Colombia's guerrilla war moves downtown

Two schoolchildren died in a recent urban battle, as rebels changed tactics, turf.

It had been two days since the battle that held her hillside neighborhood hostage for hours, but still the school cook couldn't stop crying.

The woman – accustomed to offering hot meals and a warm heart to students at Independence Neighborhood Lyceum, a public school in an impoverished section of Medellín, just minutes from the bustling city center – couldn't believe Colombia's war had reached her doorstep.

"It's incredible to me that they've killed our children," the cook, whose name was not published, told Bogota's El Tiempo newspaper.

Two of the school's students – an 11-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy – were caught in the crossfire last month when the war erupted in their urban neighborhood. Seven other people were also killed.

Not just Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city, but the whole country, was shocked. Bombs have gone off in urban centers, and people have been kidnapped – sometimes in dramatic fashion, as in April, when leftist guerrillas took 12 legislators hostage in broad daylight in the southeastern city of Cali. But this was a full-blown urban battle, the national police and Army soldiers fighting an urban militia of the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group.

"What we're seeing is the announced change in strategy of the FARC" since the breaking off of peace talks in February between them and the government, says Augusto Ramírez-Ocampo, a Colombian statesman and former minister and mayor of Bogotá. "They are doing two things: returning to true guerrilla warfare, and taking the war to the cities."

For nearly four decades, the guerrilla war has been for most Colombians a distant rural conflict, characterized by fighting in far jungles and increasingly frequent massacres of civilians in marginal, dirt-path settlements. But after a half-decade in which the numbers and reach of leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have grown, Colombians are worried the war is moving downtown.

In addition to the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, Colombians must now factor in the "militias" – urban-based branches of the combatants that until now have served less as soldiers and more as spies, purchasing agents, and urban terrorists. "The militias are these groups' reserves," says Fernando Cepeda, a Bogotá political analyst. "They buy food and medicines for the people in the field and perform kidnappings and intelligence duties." Estimating their numbers in Colombian cities at 10,000 , he adds, "They're also becoming more active, as we're seeing."

And the Army and national police seem determined to take them on. The Medellín battle was initiated by government forces. And despite criticism from residents that police caused most of the deaths and injuries by firing indiscriminately, Army officials say the fight to take back neighborhoods won't stop.

That's all the more likely to be true under newly elected president Alvaro Uribe Velez.He promises to go after Colombia's outlaw elements, which will ratchet up the conflict.

The day after Medellín's battle, the mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus, called a special cabinet meeting to review the city's security policies – and to assure the press that the situation could not be repeated in the capital.

But the mayor's certainty draws sad smiles in the far south of Bogotá, in vast slums like Ciudad Bolívar, where many of Bogotá's estimated 1,000 militia members are believed to be living.

"Of course what happened in Medellín could happen here, and if Uribe pushes for war, it will," says Orlando Ardila, director of the Rufino José Cuervo Educational Center, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade public school in the Tunjuelito neighborhood skirting Ciudad Bolívar. "Who does Mockus think placed the bicycle bombs?" asks Mr. Ardila, referring to several bombs attached to bicycles that shook Bogotá in March. One of the bicycle bombs exploded outside a police station not far from Ardila's school, killing five people.

The school director of 17 years says it is unrealistic for Colombians to think the conflict would spare the cities – especially after a decade during which Colombia's metropolitan areas swelled with 2 million new residents – most of them rural people displaced by the fighting. "This school serves a population that has arrived from all over, and nearly 20 percent of the students live in families with an income of less than $3 a day," Ardila says.

Shootings around Ciudad Bolívar are generally blamed on the sector's common criminal gangs, he adds, but people whisper that the war's antagonists are involved more often than the authorities acknowledge.

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