Colombia Rebels Respond to Drug War with Attacks PROTECTING COCAINE TRADE

Article excerpt

The 30-year-old guerrilla war in Colombia may be entering a new, more violent phase. In an ominous escalation last week, 500 rebels reduced an Army base in the south of the country to rubble, killing 60 soldiers and injuring 19. A further 60 men reported missing are being held as prisoners, the rebels said via the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The attack, which took place Friday night at Las Delicias in the Amazon region of Putamayo, represents the worst bloodletting in Colombia's recent history. It was part of a widespread weekend offensive that saw a further 33 deaths nationwide.

"The situation is very volatile," says Alejandro Reyes, professor of political science at the National University in Bogota. "Two small and separate enemies - guerrilla insurgency and the drug trade, which was previously the responsibility of the police - now confront the Army as a united front." It also confirms the willingness and capability of the guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to mount highly organized, large-scale assaults on the country's armed forces. "They came across the {soccer field}, out of the jungle, across the river. They had dynamited buildings, and they attacked us from all sides," says Norbey Villa, a teenage recruit who survived gunshot wounds. Guerrilla forces in Colombia are funded, at least in part, by the cocaine trade. They aim to protect peasants who grow coca, used to make cocaine. Friday's attack comes in the wake of months of demonstrations and riots involving more than 150,000 people in the coca-growing regions of Putamayo, Caqueta, and Guaviare. Farmers, allegedly whipped up by the guerrillas, are furious at the government attempts, backed by the United States, to wipe out 70,000 acres of coca plantations this year. Under pressure from the Clinton administration, and keen to see the threat of US sanctions lifted, President Ernesto Samper Pizano is adamant that his coca-eradication program will continue. But as a result of the farmers' revolt, he has, for the first time, dragged the Army deep into the conflict. …