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Colombia resorts to historical war strategy: civil resistance

President Uribe called a state of near emergency Monday following a week of rebel violence that left 115 dead.

By Rachel Van DongenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2002


After guerrillas demanded in early June that all of this country's mayors leave town, more than 200 municipal executives quit in fear.

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Not Segundo Tombé. He says he is not afraid of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group, which, as part of a continuing assault on Colombia's government and society, threatened mayors with retribution if they did not resign. Many towns are now without an administration.

Mr. Tombé, a Guambiano Indian who presides over Silvia, a mostly indigenous town on the outskirts of the provincial capital Popayan, says he owes his secure feeling to the indigenous tradition of civil resistance that goes back hundreds of years to the Spanish conquest of South America. The concept is gaining popularity at an increasingly desperate time when many here view the government as incapable of providing adequate security.

Several recent standoffs between indigenous towns and rebel guerrillas have led some of Colombia's elite to embrace civil resistance as a way to end the nation's 38-year civil war. Even newly-elected President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who promised a hard-line approach toward rebel groups, is counting on civilians to take a more active role in ending the violence that has only escalated since his inauguration last Wednesday.

Early Monday, Mr. Uribe declared a state of near emergency, granting his government special measures after a week of violence left 115 dead. Immediate measures include a call for 10,000 new police officers and 6,000 soldiers, as well as plans to create a web of 1 million civilian informants, who may even be armed. The cost for these measures is estimated to be $780 million, which will paid for by a tax increase.

Human rights groups, however, say that involving civilians directly in the war will make them targets. They argue that Colombia's police and Army don't have the resources to protect civilian informants, who could be exposed to retribution.

But Mayor Tombé has seen the benefits of involving civilians in the protracted conflict. "[The FARC] have done nothing with me," he says from a makeshift office he uses part of the week in Popayan, one of the "prudent" security measures he has adopted since the FARC's edict. "I have a lot of backing from the community."

Wearing the traditional black bowler hat and bright purple skirt of his tribe, Tombé declares: "If they do anything with me, they're going to have a lot of difficulties with the community. There will be an indigenous uprising."

That is exactly what happened last month in the nearby towns of Totoró and Toribío, in the southwestern province of Cauca. The largely indigenous communities marched in the streets to defend their elected officials when the FARC arrived.

The left-wing guerrilla group retaliated by launching a 72-hour siege of both towns, gravely wounding many civilians. In Toribío, they held 14 policemen hostage, threatening to burn them alive. But the townspeople, helped by the local priest, implored the FARC to respect the lives of the policemen, and they were ultimately let go. The local FARC commander told a television station that they did not kill the officers because they acted like "true men."