Colombians rise up against paramilitaries
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 18 08:54:28 MST 2002
Colombian Town Rises Up in Outrage
Politician's Slaying Sparks Revolt Against Paramilitary Influence
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 18, 2002; Page A01
CONCORDIA, Colombia -- This town on the banks of a vast tropical swamp
lost its mind one day this month.
In an act of collective rage following the assassination of a beloved
mayoral candidate, roughly 500 men and women ransacked government
offices, the headquarters of rival politicians and the state-run phone
company. The mob used sledgehammers to weaken walls, gasoline to burn
filing cabinets and furniture inside, and stones to batter away at the
bricks. Much of the work, carried out through the night of Nov. 7, was
done with bare hands.
The spontaneous uprising marked a new turn in Colombia's year-long
experiment with civil resistance as a way of opposing the various armed
groups engaged in its long civil war. It came as the new U.S.-backed
president, Alvaro Uribe, urges citizens to stand up to the two leftist
guerrilla groups and a privately funded paramilitary force that are
dominant in much of rural Colombia.
Uribe's idea has been to seek ordinary people's help in the effort to
strengthen the state's security presence -- the army and police instead
of irregular combatants from the left and the right -- in the loosely
governed countryside. The vacuum in government authority has been cited
as one of the main reasons the war, in which the Bush administration has
made a growing commitment on the side of the government, seems to endure
year after year with no end in sight.
Even before Uribe took office in August, civil resistance to armed
groups was blooming in Colombia's countryside. Early this year, a series
of village demonstrations began against the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia, or FARC, as the largest leftist insurgency is known. With
the small revolt here in Concordia, the protests have now extended to
violent resistance against the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,
or AUC, a paramilitary force that combats the guerrillas, often in
tandem with the official army.
The townspeople who went on a rampage here hold the AUC responsible for
killing Eugenio Escalante, 47, a favorite son whose body turned up soon
after he met with several paramilitary leaders who wanted him to get out
of next month's mayoral elections. The AUC has deep ties to Colombia's
political and financial establishment. The links are strong here, too,
and Escalante apparently was killed for campaigning on a promise to end
For at least two years, townspeople said, the sitting mayor and his
allies have given the paramilitary group a slice of the municipal
budget. In addition, they said, the municipal authorities have looked
the other way while the AUC carried out a brutal "cleansing" campaign
against drug users, drunks and presumed leftists. Finally, the
disgruntled town residents charged, the local authorities plotted with
AUC leaders to stay in power -- making Escalante's popular candidacy a
Only those buildings associated with the current municipal government
were sacked, leaving intact the small pink hospital and the school that
were financed by the central government. The entire municipal government
has since fled. Local paramilitary leaders have also stayed away.
"This was indignation," said a doctor here, bleary from drink,
sleeplessness and fright, who like all those interviewed during a recent
visit declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. "No one that night
was acting with a clear head. This was a murder that was planned, and
now it is going to be very difficult for this group to operate here with
any help from us."
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