The Miami Herald
January 12, 1999

Toll of militia terror on rise in Colombia

             By TIM JOHNSON
             Herald Staff Writer

             BOGOTA, Colombia -- As more bodies turned up along river banks from a
             savage offensive by right-wing militias, authorities on Monday raised the death toll
             from four days of violence to 136 people and said more deaths may be in the

             ``It is horrifying,'' Antioquia state Gov. Alberto Builes said.

             Appeals poured in to President Andres Pastrana from the Catholic Church,
             business leaders and regional politicians to quell the bloodshed.

             The brutal offensive coincided with the onset of peace talks between the Pastrana
             administration and the nation's largest leftist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed
             Forces of Colombia (FARC).

             Paramilitary forces are seeking their own talks with the government on an equal
             footing with the guerrillas, and analysts said the bloodletting is designed to show
             the power and geographic strength of the militias.

             ``We would be ingenuous and stupid if we didn't take them into account in this
             [peace] process,'' said Juan Manuel Santos, a member of a government-appointed
             peace commission. ``They have shown their tremendous capacity for devastation.''

             The paramilitary executions began Thursday and stretched through Sunday. Seven
             of Colombia's 33 states were affected. Most victims were accused by militias of
             supporting leftist guerrillas, then shot in the head.

             A deputy chief at the Office of the People's Defender, Blanca Luisa Echeverri,
             said the ``criminal massacre'' had left a death toll of 136.

             In the troubled banana-growing region of Uraba in northwestern Colombia,
             authorities banned the carrying of handguns and the nighttime riding of
             motorcycles, frequently used in executions, until Jan. 25 amid fears that more
             killings are likely.

             ``A list exists with 100 names on it of people who will be executed by the groups
             of private justice,'' explained Teodoro Diaz, mayor of the city of Apartado.

             Villagers flee

             Television images showed bereaved families streaming out of villages in Antioquia,
             Bolivar, Cesar and Putumayo states, seeking refuge from the militias. About 1.2
             million people are believed to have migrated within Colombia in recent years to
             escape violence.

             In the Magdalena River hamlet of Playon Orozco, militias executed 27 people and
             burned down 21 homes over the weekend, forcing a mass exodus, police said.

             ``The area is totally desolate,'' police Col. Octavio Grajales said.

             One of the worst massacres occurred in El Tigre along the southern border with
             Ecuador, where four truckloads of uniformed paramilitary forces arrived Saturday
             night and began to bash in doors.

             ``They said to everyone, `Come out. . . . This is a guerrilla town,' '' a woman in El
             Tigre told Caracol Television.

             A Caracol reporter, Luis Eduardo Maldonado, said 26 bodies had been found in
             El Tigre, some of them beheaded and lying along the banks of the Guamues River.
             Twenty-five other villagers are missing.

             A leader of the FARC, Joaquin Gomez, said an army lieutenant named Rodriguez
             from the army's 24th Brigade led the brutal assault on El Tigre.

             Precedent for armies

             Colombia's history is rife with accounts of mayhem by private armies. In the past
             decade, paramilitary forces were financed first by drug lords, then by rich
             landowners and industrialists plagued by leftist guerrilla kidnappings. Rogue army
             officers have been linked to the rightist forces, eager to see them corrode rebel

             Growing in numbers, most of the private armies united last year in the umbrella
             United Peasant Self-Defense Forces, led by Carlos Castaño, an angry rural
             landholder whose father was murdered by FARC guerrillas. Authorities last year
             put a $1 million bounty on Castaño's head.

             Paramilitary leaders are seldom arrested, although 11 months ago authorities
             charged Victor Carranza, an emerald tycoon, with sponsoring private armies.

             The onslaught has turned attention away from talks with FARC leaders. In a
             second meeting, negotiators sat down in the hamlet of La Machaca in
             coca-growing Caqueta state to hash out an agenda and timetable for eventual
             peace talks.

             Victor G. Ricardo, Pastrana's peace envoy, matched a proposed FARC agenda
             with his own 10-point agenda, which included a category for paramilitary groups,
             which he described as ``a very serious factor in the armed conflict.''