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Saturday, 4 May, 2002, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
Analysis: Colombia's security crisis
FARC rebels
The army plans to use marines against the FARC rebels
Following the killing of some 60 civilians in the western Colombian province of Choco, the BBC's Jeremy McDermott in Medellin examines the chances of achieving security in a country where rival rebel groups outgun government forces.

With at least 60 people dead and 93 wounded, the people of Bojaya are the latest victims of the escalating war between Marxist rebels and right wing paramilitaries, with the Colombian military relegated to the role of spectator, unable to protect the civilian population from the rampaging illegal armies.

The community of Bojaya, set in the humid jungles of Choco on the Pacific seaboard, lives daily with the civil conflict that has wracked Colombia for 38 years.

This remote province, which has never had much state presence, has long been fought over by the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the paramilitaries of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The prize is control of the River Atrato, which winds through the lush jungle and up to Panama and the Caribbean coast, and, more importantly, the traffic that passes up and down it: drugs, arms and contraband.

The paramilitaries have established a foothold in the town of Bojaya and it seems the FARC are determined to root them out.

Inaccurate weapons

The bomb that fell on the church was fired from a homemade guerrilla mortar - a device made of a cooking gas canister stuffed with a lethal explosive cocktail.

These bombs are notoriously inaccurate and it is still not clear whether the rebels were targeting another part of the town and misfired, or were deliberately intending to punish the townsfolk for having paramilitaries in their midst.

Colombian soldiers
The Colombian security forces are outgunned
But the inhabitants of the area and the Peoples Defender's Office said that this was just the latest atrocity in a series stretching back years, which the government and security forces have tried to ignore.

Choco is one of the poorest provinces in the country, and the majority of its population Black.

It therefore evokes little interest in the mercantile and political elite, predominantly white, that dominates the country.

This has made it a fertile recruiting ground for Marxist guerrillas and provoked the arrival of their sworn enemies the right wing death squads.

Mission impossible?

Prompted by public outrage, the security forces have put together a task force to go to Bojaya.

They plan to use marines, who will travel up by river, which will take several days, assuming that they can get past rebel control points along the waterway and break into the combat zone where hundreds of heavily armed adversaries flit in and out of the dense jungle they know intimately.

"It is not easy to move (into the area) because we don't know exactly what is happening," said the head of the police force, General Luis Ernesto Gilibert, after being questioned on the lack of security force activity.

But this struggle in Choco is only one stage where the guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries are fighting their war to the death.

Police outnumbered

In the last few days, the two illegal armies clashed around the town of Barbacoas, in the southern province of Narino, leaving at least 35 dead, 20 of them FARC rebels, 10 paramilitaries and some five civilians.

Here there was the presence of security forces in the bunkered police station in the town, but the heavily armed policemen have not ventured out of their fortifications, outgunned and outnumbered by the Marxist rebels, leaving the populace at the mercy of the outlaw armies.

The exposure of the civilian population in more than 40% of the country contrasts with the confident talk of the armed forces, which insist they are stronger than ever before, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars of US military aid.

Yet the proud boasts of the generals carry little weight in these remote communities, where the only law is that enforced at rifle point by the rebels or the paramilitaries.

See also:

03 May 02 | Americas
Dozens killed in Colombia attack
27 Feb 02 | Americas
Bush denies Colombia military aid
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