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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 12:59 GMT
Colombia's war without end
Colombian troops protect schoolchildren
The government is trying to provide a semblance of normality
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By Peter Greste
BBC correspondent in Bogota

If you're sitting anywhere outside Colombia - anywhere, in fact, outside regions under rebel control, the chances are you would see the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) the same way the Colombian Government does:

As cocaine-trafficking terrorists, as a blood-thirsty band of insurgents who use kidnapping, extortion, and murder to raise money and power.

To travel through FARC territory is to get a glimpse of why this is the most powerful rebel force anywhere in the Americas

Sitting inside an army Black Hawk helicopter flying low and fast over rebel-controlled territory, its easy to see it that way as well.

We skimmed over the mountains at tree-top level, machine-gunners on either side of the helicopter nervously fingering their weapons as they scanned the ground for rebel activity.

The destination: San Vicente del Caguan. In the army's eyes, the town has been newly liberated.

Click here to see a map of the former FARC safe haven

Squads of heavily armed and camouflaged counter-insurgency troops had just arrived and were mounting patrols through the streets that have, for the past three and a half years, been under FARC control.

Major victory

It seemed all very impressive. The troops had only just arrived to seize the town which had been the centre of the so-called demilitarised zone.

Colombian troops
The army has raided a number of rebel targets

It was also the FARC headquarters. And having the army back in such numbers barely two days after the government declared an end to the zone was, it seemed, a major victory.

Not quite.

The troops are only on the streets during daylight. At night they retreat into barracks. The roads to San Vicente are all under guerrilla control. The only relatively safe way to travel there is by helicopter. And the FARC has cut all electricity and phone lines.

All this begs the question: how can a discredited band grow to a well-trained and well equipped army of 16,000?

How can it keep a modern and sophisticated national force at bay for more than three decades if it doesn't somehow have a significant core of support?

FARC rebel
The FARC remain a considerable force

As unpalatable as it is to the Colombian Government, the answer is that it does.

I am not suggesting that the FARC is universally loved. It is not. In fact even in the countryside where it claims to represent the people, most despise them.

I am not hinting for a second that the rebels' tactics of executing civilians suspected of collaborating with the "enemy" is in any way justified.

Or that they can be excused for enriching themselves on the drug trade, or for holding some 2000 hostages. They cannot.

Insidious support

But to travel through FARC territory and to talk to the front-line fighters is to get a glimpse of why this is the most powerful rebel force anywhere in the Americas.

Take the heavily pregnant woman we found picking her way through the remains of an abandoned FARC training camp. She's a coca grower who unsurprisingly didn't want to be named.

Airborne troops
Airborne troops are a key part of the government's arsenal

The government, she told us, has never done anything for the people scratching a living out of the jungle. There were no schools for her children, no paved roads, nothing approaching health care or unemployment insurance.

The guerrillas, on the other hand, helped clear the land, sealed highways, and maintained some semblance of law and order. And they allowed her to grow coca.

Wiping away the sweat dribbling into her eyes, she insisted she only wanted to keep her family alive - that there simply was no other viable alternative crop other than the one that eventually winds up on US and European streets as cocaine.

Remember this is not a narco-trafficker dripping with the wealth from a filthy trade, but a desperately poor illiterate farmer dressed in rags, with children to feed.

And take the FARC guerrilla we found guarding a well-marked checkpoint not far away. The heavily armed fighter identified himself only as "Pija".

Politics of conflict

He and his two companions stood in the shade, reciting well-worn Marxist ideology about social injustice, about how the ruling oligarchy needed to be toppled for the good of the masses.

Colombian child
Ordinary Colombians are caught up in the struggle for authority
Then we asked Pija why he joined the guerrillas. He looked at his feet, and shuffled gently.

It was five years ago, he explained - after the right-wing paramilitaries who controlled his neighbourhood massacred most of his family.

What else could he do, he asked, but fight back?

And the drug trade? The rebels aren't drug traffickers he told us, spouting the party line. They just control and tax the traffickers. Drug use is strictly forbidden.

Twisted logic

But if a successful revolution means profiting from the weakness and self-abuse of the capitalists, he said, well so be it.

However you look at it, the FARC logic is grotesquely twisted. The guerrilla movement is certainly addicted, not to narcotics but to the limitless amounts of money they provide them with.

Colombian woman watches a government soldier
Many rural Colombians are mistrustful of the government

The war seems to have become an end in itself.

And the FARC savagery has far outstripped anything forgivable in a struggle for social justice.

But there is a logic of sorts. And there are the conditions in Colombia that seem to provide an endless source of willing recruits and supporters.

Until that much is understood and dealt with, it seems hard to see how this war can ever end.

Click here to return

See also:

26 Feb 02 | Americas
UN fears Colombian refugee exodus
26 Feb 02 | Americas
Outrage at Colombian kidnap
22 Feb 02 | Media reports
Colombia's press warns of grim times
21 Feb 02 | Americas
Colombian army moves against rebels
16 Nov 00 | Americas
Colombia's peace laboratory
15 Feb 02 | Americas
Timeline: Colombia
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