Archives>LATIN AMERICA> Colombian Rebels Step Up Attacks

Colombian Rebels Step Up Attacks
JUAN FORERO . NY Times . 4 march 2002

Colombian troops patrolled a dam near Bogotá, part of stepped-up security after new rebel attacks.
In Florencia, rebel attacks on electrical towers cut power and left restaurant patrons eating by candlelight.
Martha Catalina Daniels, a senator, was assassinated by rebels. Her body was found Sunday.

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 3 — Peace talks between the government and Marxist rebels collapsed just 11 days ago, and it took no time at all for Colombia to plunge into a new, ominous phase of the long-running conflict. Almost immediately after the talks ended, the rebels launched a coordinated series of attacks aimed at spreading misery across this vast country while demonstrating the government's inability to stop them.

In attacks that have raised concern in Washington and that analysts say may foreshadow what a wider war could look like, the guerrillas have bombed electrical towers, bridges and municipal waterworks while mining highways and stepping up roadblocks.

These kinds of attacks are not new in Colombia's 38-year-old conflict, but the rebels have dramatically stepped up the pace of the aggression and their selection of targets appears increasingly audacious. They have bombed two aqueducts, as well as the infrastructure at the reservoir that provides water to this sprawling capital, causing little damage but heightening alarm.

Since the talks ended, more than 110 municipalities in five of the country's 32 provinces, representing 10 percent of the country's urban centers, have been left in total darkness or forced to ration electricity because of rebel bombings. Meanwhile, the sabotage of transmission towers has cut phone service in 76 cities and towns across six provinces.

"We should be prepared for the possibility that we will suffer bigger terrorist strikes," President Andrés Pastrana told the nation in a televised address last week.

The rebel aggression began hours after Mr. Pastrana broke off negotiations with the rebels on Feb. 20, ending a three-year peace effort. It has prompted the government to declare a large region of south and central Colombia a war zone in which the army has new authority to bring order.

In six provinces, nearly one-third of the country, the military can impose curfews, regulate the hours of operations for businesses, register civilians and prohibit weapons and drinking. The government is also offering rewards of up to $430,000 for information leading to the arrest of rebel leaders.

The deteriorating situation is being closely watched in Washington, where some lawmakers and Pentagon officials are pushing for a lifting of restrictions to allow American counterinsurgency aid to this country's army. Among other things, that would allow the Colombians to use helicopters given to them by the United States to attack rebels. Right now, such helicopters and other American hardware are restricted to use in securing and destroying coca fields, the source of cocaine.

The Bush administration has decided, for now, to limit American involvement mostly to the war on drugs, which undercuts the rebels' main source of financing.

Many, if not most, American lawmakers have opposed counterinsurgency aid because of the Colombian army's poor human rights record, but the increasing aggression and brutality on the part of a rebel group that Washington considers a terrorist organization could sway lawmakers, some officials on Capitol Hill say.

"Some say it's not Al Qaeda, but these guys are trafficking up and down the Pacific coast," said a senior Republican Congressional aide who works on issues related to Colombia. "Those people who are following Colombia know that we have to make a change of policy."

So far, the Bush administration has agreed to provide some intelligence information to the Colombian government while smoothing the way to provide replacement parts for helicopters used in counterdrug operations. But analysts like Col. Joseph R. Nuñez, a professor at the United States Army War College who has written about this conflict, said those moves were not enough.

"You have these forces wreaking havoc and they're going to have to be addressed," Colonel Nuñez said. "If we wait too long, we're going to regret it."

The new wave of violence began after Mr. Pastrana, in a nationally televised address, angrily broke off talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia after four of its rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senior senator who had been on board.

The Colombian Air Force then began bombing a large region in southern Colombia that Mr. Pastrana had ceded to the rebels in 1998 as a venue for peace talks. Elite army forces soon entered as the rebel group, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, withdrew from the main urban areas into the jungle while offering little resistance.

But within hours after the army offensive began, rebel units in the remote south struck back, focusing on infrastructure in a strategy that appeared aimed at isolating and confounding Colombia's 40 million people.

"The idea is they are going to open various fronts to have a presence throughout the country," said an official from a humanitarian organization whose group has talked to the rebels. "I think they can paralyze much of the commerce and transit in the country."

Colombian Army intelligence has shown that the rebels are particularly intent on sowing misery among the middle and upper classes in the cities while avoiding large-scale confrontations with a more capable army.

"We have to hit with everything we have, so that everything falls: bridges, towers, the dam," a high-ranking guerrilla chief known as Romaña, said in a radio transmission intercepted by the military and published in Bogota's leading newspaper, El Tiempo. "We have to deliver an urban blow, so the oligarchy feels the war."

Outside this city of seven million, which has rarely felt much of a rebel presence, guerrillas last week blew up a bridge and skirmished with troops in three communities, one of them, Fomeque, just an hour's drive away.

"We were panicked, frightened that they would take the town," Javier Ríos, Fomeque's mayor, said on Friday, sitting in an office overlooking the charming mountain town where soldiers repelled the rebels. "To me, it looks like the rebels want to blockade the capital, then block the food supplies and the water."

The stepped-up violence is alarming because while negotiations were going on, the rebels are believed to have obtained sophisticated arms, added funds and recruited hundreds of fighters to a 17,000-member force.

"They really and truly are not afraid of war," said a Western diplomat who has talked to rebel commanders. "They expected there would be war. They feel they can benefit from war. They don't believe the army can significantly hurt them."

Former rebels interviewed this week said that within the organization, guerrilla leaders and subordinates spoke openly of how the group never intended for the peace process to end in an accord.

Rather, the plan had been to use the talks to stall, while strengthening forces until violence reached the point where the government would break off talks, the former rebels said. Then the rebel group would launch a wave of attacks against the nation's infrastructure, in yet another stage in the group's relentless effort to topple the government.

"The thinking has always been to take power," said Wilmer Gomez, 27, who deserted three months ago from a southern region where the rebels hold sway. "This is what you are seeing now, blowing up bridges, kidnapping high government functionaries, dynamiting towers, aqueducts, oil pipelines."

Another rebel, Luis Enrique Gaitan, who operated with a guerrilla unit outside Bogotá, said the final goal had always been "to go into the biggest cities and block roads so there is not commerce, nothing, so the government feels pressured."

Military officials said the army is prepared to protect vital infrastructure while driving the rebels out of their former safe haven, which is twice the size of New Jersey. And virtually all military analysts agree that the rebels are not strong enough to take power.

But the same analysts said the army, while having improved training and mobility, is not strong or large enough to protect all crucial targets or launch a knockout blow.

Already, the rebels have shown that their hit-and-run tactics are hard to stop. A senator, Martha Catalina Daniels, and two companions, were killed over the weekend, most likely by guerrillas, the police said today. On Feb. 23 the group kidnapped an internationally known presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, adding her to five congressmen already being held as hostages. The kidnapping shocked the country's politicians, particularly those vying for congressional seats in March 10 legislative elections.

"I had to suspend campaigning and instead send out my aides, who take videos that voters can see," said Senator Jaime Dussan, who is running for re-election. "I feel terror, because if they can pull you off an airplane, then they can get you anywhere."

The effect of the violence, though, has been hardest on residents of southern and eastern Colombia, where the rebels have mined roads, rigged abandoned buses with explosives and relentlessly attacked electrical towers and generators.

In some cities, the lack of road access has caused commerce to grind to a halt. Shops have been shuttered because there is no electricity and food supplies have dwindled, forcing the government to airlift provisions into at least one provincial capital, Florencia.

"Right now," said Álvaro Pacheco, the mayor of Florencia, "we all feel like we are hostages."