them to the negotiating table by offering land) and to destroy Colombia's illegal drug industry, which is responsible for as much as 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a growing percentage of its heroin.

The spearhead of the campaign will come from a $1.3 billion gift from the United States -- an aid package heavy on military assistance that provides the Colombian army special training and helicopters to hunt down narco-traffickers and to destroy the coca and poppy fields that supply them.

The prime target of Plan Colombia is the thick jungle of southern Colombia, where as much as four-fifths of the nation's coca is grown. Caught in the crosshairs are campesinos, or peasants, such as Angel Guarnica.

Campesinos in the crosshairs

Angel Guarnica examines the remains of his crops after government planes sprayed the fields he tends to kill coca plants. The herbicide destroyed the plantains and pineapples, but the coca plants somehow survived.  

A chunk of rotting roots crumbles from Angel Guarnica's fingers. He tosses the desiccated remains aside and surveys a field overrun by weeds and grass.

"All this used to be plantains, yucca, pineapple," he grumbled. "Now it's all lost."

Guarnica has labored 14 years to help tend this farm outside of Puerto Caicedo, in Colombia's southern Putumayo department, caring for a crop of vegetables and a large field of coca. That ended in November 1999 when three crop-spraying planes flew over the farm, coating everything with a coca-killing herbicide.

The coca, ironically, is the only crop to have survived. Although the plants were destroyed, their seeds bore new stalks within months. The vegetables did not fare so well. All that remains of them are clumps of dried leaves and hollow stumps.

Guarnica now works to replant the farm, but he keeps one eye to the sky. If the planes come back, he said he would simply move somewhere else.

"How can you fight it?" he asked. "All I have is a machete and a shovel. If I see them come to fumigate, I'll just go to the village."

The spray planes, however, are not the only threat to Guarnica's livelihood. The fields around him have become a battleground between the FARC and paramilitary forces, each competing for control of the world's richest concentration of coca.

The guerrillas rule Puerto Caicedo, but paramilitaries have threatened to attack. In June a team of paramilitary commandos infiltrated the village and killed the owner of a drug store. Now the entire village dreads the day the paramilitaries will launch a full offensive.

Fearing the fighting, hundreds of farmers and peasants in Putumayo have fled their lands and moved into a school compound in the town of La Hormiga. Among them is Flor, who with her husband and five children abandoned their coca field in June when the FARC threatened to invade their village.

Flor has grown coca for the past 10 years. Despite high expectations, she never earned much money, she said. Spraying pesticides against coca-eating insects is expensive and the price of chemicals needed to process the coca into coca base is high, she said. What is more, exposure to the fumes of the chemicals has made her entire family sick.

"The only ones who make a lot of money from coca are the narco-traffickers," she said. "The only profit we get is illness."

The paramilitaries

"Eduard" (a nom de guerre) says he joined the paramilitary group AUC when he became worried that ELN, the leftist guerrilla group he once belonged to, might have him killed  

Outside Puerto Asis, the biggest town in Putumayo, a member of the feared AUC paramilitaries inspects his automatic weapon in the hot sun. Covered with green and black warpaint, "Eduard" (his nom de guerre) crawls through waist-high sawgrass, narrowing his eyes in search of a target. Along with 50 of his fellows, Eduard is sharpening his military skills in an exercise straight out of a special operations training manual.

Eduard used to fight on the other side. He spent nine years in Colombia's second-largest guerrilla force, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), before he was captured and sent to prison. Following his release three years later, jobless and separated from his wife, Eduard sought financial help from his former guerrilla comrades so he could support his young son.

When the ELN refused, Eduard began to fear for his life. He worried the ELN might rather have him killed. It was at this moment that Eduard approached the paramilitaries.

"At least here [in the paramilitaries] there is economic support. But in the guerrillas, ideologically they brainwash you and make you a social outcast," he said.

The paramilitaries, many of them organized in the early 1980s to defend landowners against guerrilla kidnappings, are now a force of between 5,000 and 7,000 troops, a significant number of them ex-guerrillas such as Eduard. In recent years they have spread from their power base of Cordoba and Uraba, in the north, and moved south, deeper into territory historically occupied by guerrillas -- an area home to people such as Daisy.

The guerrillas

"Daisy" (a nom de guerre) says she joined the FARC when she was 15 years old. According to a FARC commander, guerrillas are allowed to quit only in rare circumstances.  

Two hundred miles away, in the kitchen tent of a FARC camp, Eduard's enemy sits slicing green onions for lunchtime soup. The Kalashnikov rifle strapped to her back interferes with the young woman's work, so she unslings her weapon and rests it against the tent post.

"Daisy," as she calls herself, belongs to a security detail of the FARC stationed deep within a demilitarized zone the government ceded to the guerrillas to encourage peace talks. Her outfit runs checkpoints in and around Los Pozos, the tiny hamlet at the center of the zone where FARC commanders and government officials meet regularly to negotiate.

Daisy claims to be 20 years old, but she looks younger. She said she has fought with the FARC for five years. The daughter of Communist Party members, raised in a rural, mountainous area controlled by the FARC for nearly four decades, she never thought of doing anything else.

"This was all I knew," Daisy said. "Since a kid all I dreamed about was becoming a guerrillera."

Of her 14 siblings, three brothers have also taken up arms with the guerrillas, and she expects the others will also enlist in the FARC when they come of age.

She was with FARC for two years before she was able to return home to see her family. Even so, she was lucky. Many of her comrades can never return home; their parents live on the other side of the front line. Sneaking across military checkpoints is a risk few dare take.

Although it is Latin America's oldest surviving guerrilla army, the FARC now has a face that looks more and more like Daisy: young, and increasingly female. More than 30 percent of its soldiers are women, and many of the guards patrolling Los Pozos are no older than their late teens.

Marisol Suarez would like to know if these young guerrillas are holding her 3-year-old son.

The kidnapped

Three-year-old Andres Felipe Suarez was kidnapped in April from his home in Bogota. According to the Colombian human rights organization Pais Libre, the number of children kidnapped annually in the country has been increasing in recent years.  

On the morning of April 7, while Suarez was at work, armed men broke into her home in an affluent neighborhood in northern Bogota, tied up her sister, mother and father, and kidnapped her son, Andres Felipe.

"They took him away in our car, along with the babysitter. But two of them stayed in the house. After a while, my sister managed to untie herself. She ran out into the street and started screaming, so the men fled," Suarez said.

Someone called several days after the kidnapping to demand $4 million for the boy's release. Then, in early July, Colombia's attorney general, Alfonso Gomez Mendez, announced he had evidence that Andres Felipe was being held inside the FARC's demilitarized zone.

Confronted on national television by families of other kidnapping victims, the FARC's chief spokesman, Raul Reyes, promised to investigate. He has yet to divulge any information about the incident. To make matters worse, the kidnappers have cut off all contact with the family.

"Unfortunately, since April 7 we have had no proof that he is alive," Suarez said. "They wouldn't let us talk to him on the telephone unless we paid them 40 percent of the ransom, but we didn't have that kind of money. So, unfortunately, we have had no news of him."

Suarez said that if her son is returned, she will probably leave Colombia for good.

"It saddens me to leave the country, but unfortunately this is what we have to do, me and all my family. To begin a new life in another place."

She will not be alone. Two million Colombians have left the country in the past three years, with no intention of returning, according to Colombia's secret police, the DAS. Unless the war comes to a sudden end, and the struggling economy makes a surprising turnaround, many Colombians fear the exodus will only continue.

Come back to this section of our Colombia site for future reports by Steve Nettleton.

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