ISSUE #424, MARCH 15, 1998
339 LAFAYETTE ST., NEW YORK, NY 10012 (212) 674-9499


In legislative elections held on Mar. 8 in Colombia, the ruling Liberal Party 
maintained its majority with 44.14% of the vote. The other leading parties 
were the Conservative Party with 11.62%; the National Conservative 
Movement--a split from the Conservative Party--with 5.27%; the "Liberal 
Oxygen" movement with 2.1% and the populist Citizen Defense movement 
with 1.68%. More than 65% of registered voters stayed away from the polls. 
Voters elected 102 senators and 161 deputies. Those taking a seat in 
Congress for the first time include award-winning filmmaker and former 
rebel Sergio Cabrera. [El Diario-La Prensa 3/9/98 from AFP; Washington 
Post 3/10/98; Clarin 3/9/98 from AFP] 

Ingrid Betancur, a vocal critic of the government who easily won a Senate 
seat on the "Liberal Oxygen" ticket, criticized widespread illegal financing 
and vote buying in the campaigns. "They weren't buying votes one by one," 
she said. "They were buying leaders who can move 100, 200 or 1,000 people 
and paying them for those votes. It's a wholesale market." [WP 3/10/98] 

Thanks to a 1997 decree, Colombians living outside Colombia were allowed 
to vote for senators for the first time in the Mar. 8 elections, and were even 
allowed to run as candidates for senator. Enthusiasm was not overwhelming: 
of the 150,000 Colombians living in Miami, only 4,000 registered to vote; 
three ran as candidates for the Senate. [El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 3/7/98] In 
New York and New Jersey, which have a much larger Colombian immigrant 
population, only 5,395 Colombians registered to vote, and of those only 
2,662 actually voted. [ED-LP 3/9/98] 


The Colombian army continues to lick its wounds from a serious defeat in 
battle with leftist rebels of the Southern Bloc of the Revolutionary Armed 
Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP) in the area of Caguan, in 
southern Colombia [see Update #423]. The National Army confirmed on Mar. 
9 that 73 soldiers were killed in the fighting; 36 rebels were also 
reportedly killed, and their bodies buried in three common graves in the 
combat area. The FARC is holding 43 soldiers hostage and another eight are 
missing. [El Colombiano (Medellin) 3/10/98]

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (CICR) were 
finally allowed into the area of the fighting on Mar. 8, after remaining in 
the town of Cartagena del Chaira because the army had prohibited them 
from entering the area. Pierre Gassmann, head of the CICR in Colombia, 
arrived in the area on Mar. 8; he said CICR members were helping families 
displaced in the violence. Gassman also visited the Larandia military base 
near Florencia, capital of Caqueta department, in order to try to get 
information about casualties. The media has been barred from the area. [EC 
3/9/98] On Mar. 10, Gassmann called on the FARC to explain whether the 32 
soldiers who have allegedly been wounded are among the 43 they are holding 
hostage. Gassman said that the CICR team has been combing the area for 
wounded people and has not found any. [EC 3/11/98]

"This is without a doubt the biggest defeat in the 35-year history of 
confrontation against the insurgency," said Alfredo Rangel, a security 
analyst who has worked for President Ernesto Samper. "The army is unable 
to contain or control the guerrillas and is temporarily losing the 
confrontation." Analysts say that the FARC's defeat of the army in southern 
Colombia is especially significant because the rebels overwhelmed the 
Mobile Brigade 3. "This is Colombia's elite fighting force," said Sergio Uribe, 
a political scientist at University of the Andes in Bogota. "These are not 
conscripts; they are professional soldiers. They were outwitted and out-
intelligenced." [WP 3/8/98] 

The government announced on Mar. 12 that it has created a new 5,000-troop 
anti-guerrilla unit to rout the rebels from their southern stronghold. The 
"Counter-Guerrilla Task Force" will be based in Caqueta and made up of 
troops from the army, the police, and the marine infantry, with support 
from the air force. [WP 3/13/98; Clarin 3/13/98 from Reuter; El Universal 
(Caracas) 3/13/98 from Reuter]

On Mar. 11 the Colombian police reported that a group of 25 FARC rebels had 
attacked a helicopter that was transporting money for a bank 70 km 
northwest of Bogota, in central Colombia. One police agent, one rebel and 
three civilians were killed. The rebels destroyed the helicopter and made 
off with over $100,000 in cash. [La Tercera 3/12/98 from wire services; 
CNN en Espanol 3/11/98 from AP]

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