Battling for power with bullets and ballots

Although world attention focuses mainly on drug-related turmoil here, Colombia's surging violence has other roots as well. A principal one is politics. In the six months before the March municipal elections, assassins murdered more than 200 mayoral and city council contenders. Most were members of the leftist Patriotic Union Party (UP).

According to UP records, 550 members have been shot since the party's founding four years ago by Marxist guerrillas. Although there have been a few arrests, no one has been convicted.

Human rights groups say the armed forces are responsible. In a report on Colombia last month, Amnesty International charged the military with carrying out ``a deliberate policy of political murder.''

President Virgilio Barco acknowledges the country is in the grip of a ``dirty war.'' But government spokesmen deny official involvement. They say drug traffickers, right-wing death squads, and Marxist guerrillas are killing political leaders to destabilize Colombian democracy.

The violence has spilled into everyday life. Amnesty says homicide has become the leading cause of death for males between the ages of 15 and 44.

The current killings have their roots in the long and lethal history of Colombian democracy, which is South America's oldest, dating back to 1886. For more than a century, wealthy elites of the rival Liberal and Conservative parties used both bullets and ballots to battle for political power.

Their bloody rivalry exploded in the murder of a populist Liberal leader in 1948, touching off a civil war. Some 200,000 people died in the following decade known simply as ``La Violencia.''

The blood-letting officially came to an end when the two parties agreed to a power-sharing formula in 1957. For the next 30 years, they ruled together in a National Front that locked out any other dissent.

``The National Front was an agreement at the top,'' says Gonzalo S'anchez, a historian at the National University and an expert on the causes of Colombia's violence. ``It excluded those at the bottom.''

There are many at the bottom of Colombia's economic pyramid. Although the economy is growing at 5 percent a year, the benefits are reaped by a privileged few. The 10 percent at the top receive 40 percent of the national income, says a 1983 World Bank report.

A recent study by the Barco government concluded that 43 percent of Colombians don't earn enough to buy basic necessities.

Their cause has been espoused by Marxist guerrillas, whose origin reaches back to the period of La Violencia.

Some Liberal Party rebels took to the hills in the 1950s and evolved into Soviet-line insurgents - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Western diplomats and Colombian journalists say the peasant-based FARC has 6,000 cadre under arms.

It is Colombia's largest and South America's oldest insurgent group.

The FARC and the Army had little contact for many years, as the rebels settled in southeastern jungles the government was willing to cede.

More radical leftists rejected the FARC's defensive strategy and launched three new guerrilla groups.

In the 1960s, Maoists split off to form the Army of Popular Liberation (ELP), now with several hundred members.

Students and Roman Catholic priests inspired by the Cuban revolution founded the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 1965. It has less than 1,000 cadre.

In 1974, the sons of affluent families founded Colombia's most publicity-prone guerrillas, the nationalist M-19, or April 19 Movement.

As the number of rebels grew, so did efforts to eliminate them with repressive measures, but government forces had little success.

Former President Belisario Betancur (1982-86) tried a different strategy.

Twenty-five years after the National Front gave Liberals and Conservatives a legal monopoly on power, Betancur attempted to pry open the tightly controlled system.

He launched peace talks with the guerrillas.

In 1984, the government and FARC signed a cease-fire that allowed the rebels to enter electoral politics.

Since then, UP candidates have won 10 congressional positions and 19 mayoral and dozens of seats in the city council, giving the left legitimacy in the electoral arena.

At the same time, FARC expanded its rural-based ``fronts'' from 27 to more than 40, says Rafael Pardo, government negotiator with the rebels. The killings of UP members, many by self-proclaimed death squads, then began.

Critics say Betancur should not have signed a truce that permitted the FARC to keep its guns. ``You're seeing the results today,'' Defense Minister Gen. Rafael Samudio Molina says.

Guerrilla violence has been increasing. Some 81 soldiers died in the first two months of 1988, the defense ministry says.

Though FARC technically is in a truce, it has ambushed troop convoys.

And in recent weeks, the ELN, which never signed the cease-fire, has mounted attacks both on Army patrols and oil pipelines.

Businessmen complain the armed forces have not taken the offensive against the guerrillas. But General Samudio says his troops are in a stalemate.

Amnesty International says Samudio's troops have taken matters into their own hands, murdering not only UP members but anyone whose ``failure to support the government is perceived by some in the security forces as equivalent to being `subversive.'''

Hundreds of case studies show their complicity in death squads, according to AI.

It cites the case of UP-member Alvaro Garces, a small-town mayor who was shot Aug. 12 by five assassins.

His death was widely publicized after a former soldier told government investigators he helped plan the crime at the request of Capt. Luis Ardila, chief of intelligence for the Army's 5th Brigade. Ardila still holds his position. The ex-soldier who testified against him is in hiding.

Third in a series. Next: Politics and reform.

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