- The Washington Times - Monday, October 21, 2002

MEDELLIN, Colombia After four days of battles, a 1,000-member government task force has gained the upper hand in a bid to wrest control of Medellin's most dangerous neighborhoods from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and two other leftist militias.
A joint force of army, police, and special security forces descended late last week on the neighborhoods of Belencito, El Corazon, 20 de Julio and Las Independencias II in what is being dubbed the biggest urban battle in Colombia's 38-year armed conflict.
Ten rebels, four soldiers and four civilians have been killed. An additional 34 persons have been wounded in the offensive, which involved air force helicopters and hooded informants who have led police to people suspected of being guerrillas.
In what may have been retaliation, three bombs exploded in upscale Medellin neighborhoods during the weekend. One blast at a gym left four persons wounded.
The operation was ordered by President Alvaro Uribe, who came into office in August promising to get tough with the nation's Marxist insurgents. Rightist paramilitaries also are active in the area known locally as the "comuna" but do not appear to have been targeted.
Violence in the neighborhood killed 373 persons in the first eight months of this year.
"There is a total decision by the authorities to give back to the people of the neighborhood their right to live in peace," Mr. Uribe said from Medellin last week, where he served as a mayor and governor.
But many Colombians worry that a civil war that has until now been confined largely to the countryside will move into the cities.
"The war that Comuna 13 is living is the first expression of the new style of armed confrontation in the country and should worry not just those of us who live in Medellin but rather all Colombians," said an editorial in the city's largest newspaper, El Colombiano.
On Friday, national Police Chief Teodoro Campo announced the creation of a 212-member elite anti-terrorism unit in Bogota, the capital.
The government hopes to extend the same protection to other cities, including Barranquilla, Cucuta and Cali. It has not discounted the possibility of creating urban "zones of rehabilitation" governed by military commanders, such as were recently established in two provinces.
"We have to prepare ourselves for possible violent acts," Mr. Campo said.
Until now, Medellin, which gave rise to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in the 1980s, has been the epicenter of urban warfare, thriving on the poverty in the surrounding hillsides. It was in places such as Comuna 13 that Escobar was able to hire "sicarios," or assassins, for as little as $20 at the height of the drug wars in the early 1990s.
The violence in Medellin is a "historic problem," said Jorge Leon Sanchez, the secretary of the city's government.
According to the Medellin Metropolitan Police Department, there are at least five active militia groups in the city with 23 fronts, amounting to 2,500 armed combatants. Some estimates put the number as high as 4,000, compared with 5,350 police officers for a city of 2 million people.
Observers say a new phase of urban warfare began about a year and a half ago, when FARC decided to make Medellin more than just a supply route.
Soon, the rightist paramilitaries arrived to combat FARC.
On a recent visit to Belencito, in the heart of Comuna 13, evidence of the conflict was seen in competing slogans painted in blood-red graffiti.
Police say residents have been fleeing their homes, leaving them as havens for outlawed groups. Only two houses were occupied on a single block during the visit to Belencito.
Luis Alberto, his wife, Liliana, and 8-year-old son, Elquin Alexis, returned to their home two months ago after leaving it in March. Mrs. Alberto said she found the house in a shambles, with no windows, and bullet holes and water everywhere.
Business is "very bad," said Mr. Alberto, a fruit vendor who spoke from behind a barred window that resembled a self-imposed prison. He wouldn't allow a reporter to photograph him for fear of reprisal.
Police plan to install a permanent base in Betania inside the neighborhood, but slowly, the troubles of Comuna 13 have crept down the mountain slopes into the city's richer neighborhoods.
Marta Maria Martinez, the administrator of an affluent housing complex in Santa Monica, said 30 apartments have been hit by stray bullets and that residents are rapidly vacating.
"We are in the middle of the conflict," she said. "Nobody dares live here."

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