- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

SARAVENA, Colombia Orlando Hernandez said they came for his brother-in-law while he was sleeping in his bed at 7:30 a.m.
Twelve hours later, Mr. Hernandez stood with a crowd of other families outside the military base where their loved ones had been detained amid a military offensive in the department of Arauca, designated in September by President Alvaro Uribe as one of two "Rehabilitation and Consolidation Zones" intended to end the violence that had been plaguing this country for four decades.
In the zones, military commanders were put in charge of all security forces and given authority to conduct searches without court warrants, restrict travel, impose curfews, and question civilian residents and visitors.
But in the first major political defeat for Mr. Uribe since he took office in August, Colombia's Constitutional Court recently ruled many of the methods governing the zones to be unlawful. The president is formulating new rules to govern the zones and has expanded one of them in the provinces of Bolivar-Sucre.
"They haven't let him talk with a lawyer," Mr. Hernandez said, echoing the complaints of other family members who said their mothers, sons and daughters had not been given food or water while in custody. The military denies that food or water is withheld.
"It's necessary to do this, but they're doing it to the wrong people," Mr. Hernandez said.
That morning, the military rounded up about 400 people in the stadium of Saravena to conduct criminal background checks.
Those who didn't have outstanding warrants were freed with stamps on their arms, while 85 were brought to the army base and detained in orange chairs with plastic handcuffs. Forty-two eventually were freed, but the rest were accused of terrorist links and sent to Bogota.
"It's worrisome the way they are going forward like this," said Isnardo Cediel Beltrain, a public defender standing outside the army base. He said the military and police risked abuse of power.
Arrest first and investigate later appeared to be the army's motto on a recent trip to Arauca, which was established under the national emergency decree issued soon after Mr. Uribe took office.
The decree initially was to last 90 days but was prolonged. It may become permanent.
The police and the army were given special judicial powers to arrest suspects or raid homes without court orders in 27 cities in the violence-ridden departments of Arauca, Bolivar and Sucre.
But the Constitutional Court ruled last month that it was illegal for the police and military to arrest suspects, intercept phone calls or raid homes without warrants. The court also said it was unconstitutional to require the press and members of nongovernmental groups to obtain permission from the central government before traveling to any of the designated zones.
Mr. Uribe now either must seek changes to the constitution or propose a new package of reforms for the zones, a key part of his security strategy to defeat the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and several other outlawed militias.
But Col. Jesus Alberto Ruiz of the army's 8th Brigade in charge of Arauca said he doesn't expect much to change, despite the court's ruling. "I think the situation is not going to be modified much," Col. Ruiz said. "We have the total support of the national government and of security organizations of the state."
Col. Ruiz participated in the military sweep of Saravena at the start of November in which 85 persons, including Mr. Hernandez's brother-in-law, were detained. The government brought in 100 special agents from the Fiscalia, the equivalent of the U.S. Justice Department, to help issue rapid-fire warrants for arrests and home raids.
"We never did anything without the authorization of the Fiscalia," said Col. Ruiz. "For us, [the courts decision] is not going to change" anything.
But under the court ruling, the army would not have been able to review criminal records in the stadium nor conduct a census of the population and its movements, something Col. Ruiz said had been completed in Arauca. Before the court's decision, police were going door to door to register people, vehicles and cattle, and to take digital photos and fingerprints of residents.
Despite an increased military and police presence in oil-rich Arauca through which pass 30 miles of the Cano-Limon pipeline that American troops soon will be helping to protect violence appears to have remained steady and in some cases increased since the zone's creation Sept. 2.
The number of homicides in Arauca reached 291 so far this year and 45 since the zone was implemented. In 2001, 148 homicides were reported in the department and 47 in September and October.
Terrorist incidents are also on the rise this year: seven car bombs, compared with two in 2001, and 65 other bombings, compared with 46 last year.
Since the zone was established, the acting mayor of Saravena was assassinated, as were a city council member, two police officers and 11 civilians. In Arauquita part of the zone the entire municipal government, including Mayor Orlando Ardila Torres, resigned in mid-November under pressure from FARC.
Gen. Carlos Lemus, head of the army's 18th Brigade, said the increase in terrorist attacks was a "natural reaction" to the stepped-up military activity.
"We knew that they were going to intensify," Gen. Lemus said. "Our work has multiplied." On Nov. 12, the general spoke in the yard of a home the army had entered in what it called a "voluntary search."
Carmen Aurora Perez seemed unperturbed by the surprise visit of about 40 soldiers.
"I don't have a problem" with the search, Mrs. Perez said, though it was taking place in front of her 4-year-old son, Jaime Leonardo, who clutched a black puppy while soldiers surrounded the house.
The army found a gas cylinder, a popular FARC weapon, in Mrs. Perez's back yard and a changon, a type of gun they said were used by the militias, inside the house.
"The people have responded favorably," Gen. Lemus announced to a bank of television reporters specially flown in from Bogota to witness the Saravena offensive. "The population is very content with these measures."
Outside the army base, the families complained loudly about the treatment of the prisoners and the lack of evidence against them.
"There are many mothers who don't know what their sons are doing," said the mother of Alexander Vargas, who was among the detainees. "I can respond for what my son does."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide