The Death of a Colombian Party

The Patriotic Union, created when guerrillas laid down arms to join the democracy, has suffered systematic killings

AIDA ABELLA is a teacher, a city council member, and soon hopes to be a grandmother. She is also president of the Patriotic Union party, which is why she carries a .38 caliber handgun in her purse.

As Colombia prepares for presidential elections on May 29, the Patriotic Union (UP), once Colombia's third political party, will launch no candidate. ``He would be killed,'' Ms. Abella says.

Two presidential hopefuls were murdered in the 1990 campaign and another in 1986. ``When our candidates run for [local] office, they have to do it by proxy, with their friends basically doing the campaign for them,'' says Abella, who recently returned from exile in Switzerland because of threats against her life.

So far, 2,341 members of the Patriotic Union have been murdered. Not one of these cases has been solved. Some Colombians say the decimation is justified because they are leftists.

Abella says the UP simply threatens Colombia's jealously guarded, two-party system. ``This is very grave for a democracy, because this is a country that wants to live without opposition,'' Abella says.

Colombia's Conservative and Liberal parties fought a bitter civil war in which 200,000 were killed from 1948 until 1956. The period, called ``La Violencia,'' ended in a power-sharing agreement in which the two parties alternated the presidency. All other parties were outlawed.

The UP was formed, ironically, as a gesture of peace. In 1985, demobilized guerrillas were invited to lay down their arms and form a coalition with leftists from across the spectrum, including the Communist Party. By 1986, the UP had become Colombia's third political party, with nine seats in the house, five in the senate, and 351 mayors and city council seats.

Upcoming elections

In Sunday's election, Ernesto Samper, candidate for the ruling Liberal Party candidate is slightly ahead; Conservative party candidate Andres Pastrana follows closely behind. Former Marxist guerrilla-turned-candidate Antonio Navarro Wolf is a distant third in a race that includes 18 candidates in total. It is predicted that no candidate will win the 50 percent plus one needed for an outright victory. Election runoffs are scheduled for June 19. While communism has faded in Europe, it still has many supporters in Latin America. Colombia has the oldest guerrilla movement in the hemisphere, and the anticommunist military repression of 1960s Latin America has not abated here.

Chilean President Patricio Aylwin Azocar's Commission of Truth and Reconciliation denounced 2,279 murders, tortures, and forced disappearances of citizens by state agents under Gen. Augusto Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship, begun in 1973. Colombia suffers that many crimes each year, according to the director of the Andean Commission of Jurists, a human rights group.

Because Colombia is not a dictatorship, the murders receive little attention. The United States this year increased foreign aid, although the human rights group America's Watch has reported that the Army involved in antidrug efforts also has continuing connections to death squads perpetrating human rights abuses.

The ``dirty war'' against the left was common in the Southern Cone states of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay in the 1970s. But in these cases, the repression was against the left in general.

Systematic killing of the UP

``We know of nowhere in the world where a single political party is being annihilated in such a systematic manner,'' says Camilo Castellano, a researcher of the Bogota Jesuit rights group, the Center for Research and Popular Education.

In one case, reported in ``State Terrorism'' published by the Belgian human rights group Pax Christi International, the Army took no action against a lieutenant involved in a massacre.

In 1988, 23 peasants, many who were UP members, were mowed down in the coastal province of Monteria. Pax Christi says Lt. Luis Becerra hired the hit men and paid for their hotel. Since all soldiers are tried in military court, Lieutenant Becerra was acquitted, promoted to colonel and given a desk job in the Ministry of Defense, although the Attorney General's office recommended his firing. Last year, he was returned to command troops, the Third Brigade in the southern province of Valle de Cauca, where 13 peasants were murdered. Becerra is under investigation for directing that massacre, and has been retired from the Army.

The Ministry of Defense denies claims of human rights abuses. ``Those are totally false,'' says Jaime Vasquez, a ministry spokesman. ``The armed forces have no official policy of eliminating the UP or participating in politics.''

But an entire town that elects UP mayors and town councils may be slated for reprisals. The gold mining center of Segovia was attacked by a death squad in 1988 after a UP mayor and town council took office. For 45 minutes on the night of Nov. 11, gunmen calmly and randomly shot down 43 people drinking in bars, shooting even children and dogs.

Although their shots actually ricocheted off the police station, and the death squad had to pass an Army battalion to enter and leave Segovia, both institutions claim that they heard nothing. The Army was exonerated, though a soldier was arrested slipping death threats under the mayor's door the night before the massacre.

From its peak of 14 seats in the legislature, the UP now has only one. Membership has fallen. But Abella says things may be improving for the UP. Normally, murders rise notably before election time, but this election year the UP is suffering more arrests.

``I believe they're commuting our death sentences for prison terms,'' Abella says. ``Now we have about 2,000 members in jail. We've never had so many prisoners. They're the survivors.''

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