Rats' reward

RINCON and his men are bleary-eyed. They were part of a dawn raid on the unsuspecting village of Vallejuelos, northeast of Medellin, which now lies strangely silent below the cliff face where we chat. It seems the higher the altitude here, the greater the lawlessness. Here, left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries have been vying for control – until this morning’s battle when the Colombian army captured 86 guerrillas. ‘There’s a lot of duelling in poor neighbourhoods,’ says Rincon, a 28-year-old army captain. Guerrilla groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC) and the National Liberation Army – are involved. ‘They blackmail people: taking taxes to keep the peace.’

The guerrillas were once a revolutionary alliance of intellectuals and peasants calling for civil and political resistance to the right-wing government. After 40 years of conflict, their once-high ideals have sold out to drug trafficking and territory wars, as they pit themselves in battle against paramilitary drug lords and the army.

Since hard-line President Alvaro Uribe came to power in August with a pledge to crush guerrilla activity, the 40,000-strong FARC has stepped up its urban offensive. In Vallejuelos the army is flushing out a FARC splinter group known as the Armed Command of the People (CAP) but they’re heavily reliant on informers. ‘It’s hard to attack the guerrillas in their territory and we can’t do anything when they melt into the background,’ says Rincon. ‘We pay for information and people come forward because they’re fed up with the violence.’

Uribe plans to recruit a million-person informer network of ordinary Colombians acting as spies for the Government. Informants are shown on national television, balaclava-clad and collecting fistfuls of cash from government officials each Monday, advertised as a ‘day of rewards’.

But human-rights groups and non-government organizations (NGOs) have criticized the plans that they believe jeopardize civilian security and set Colombia on a war footing: pitting people against each other in ever-increasing fear and suspicion. A Medellin-based NGO has disturbing accounts of children being shot by stray bullets and carrying mini Uzi sub-machine guns in their satchels. They fear that adolescents already prey to street gangs and mafiosi will join the informer network for quick cash.

Is it a case of history repeating itself? As Mayor of Medellin, Uribe supported the convivir (living together) – a civilian security group with a mission to counter drug cartels – but they spiralled out of control and metamorphosed into a 10,000-strong paramilitary force with a policy of massacre and extortion. Recent reports from the zone of Tierralta indicate that these paramilitaries are forcing farmers to harvest coca for the illicit narcotics trade or to hand over a child to their troops. Farmers forced to grow coca will put themselves at risk from another direction: the aerial spraying of Colombian drug crops is a priority for the US, which has given over a billion dollars in the last two years specifically to eradicate cocaine production.

Back in Vallejuelos, this morning’s battle came as a shock for 17-year-old Maria. In Uribe’s new security network, it is she and other innocents who are likely to suffer the most. Her stepfather, a kingpin with the CAP, was killed two months ago. At first she feared that his enemies had arrived to finish off the family, and she is now worried that the army will lead the paramilitaries to them.

‘They say that if you kill the head, you have to kill the rest of the body. I can’t go to school or leave the house; we just have to find out who’s looking for us. I hope things will get better but, who knows, they might turn out worse.’

Jo Hill is a writer with Christian relief and development organization Tearfund.

New Internationalist issue 351 magazine cover This article is from the November 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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