- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

SAN PABLO, Colombia For more than three decades, residents of this forgotten town on the banks of the muddy Magdalena River have pleaded for government protection from Marxist guerrillas.
But in the hopes of achieving peace, the government now appears ready to relinquish the region to the same guerrilla army these people have grown to fear.
San Pablo is part of a 1,120-square-mile zone in north-central Colombia that the government of President Andres Pastrana is on the verge of temporarily ceding to the 5,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN) as a condition for beginning peace negotiations.
Talks between the government and the ELN aimed at formalizing the long-awaited demilitarized zone are expected to resume soon, according to a spokesman at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia's capital.
The idea of surrendering a sweep of resource-rich territory about the size of Delaware to a violent guerrilla movement that residents say has menaced them for decades has enraged the people who live here. Last month, thousands of demonstrators mounted a four-day roadblock to protest the plan. Organizers have threatened more blockades and protests should the government relinquish the zone.

Militiamen back protest

The protesters were assisted by the right-wing paramilitary group United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), conceded Carlos Castano, that group's feared leader, in a recent interview with El Tiempo newspaper. But protest leaders interviewed last week in San Pablo denied it.
"People who have nothing to do with the paramilitaries don't want the guerrillas here," said Eliseo Acevedo, a spokesman for No to the Clearance Zone. "We're prepared to defend ourselves if they come."
It isn't the first time Mr. Pastrana, who was elected on a peace mandate, has tried to lure rebels to the negotiating table with a taste of self-rule. In 1998, he ceded a southern enclave twice the size of New Jersey to Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But after more than two years of sluggish negotiations, he has yet to achieve any significant accords with them. The 37-year armed conflict, which pits leftist guerrillas against private militias and the government, has killed some 35,000 people in the last decade.

U.S. bars observer role

The government and the FARC recently asked delegates from the United States and Cuba to observe a round of negotiations scheduled for March 8. President Bush declined the offer during his meeting in Washington with Mr. Pastrana a week ago. Washington broke contact with the FARC after rebels killed three American indigenous-rights activists in March 1999.
Critics have accused the 16,000-strong rebel army of overbearing rule inside its stronghold and of using it to recruit combatants, produce cocaine and prepare military attacks. Many of the approximately 50,000 people who would live inside the second demilitarized zone say the same abuses will occur there.
"If the police leave, if the army leaves, the population will be left to live under the rule of an armed group that many people here fear," said Norma Cantillo, a municipal judge, who would have to leave. "It would be a state within a state."
According to the plan, about 100 security-force members would leave the area for nine months, creating a safe haven for the guerrillas from which to begin peace discussions with the government. The demilitarized zone, which would also encircle the neighboring township of Cantagallo, would be patrolled by ELN-appointed civic police and 150 Colombians and foreigners to monitor potential human-rights abuses.

ELN promises doubted

The guerrillas have vowed to respect the civilian population and to refrain from committing crimes in the zone. But their promises offer no comfort for those who have had to live with the guerrillas for more than three decades.
"Ever since I can remember, all I have seen here is violence," said Gabriel Perez, 24, whose family owns a shoe store on San Pablo's main road. "Most of it has been the fault of the guerrillas."
The two groups leading the protests say the government should demand that the ELN declare a cease-fire and free all its captive civilians and security-force members before it surrenders the zone. The ELN bankrolls its insurgency partly through obtaining ransoms through kidnappings.
Protest leaders have also accused the government of moving forward with its plan to hand over the area without consulting the communities. They said hundreds of people who have participated in the protests have been declared militarists by the ELN and would have to flee the area if the government creates the demilitarized zone.
Not everyone, however, agrees that the protest organizers speak for the majority. Two nurses at the town hospital who declined to give their names said fears that guerrillas would terrorize the community are overblown.

Zone's benefits seen

They said the creation of the zone might even be good for the region, believing the government might reward residents by spending money on health services, education and infrastructure.
Critics also said the AUC is forcing many demonstrators to attend the protests.
"The majority of those people didn't even want to go," said Regulo Madero, head of Credhos, a regional human rights group based in the city of Barrancabermeja, about an hour by boat from San Pablo.
"If they had refused, they probably would have been forced to leave the zone or suffered some other type of reprisal."
But there is also fear of the ELN, according to community leaders.
The group was born in this rugged territory in the 1960s and found broad support here for its uprising. But that backing eventually evaporated as stories circulated of forced recruitment of minors, extortion demands and iron-fisted rule, said the Rev. Francisco de Roux, a priest in Barrancabermeja and director of the Peace and Development Project for the Middle Magdalena.
"Unfortunately, the ELN made some serious errors with the population,"said Father de Roux. "People here have sad, painful memories. Many are furious with the guerrillas."

Militias control coca crop

The discontent created an opening for the AUC, which made its first incursion into the area in 1998. The paramilitary group now controls most of the area and more than half of the plantations of coca the plant from which cocaine is made that flourish around San Pablo, said Father de Roux. The AUC and the FARC earn huge revenues from the local narcotics industry.
The AUC's presence has severely weakened the ELN and is one reason the rebels now seek peace, said analyst Alfredo Rangel, a former national security advisor.
"Now is probably the only opportunity it has to seek a negotiated solution before being totally destroyed," said Mr. Rangel.
"I think a process with the ELN will be much more fluid and rapid than it has been with the FARC."

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