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Colombia citizen spies { August 29 2002 }

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Colombia Turns to Citizen Spies as Newest Weapon of War

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 29, 2002; Page A01

VALLEDUPAR, Colombia -- He is 30 years old and single, an entrepreneur with a small lottery business that takes him along the lawless roads of northeastern Colombia. He is also a volunteer spy for the government, a pair of eyes enlisted against the guerrilla and paramilitary forces that have turned this region into one of the country's most desperate.

To carry out a pledge to wage a wider war against Colombia's guerrillas, President Alvaro Uribe is counting on such volunteers to assist the understaffed, cash-starved intelligence services. But the guerrillas have already labeled the civilian spies a "network of snitches," which is to say that those whose anonymity is compromised can expect to be punished by death.

This informant, identified by a number assigned him by his National Police handlers, said he does not carry a gun. His personal cell phone is his only equipment, and a reward for any information that proves useful to authorities is the only compensation he can expect.

"I joined because of the crisis that we are living through," he said during a recent interview, arranged by a National Police official here in capital of Cesar province, 400 miles northeast of Bogota. "I'm trying to do a little for my country."

Unveiled here by Uribe the day after his inauguration, Colombia's emerging informant network is a key component of the new president's "democratic security" initiative, which in a civil war with many players seeks more specifically than ever to enlist civilians on the government's side. The program, now extending into neighboring provinces, also points to the break Uribe has made with the previous government's strategy for achieving peace in a country that has been at war with itself for 38 years.

Uribe's predecessor, Andres Pastrana, looked primarily outside Colombia for help in seeking a political settlement to the war, which mainly matches a powerful Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) against the U.S.-backed military and a privately funded paramilitary army that fights alongside government forces. Pastrana's efforts brought foreign ambassadors to the peace table as advisers for the first time and encouraged a $1.3 billion aid package from the United States, mostly to improve the army.

But Uribe has shifted priorities. While reaching out to the United Nations for help restarting the moribund peace process, the new president has emphasized that Colombians themselves must work actively to end a war that has long fed off the sympathies of civilians in the countryside and the passivity of those in the city.

The FARC, a mostly rural movement that numbers 18,000 armed members, relies on civilians for intelligence, supplies and recruits in its bid to replace the government with a Marxist-inspired system. The guerrilla tactics, including frequent use of civilian clothing for disguise, have helped make civilians frequent targets of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the rival 15,000-member paramilitary force.

Most of the 3,500 people who died last year as a direct result of the war were classified as civilians. But this year began with several examples of unarmed civilians standing up to guerrilla attacks, and Uribe has sought to harness that frustration and fear in the countryside.

The informant network, 3,000 volunteers in Colombia's three northeastern provinces, is part of a security strategy that includes arming 15,000 peasant recruits as rural auxiliaries to the army. How those soldiers will be trained, monitored and protected, as well as how the civilian informants' identities will be kept secret, are questions that have preoccupied human rights advocates here.

Thousands of eyes have been on the lookout in Cesar province for years -- just not on the government's behalf. Cesar, with a million inhabitants, is wildly beautiful: parched plains run north to the snowy Sierra Nevada where guerrillas have long made camps among jungles, waterfalls and Indian reserves.

Crossed by roads that run to Caribbean ports and the porous frontier with Venezuela, the province has experienced a dramatic intensification of war in the past few years. In every category of violence -- kidnappings, killings and forced displacement -- Cesar trails only Antioquia, a more populous northwestern province.

Most of the kidnappings were carried out by the FARC. But the AUC paramilitary forces have made the greatest territorial strides. Financed in part by ranchers, who last year reported 25,000 head of cattle stolen and 1,000 slaughtered as result of refusing guerrilla extortion demands, the paramilitary group exerts influence over the flatlands and in many of Valledupar's poor neighborhoods.

Along one stretch of road between Valledupar and La Paz, for example, the paramilitary forces have prohibited the sale of black-market gasoline, accomplishing something the authorities have been unable to do on other parts of the same highway.

Now, though, 757 informants have signed up as roadside spies to help the official military respond faster. They report to Capt. Angel Rojas of the National Police, a branch of Colombia's armed forces that works in tandem with the army. About 15 calls a day come into the small, unmarked office where Rojas works.

The goal is a network of 5,000 volunteers in Cesar, although Rojas said the vetting process will likely slow down to ensure no paramilitary or guerrilla member joins. He said tips will be evaluated regularly to determine whether they are slanted against a particular group, a primary concern in this region where the paramilitary force enjoys a close working relationship with the military and support from ranchers and merchants.

The only protection offered the volunteers is anonymity. But in a country where the FARC has been known to obtain personal bank account information, which was then used at guerrilla roadblocks to determine kidnap victims, confidentiality is a precarious notion.

Each informant's name, address and profession are stored on a police computer hard drive. Only two police officers have regular access to the computer.

"They are all along these roads -- restaurant workers, gas station attendants, farmers with land along the road," said Col. Orlando Paez, the National Police chief for Cesar province. "And they will be safe because we manage the information."

Paez said the informants are paid only for tips that lead to arrests or other tangible police successes. Their training includes how to describe a person, how to identify members of the irregular armies and how to classify weapons, so the responding troops know what to expect, he said.

Although the police attribute the long list of volunteers to a growing civic spirit, the motivations of those signing up vary. The 30-year-old lottery owner, for example, was himself recently kidnapped by an armed group. He was held for several days, and on his release signed up as an informant.

After the informant network's first two weeks of operation, traffic rose 43 percent along Cesar's roads from the previous month, authorities reported to Uribe when he made a return visit here last week. Informant tips resulted in the seizure of cars and other equipment used by paramilitary forces, and the capture of two rings of highway bandits; about $800 was paid in rewards.

"For the great majority of people, this conflict has always been the government's problem," said Hernan Araujo, manager of Cesar's ranchers' association and the nephew of the former culture minister, Consuelo Araujo, who was kidnapped and killed here last year by the FARC. "And that is not the case."

But away from Cesar's principal roads, the plan plays out differently. In Valledupar's poorest neighborhoods, where guerrilla and paramilitary networks vie for influence, killings have more than tripled over the last year and show no signs of declining, local human rights officials say.

Abdala Mazziri, the city's human rights ombudsman, flipped through an inch-thick stack of papers on his desk one day last week. Each form contained one paragraph with a name, date, location and determination that the victim "died violently for ideological and political reasons as part of the internal conflict."

"I signed 10 yesterday and I'll sign 12 tomorrow," Mazziri said. "This hasn't come down at all [since the civilian network started]. It's the exact same level."

Because the guerrillas still control many of the towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills a few hours north of Valledupar, the police do not have any informants in large parts of the province. Those towns are the next step in the process, and a visit revealed how ambivalent many residents feel about the idea.

In Pueblo Bello, 25 miles west of Valledupar, a guerrilla attack three years ago killed two police officers and a woman. The government immediately pulled out all remaining police, but now plans to build a new police station across from the ruins of the old one by the end of the year. Forty officers are scheduled to take up permanent posts soon after.

Luis Delgado, 59, the owner of a small grocery called the Rooster, is one of many residents who oppose the new police station. He is afraid that its planned location, across the street from his store in the town center, will imperil the entire civilian population in the event of a guerrilla attack.

"They should be somewhere else," Delgado said, adding that plans for a civilian informant network "might work, in theory, but no one would participate in a town like this. It's too risky."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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