Terrified silence on front line of a drug-fuelled war

Colombia: In a town surrounded by coca plantations, few want to be seen to oppose the violence that has left 35,000 dead in the past decade
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The Independent US

Andres Segura is on his beat in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refinery town 200 miles north of Bogota, the capital of Colombia. To help him patrol outlying neighbourhoods, where rebels are fighting for dominance while evading right-wing death squads, the 22-year-old police lieutenant has three dozen men armed with assault rifles.

Andres Segura is on his beat in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refinery town 200 miles north of Bogota, the capital of Colombia. To help him patrol outlying neighbourhoods, where rebels are fighting for dominance while evading right-wing death squads, the 22-year-old police lieutenant has three dozen men armed with assault rifles.

Three tanks roll down the street behind the police as the men randomly pat down passers-by for weapons. "Snipers often take pot shots at us from the rooftops," said Lieutenant Segura. Gunmen may also lurk in back rooms behind walls scrawled with pro-guerrilla graffiti from both sides, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). From such houses they venture to town for supplies or scramble back into the woods and the coca plantations near by. Many demand weekly protection payments from shopkeepers.

There are an average of three violent deaths a day, contributing to the national rate of one murder every 15 minutes. Lt Segura said: "On my very first day here I watched a father take four bullets in his head. His little daughter came to cradle him in the street and all the neighbours came to stare at her crouching in blood like it was a circus. They are too frightened to feel. They don't want to be mistaken for sympathisers or informers. We have to fix that."

A big chunk of the $1.3bn (£902m) aid the United States President, Bill Clinton, approved for Colombia this week before his visit to Cartagena on Wednesday is earmarked for the police to fight the anti-drugs war at source. Colombia supplies most of the cocaine and heroin used in the US.

Proponents say that such backing will push through President Andres Pastrana's peace proposals by stopping the rebels "taxing" drug cultivators and enabling the government to broker an end to violence that has killed 35,000 in the past decade.

The waiving of human-rights conditions for the Colombian security forces, which the US Congress initially imposed on the aid bill, was criticised by activists. It is also feared that US military advisers will become mired in an unwinnable civil war that has convulsed the country for four decades.

But Sandy Berger, US national security adviser, discounted parallels with Vietnam. The US presence will be restricted to 500 soldiers and 300 contracted employees at any one time and must stop short of combat. The destruction of coca and poppy crops and seizures of coca base, cocaine and heroin will largely be left to the Colombians.

In Barrancabermeja, the police are not the only targets:civilians account for 90 per cent of murder victims. The town's two funeral parlours keep running out of coffins.

In remote rural areas police posts frequently get blown up with homemade bombs. The US-donated Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, intended to raid drug crops, could bolster the besieged police.

Last year Mr Pastrana granted the Farc a large tract of land to use as a haven and as a venue for peace talks. This angered the ELN, which started a sabotage and kidnapping campaign, bringing the insurgency into the cities, such as Cali. Both rebel groups use abductions to raise money and to conscript foot soldiers. With peace talks foundering, Mr Pastrana relented four months ago and promised a second no-go zone north of Bogota, on the far side of the strategic Magdalena river, for the ELN. No date has been set for the transfer.

Barrancabermeja, whose state refinery produces 70 per cent of Colombia's petrol, is just on the edge of the proposed ELN enclave. It is one-tenth the size of the Farc zone but is more densely populated. Gold, petrochemicals and coca plantations make it particularly rich booty, and the residents are resisting rebel rule.

Much of the area is under paramilitary control. The 7,000-strong militia, led by Carlos Castaña, consider themselves peace-keepers, and seek a role in negotiations.

Farc troops, who outnumber the less disciplined ELN, are reasserting claims to their former properties. The Colombian armed forces are distancing themselves from the excesses of the paramilitary squads, which recruit disaffected ELN troops and pay them a bonus for fingering former comrades.

Jaime Martinez Santa Maria, head of police in the area, said: "Any ideology is long lost. The revolution is dead and it's all economics. It's about who controls the black- market gasoline concession and all the cocaine."

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