- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

RIO DE ORO, Venezuela They came to Maria Eliana's small wooden house just after dawn, 10 paramilitary fighters in green fatigues carrying automatic rifles.

They forced their way in, accused her husband, Augustin, of helping the guerrillas and took him away. Maria Eliana did not learn Augustin's fate until two weeks later, when someone found his bones in the jungle.

"I have three children, and [the paramilitaries] left me with nothing," she said, wiping away tears.

The paramilitaries killed three men that August day on the Columbian side of the Rio de Oro the River of Gold that marks Venezuela's border with Colombia in this region of jungle and small farm plots of yucca, bananas and corn.

It was the start of what survivors describe as a weeks-long campaign of plunder and murder that killed 50 men and women, and continues against Colombian farmers who the paramilitaries suspect of collaborating with guerrillas.

The campesinos, hundreds of whom are refugees on the Venezuelan side of the river, described a pattern of acquiescence and even active cooperation by Colombian government forces with the paramilitaries since the paramilitaries arrived in the border area about three years ago.

Two dozen Colombian farmers told their stories recently in interviews conducted over three days. The reporter was guided to the jungle settlement by Renacer, a Venezuelan human rights organization said to have connections with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), leftist guerrillas who are bitter enemies of the paramilitaries.

However, the reporter was able to speak to whomever he wanted, and the Renacer workers did not monitor interviews. Fearing paramilitary retribution, the campesinos provided only first names or none at all.

Colombia's 38-year-old civil war pits government forces and allied paramilitaries against leftist guerrillas. Both the guerrillas and paramilitaries finance themselves by taxing plantations of coca, the base ingredient for cocaine.

The State Department classifies both the paramilitaries and guerrillas as terrorist groups, but rights activists consider the paramilitaries, who have massacred campesinos with chainsaws and sledgehammers, to be more vicious and charge that the Colombian military sometimes cooperates with them.

To stop cocaine exports from the world's leading source, the United States created the mostly military $1.3 billion Plan Colombia. On Sept. 9 the State Department approved disbursing an additional $41.6 million in aid, saying the Colombian military had met human rights standards by punishing officers who aided paramilitaries, though "more needs to be done."

Human rights organizations oppose the aid, saying military-paramilitary collaboration continues. The Colombian government has said that any military collaboration with paramilitaries involves acts of individual commanders and are not official policy.

In late September Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited Washington and requested additional aid.

In the Rio de Oro region, the paramilitaries are battling the guerrillas for control of the Colombian side with its valuable coca-leaf plantations. Colombian refugees said the paramilitaries arrived about three years ago, accompanied by Colombian military forces, who then departed, leaving the paramilitaries to their work.

The paramilitaries killed suspected guerrilla collaborators, stole property and burned the wooden homes scattered in the jungle and along the river.

One day more than a year ago, several refugees recalled, paramilitaries arrived at dawn in the community of La Pista, forced hundreds of people from their homes and herded them together under the palm-thatched shelter used for community meetings.

"They ordered everybody who was in the guerrilla militia to raise their hands," recalled a young woman who was present. "When nobody did, they said they were going to kill everybody."

But then Venezuelan soldiers began firing from the river's opposite bank and the paramilitaries fled. After that, nearly all of La Pista's residents abandoned their farms and escaped to Venezuela.

In August the former commander of the police station in the Colombian town of La Gabarra, about 20 miles from the river, was imprisoned, charged with homicide for turning a blind eye while paramilitaries murdered 11 campesinos in July 1999.

During their most recent attacks, the paramilitaries robbed and killed some of the last families to hold out on the Colombian side. As of late September, campesinos said, the paramilitaries continued firing across the river at houses, fishermen and the motorized canoes that are this roadless region's best form of transportation.

Over the years, campesinos said, despite news reports of the killings, the Colombian military has never attempted to stop the paramilitaries. Campesinos said they consider the paramilitaries and government forces interchangeable.

"They're all the same," a woman said. "The paramilitaries arrive and say, 'We are the Colombian army.'"

At La Gabarra, both the Colombian police and the paramilitaries have bases a few minutes' drive apart, several people familiar with the area said.

Antonio, a 25-year-old canoe operator, said he has seen police, soldiers and paramilitaries intermixing freely in La Gabarra and riding in the same vehicles.

"They patrol together," Antonio said. "The paramilitaries pass through the police camp."

In approving the additional $41.6 million in aid, the United States concluded that the Colombian military is actively fighting the paramilitaries.

A review of La Opinion newspaper articles published during August and most of September in the Colombian border city of Cucuta found news items reporting that government forces had killed or captured 672 guerrillas and 36 paramilitaries nationwide.

La Opinion reported several military-guerrilla clashes in the Rio de Oro area but none between the military and paramilitaries.

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