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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Colombia creaks under Uribe crackdown
By Sue Branford
BBC, Saravena

Saravena, in Colombia
Soldiers and sandbags make Saravena feel like a town at war
"Our town has been destroyed," said local councillor Bernardo Jose Arguello Santos, as we drove through the broad, tree-lined avenues of the small town of Saravena, near Colombia's frontier with Venezuela.

"It used to be a prosperous market town, with a thriving local democracy. But just look at it now. Bombed out houses. Groups of soldiers armed with machine guns on every street corner.

"And worst of all is the fear. People dare not even complain, because they know there are informers everywhere," said Mr Arguello Santos.

Saravena, with a population of 45,000, is situated in the oil-rich province of Arauca. It used to be under the control of left-wing ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas and was the first place to be targeted by President Alvaro Uribe after he came to office in August 2002, promising to hit the guerrillas hard.

"The army took over our town on 22 September 2002," said Mr Arguello Santos.

"It was 0430 when they broke into my house. They took me prisoner, even though they didn't have a warrant. I was just one of 2,000 people arrested in a single day.

"I was held for 15 months, without being charged. And even today it's dangerous for me to be talking to you."

A few days after I left he was re-arrested, and is still being held.


Later that day I spoke to Isneldo Gonzalez, one of the few remaining members of the local human rights body, in a largely deserted building that used to house the town's neighbourhood organisations.

"The authorities round people up and then get informers from the right-wing paramilitary groups, wearing hoods, to identify guerrilla sympathisers," said Mr Gonzalez.

Is life better or worse under President Uribe? Find out what ordinary Colombians had to say.

"But a lot of people who are fingered aren't guerrilla sympathisers. The paramilitary groups want to get rid of community leaders, so they identify them. And if they can't get them arrested, they kill them. We had about 150 assassinations here last year."

Although many people were too scared to talk, there is evidence of widespread unhappiness with the government's policies.

Last October the inhabitants elected as their mayor a local politician who a few days earlier had been arrested and charged with 'rebellion' - the offence of collaborating with the guerrillas. The mayor, who is still under arrest, is attempting to govern from jail.

The army has a strong presence in the whole of Arauca, particularly around Cano Limon, the country's second largest oil field, operated by the US company Oxxy. The guerrillas used to bomb the pipeline, hitting it 170 times in 2002. Last year they only managed 30 attacks.

We are part of the global fight against terrorism and have to hit the guerrillas hard
Vice defence minister Andres Soto
Yet local people told me repeatedly that guerrillas, particularly from the larger Farc (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) group, were still active, something that I was able to confirm when the bus I was travelling in was stopped at a Farc road block.

In the capital Bogota, I asked vice defence minister Andres Soto if he thought that the government's security policies were working in Arauca, since so many people had told me that they felt far less secure than ever before in their lives.

'Fewer kidnappings'

"We faced a serious problem in Arauca, where the guerrillas were so strong," he said.

"Our priority had to be to establish security, before bringing development. And our policies are working. For the nation as a whole, the number of kidnappings has fallen by about a third over the last year.

Uribe addressing the European Parliament in February. Several MPs protested at his visit
Uribe was forced to defend his policies when he visited Europe
"The murder rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1986 and fewer people are being displaced by the internal conflict."

Yet not all analysts agree with the vice defence minister.

Sergio Jaramillo, a security expert who helped draw up the security policy and left the government towards the end of last year, is critical of some of the actions taken by the army.

"I, personally, think that these so-called capturas masivas are a serious mistake and certainly not something we recommended in the security strategy. You obviously make errors when you round up large numbers of people.

"As the guerrillas were active in the region for over 20 years, people had to have contact with them. That alone should not be grounds for arrest."

Yet Mr Jaramillo believes that good work is being done in Saravena.

"There is a group of good, committed young military officers in Saravena, who are trying to re-establish contact with the people," he said.

"And that's why these arrests are so harmful, for they destroy the work that the army is doing."

Views vary as to prospects for the future.

War on terror

"We reject the criticism that our strategy is too militarised," said Mr Soto.

"We are part of the global fight against terrorism and have to hit the guerrillas hard."

Javier Giraldo, a Catholic priest and long-time peace activist, sees it differently.

"The government believes that everyone who is not with them is against them. All Colombians are expected to help the 'good' army in the fight against the 'evil' insurgents. Many social movements don't want to make this choice and are being destroyed.

"President Uribe may succeed in pacifying the country but at an enormous cost to the country's long-term future."

Colombia jails top rebel leader
05 May 04  |  Americas
Blow to Uribe's re-election hopes
29 Apr 04  |  Americas
Uribe defends 'anti-terror' laws
10 Feb 04  |  Europe
Profile: Alvaro Uribe Velez
25 Oct 03  |  Americas
Colombia's most powerful rebels
19 Sep 03  |  Americas
Q&A: Colombia's civil conflict
06 May 03  |  Americas

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