Colombian innocents sacrificed in drug war

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THERE were 200 of them, a small army, faces blackened, armed to the teeth and dressed in camouflage fatigues. Like the Colombian army's Special Forces, they wore Rambo-style headbands but the villagers of Puerto Alvira, in south-east Colombia, knew immediately they were not regular soldiers.

In a three-hour rampage, the gunmen pulled out a list, picked out a group of peasants and killed at least 21, shooting them in the back of the head, dumping some bodies into the Guaviare River, soaking others with petrol before setting fire to them. The body of one four-year-old girl was left in the village square, apparently as a warning to her family and the rest of the village.

As they drove off in a convoy of military-style lorries, the gunmen warned villagers to leave Puerto Alvira within a week or they would return. They immediately packed up and started pulling out.

The gunmen were members of one of Colombia's growing right-wing paramilitary groups, set up by wealthy landowners and businessmen and often backed by the state armed forces. They had apparently decided to teach a lesson to villagers accused of aiding the Marxist guerrillas who control much of the surrounding countryside.

Monday's massacre is one of dozens over the past year, and it reinforced the belief of many Colombians that the country is now in the throes of a civil war in which civilians - split between support for the guerrillas or the paramilitaries - are increasingly the victims. President Ernesto Samper, who can claim to control only a fraction of his country, prefers to call it a "dirty war".

It seems that the paramilitary group timed the latest massacre while the Colombian army was preoccupied with other matters. The head of the US Southern Command, General Charles Wilhelm, was visiting military bases in south-east Colombia at the time, to study progress in eradicating narcotics production and trafficking.

A recent report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, spoke of "widespread terror among the civilian population in the face of selected executions and massacres ... carried out by paramilitary groups". The paramilitaries massacred more than 3,300 people during the first nine months of last year, it said, while Marxist guerrillas killed 47 army soldiers and 166 civilians.

If the conflict started over ideology, it is now as much about money, and in the plains of south-east Colombia, money is about coca leaf, and ultimately cocaine.

The 12,000 Marxist fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and 5,000 guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) have increasingly been financing their operations through kidnap ransoms, "war taxes" - protection money - or deals with druglords to protect coca fields from a government eradication campaign.

When the armed forces made little headway against the guerrillas, the paramilitaries sprang up in the Eighties to protect landowners from extortion. They are now thought to number around 2,000. Few Colombians doubt they receive protection and often logistics support from the military.

The man believed to head the paramilitaries, a wealthy northern landowner, Carlos Castano, is described by US officials as a major narcotics trafficker. President Samper has put a pounds 500,000 price on his head.

Lima (AP) - Thirteen survivors were found yesterday by rescue workers searching dense jungles for a charter flight that crashed in northern Peru with 87 people aboard. The Boeing 737, chartered by Occidental Petroleum to fly workers to the Andoas oil field, crashed 625 miles north of Lima on Tuesday.