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COLOMBIA: Civilians Caught in Crossfire of Anti-Drug Operation

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jan 19 2006 (IPS) - An unprecedented military campaign to eradicate coca crops in a central Colombian national park has placed 2,500 families in the line of fire between counterinsurgency forces and leftist guerrillas.

The operation was launched by right-wing President Álvaro Uribe in response to one of the most resounding military defeats ever dealt to the government security forces by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group..

On Dec. 27, FARC rebels killed 29 soldiers in the municipality of Vista Hermosa, located 200 km south of Bogotá, just outside La Macarena National Park, a World Natural Heritage site.

Escorted by 1,500 police officers, over 900 farmers began moving into the 690,000-hectare nature preserve on Wednesday, after being hired by the government to pull up coca plants growing in the park by hand.

Coca leaf is used to manufacture cocaine, an illegal drug that is one of the FARC’s sources of income.

The army has deployed 6,000 troops, as well as 15 fighter helicopters and a plane to intercept communications, resources that form part of Plan Patriot, the second stage of Plan Colombia. Both of these anti-drug and counterinsurgency initiatives are financed and assisted by the United States.

Once the operation is completed, within an estimated four months, the government plans to “relocate” some 5,000 peasant families from the area, although officials have not specified how this will be carried out.

The government maintains that there are 4,600 hectares of coca plants growing inside La Macarena National Park, which it plans to have pulled up by hand. In addition, crop-dusting planes will be used to spray herbicide on another 12,000 hectares on the outskirts of the preserve.

Eleven United Nations observers will oversee the operation. Their mission will be to measure the coca areas cleared by the workers and to report to the Colombian government and international community on the progress of the operation, said Sandro Calvani, the representative in Colombia of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

According to press reports, there were armed battles in the area last week, and numerous settlements were abandoned by their inhabitants. It has also been reported that landmines proliferate in the area where the clearing operation began Wednesday.

In addition to the government security forces and leftist guerrilla groups, the decades-long conflict in Colombia also involves ultra-right-wing paramilitary organisations that claim to act in support of the government, and which also use drug trafficking as a means of financing.

After controversial negotiations with Uribe, the right-wing paramilitary groups – whom the UN identifies as responsible for 80 percent of the crimes against humanity and massacres committed in the Colombian civil war – have partially demobilised their members and turned over some of their weapons.

According to official sources, civilians hired by the government to rip up coca plants, always with the protection of police or army escorts, eradicated 32,000 hectares of the illegal crop in 2005.

The day after the Dec. 27 FARC attack in Vista Hermosa, Uribe also ordered “the capture of militia members in this entire area… because we have found that there is a vast urban militia aiding these terrorists,” as he consistently refers to the rebel group of peasant origins dating to 1964.

According to conservative estimates, there are roughly 46,000 FARC combatants throughout Colombia, who are aided in logistics by some 10,000 militia members. The FARC itself says it has the support of around two million Colombian civilians across the country.

At least two men and one woman, a mother of five, were reportedly killed by paramilitaries on Jan. 5 in the area around La Macarena National Park.

“It was claimed that they were guerrillas, militia members,” said a campesino (peasant farmer) from the region who would identify himself only as a member of the human rights commission of 32 Juntas de Acción Comunal (JACs, Community Action Councils) on the Güéjar River, which flows east from its source inside the park.

“But for us, the grassroots, they were leaders and members of a JAC, they belonged to workers’ guilds, a branch of the JACs legally recognised by the Interior Ministry,” the source told IPS.

An open letter to Uribe signed by the Human Rights Monitoring Committee of the region’s JACs and six other human rights organisations, calls for clarification of “the government forces’ interpretation of the category of ‘militia members’ and the necessary differentiation from the civilian population living in areas of armed conflict.”

With regard to the massacre earlier this month, the letter added that “the local residents were able to identify among the attackers members of government forces who have participated in the army patrols in the region.”

The letter further stressed that the killings took place five minutes away from a military guard post mounted by Plan Patriot troops, and that in the department (state) of Meta, which borders on the national park, there is a “generalised” belief that “the dividing line between the army and the paramilitaries is non-existent.”

Moreover, between 11 and 15 people taken into custody by the army, and subsequently released in Vista Hermosa under pressure from human rights groups, remain missing. They include an 11-year-old boy.

“Since the urban centre of Vista Hermosa is totally overrun with paramilitaries, we believe that they took them out of town and murdered them,” Jairo Ramírez, executive secretary of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights, told IPS. The Committee was one of the organisations that signed the letter, along with the José Alvear Restrepo Attorneys Collective and the Inter-Ecclesiastic Justice and Peace Commission, among others.

“The paramilitaries in Vista Hermosa are 50 metres from the military guard post. They live in a house that is owned by the regional authorities, and carry out their operations from there. There are around 30 or 40 paramilitaries under the command of Mr. Tino, a paramilitary leader based in Piñalito,” a neighbouring town, explained the anonymous peasant.

Military operations led to the displacement of 280 residents from the nearby village of Matambú and between 220 and 260 from neighbouring Puerto Toledo, “although we know that some have returned,” said Ramírez.

In December, missions made up by representatives of human rights groups simultaneously visited two different places in Colombia where Plan Patriot is being implemented: the department of Guaviare, on the northern fringe of the Amazon jungle, and the area bordering La Macarena.

In both areas, the mission members reported “the terrible impact that the military operation has had on the civilian population, ” according to the open letter.

Among the abuses documented by the missions were “murders, disappearances, torture, forced displacement, threats, theft, robbery, obstruction of food supplies, and the burning of food.”

They also reported “the burning of motor vehicles, lack of respect for the right to free movement, arbitrary arrests, and many other irregularities committed against the population” in the name of Plan Patriot and the government’s security policy, declared the signatories, who stressed that all of these abuses “remain unpunished and hidden from the country.”

They called on Uribe to define “whether the military confrontation he has declared is between the national army and the rebel forces or rather, between the national army and the unarmed general population.”

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