Uraba Sends Out An S.O.S

Colombians Ask World's Help to End Decades of Massacres

by Pamela Mercer
New York Times, November 27, 1995

Apartadó, Colombia -- Everyone here seems to know when there will be a new massacre. Rumors spread for days. Shops and bars begin to close early. Friends socialize behind closed doors.

By about 10 PM, this and other northwestern Colombian towns in the Uraba region are silenced by an atmosphere of dread.

Then, the killings occur.

Later, people pour out of their homes, count the bodies and once again, mourn the dead.

A human rights researcher has described what happens next: "The Government is air-freighted to Apartadó. Everyone from the President on down makes an appearance. You see officials sweating in the heat, wearing guayabera shirts and looking uncomfortable. They hand out money like Santa Claus and leave before sunset."

Residents are left to wonder who is responsible for the killings and when the next massacre will occur.

For the last few years, the half million residents of Uraba, an area slightly smaller than New Jersey, have withstood the most brutal armed confrontations between political opponents in Colombia. Last year, 244 people per 100,000 were killed, more than three times the national average of one of the most violent countries.

In the past three months, 92 have died in attacks of mutual retaliation between guerrilla, military and paramilitary forces. Most were killed because they lived or worked in areas under the control of the attackers' enemies, others because they were caught in the crossfire.

Preliminary peace talks between the Government of President Ernesto Samper and left-wing rebels have come to a virtual standstill. As their town continue to be ravaged by violence, local leaders say they can no longer afford to wait for the Government to return to the table. Two months ago a group of mayors here announced that they would seek regional peace talks of their own to pave the way for a negotiated end to Colombia's 35- year old rebel war.

In October the Mayor of AApartadó, Gloria Cuartas, and the regional Governor, Alvaro Uribe, contacted several European and Latin American human rights organizations in an effort to set up an international committee to set humanitarian guidelines for the armed conflict in Uraba. The committee is expected to be formed within three months.

"International oversight will not be a definitive solution." Ms. Cuartas said. "But we want to make this into a pilot project that will humanize the conflict in order to press the Government into rethinking its attitude toward peace."

Contacts between Government officials in the capital and guerrilla groups, which include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the National Liberation Army and the Popular Liberation Army, began in late 1994.

But the Government has been weakened by evidence of drug-related corruption, opposition from military and businesses groups and statements by the Popular Liberation Army that it would "not negotiate with a narco Government." So last summer President Samper was forced to abandon the talks.

Guerrilla groups have been active in Colombia since the 1960's. Since 1990 the Government has signed peace agreements with five of them, but at least four others remain active. Political violence has been worsened in areas like Uraba by the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups seeking to eliminate the Marxist and Maoist rebels.

In recent years Roman Catholic officials and politicians have called on the Government to allow regional peace talks as a way to improve the climate for national negotiations. Until recently the Government forbade most local contact with armed subversives, but when the massacres in Uraba began in August, it acceded to the growing demands of mayors.

Local leaders also say that if their peace efforts succeed in an area as troubled as Uraba, they will serve as a valuable example for the rest of the country. "If we show that regional and international mechanisms work, we can become a path for the rest of the country to follow," Governor Uribe said.


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