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COLOMBIA: Uribe Launches Controversial Network of Informers

Yadira Ferrer

BOGOTA, Aug 9 2002 (IPS) - Colombia’s new leader, President Alvaro Uribe, wasted no time in beginning to set up a network of one million civilian informers, who are to support the army and the police by reporting on the activity of leftist rebels.

Uribe inaugurated the first network of 600 informants Thursday in the northern department of César, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as the right-wing paramilitary militias, are active.

The volunteers, who were equipped with radios, will operate along highways in the conflict-torn region.

The unarmed citizen patrols will work alongside “police and the military, who of course are trained and equipped with uniforms and the means of defence,” said Uribe in the ceremony in which the network was launched, in Valledupar, the provincial capital of César.

The network forms part of the hard-line Uribe’s Citizen Security Plan, an initiative aimed at supporting the armed forces in their fight against leftist insurgents.

But Uribe’s plans to recruit one million citizen informants are the focus of criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, which warn that this will draw the civilian population even deeper into the four-decade armed conflict.

Uribe, who took office Wednesday, called on Colombians to collaborate with the police and armed forces in order “to restore security in the country.” He also said the members of his government are prepared to die if necessary in compliance with the mandate given to them by voters: to “recuperate peace.”

Political analysts said the ceremony in Valledupar and another held in the southeastern city of Florencia, where Uribe initiated an educational reform project, indicated that the new president was already beginning to make good on his campaign pledge to take a strong-arm approach to the guerrillas.

The president condemned Wednesday’s mortar attack in Bogota, which the police say was carried out by the 17,000-strong FARC, and lamented the deaths of civilians.

He also gave his assurances that he would not tolerate abuses against civilians by the security forces.

But human rights groups in Colombia and abroad blame the paramilitaries for the lion’s share of massacres of civilians and other human rights violations.

The paramilitary militias, which were set up as private armies by large landowners, with the support of the armed forces, in the 1980s, were outlawed in 1989 due to their human rights abuses and alleged ties to drug traffickers. But their continued links with members of the military have been well-documented.

However, Wednesday’s attack on the capital, in which 60 were injured and 20 killed, including three children, was blamed on the FARC. The shelling occurred during the ceremony in which the outgoing Andrés Pastrana handed the presidential sash over to Uribe.

Homemade mortars hit part of the presidential palace, a nearby slum, and a middle-class home.

Former presidential security adviser Alfredo Rangel told IPS that the shelling, presumibly by the FARC, during the inaugural ceremony was a clear response that the guerrillas are not willing to accept Uribe’s condition that they previously declare a ceasefire if they want to restart peace talks.

Rangel said the FARC insists that a ceasefire must be negotiated as part of a broader agenda of issues, including “an overhauling of the current economic model and an end to the spraying of illicit (drug) crops” like coca.

The insurgents are also demanding a revision of Plan Colombia, Pastrana’s U.S.-financed anti-drug plan, which Uribe will continue to implement.

Defence Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, the first woman to hold that post in this South American country of 42 million, stated Thursday that weapons should only be in the hands of the state security forces.

Ramírez stressed the need for “transparent” cooperation by society as a whole, based on the provisions outlined in the constitution, in order for citizens to inform authorities of plans for any act of violence.

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