Colombia borrows Peru's playbook to fight rebels

On Tuesday, an official suggested that the state of emergency become permanent.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On Aug. 12, just five days into the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia found itself in a situation not unfamiliar to many Latin Americans: living under a state of emergency.

Mortar shells rained down on the city's poorest neighborhood, El Cartucho, during Mr. Uribe's inauguration on Aug. 7, killing 21 people. Less than a week later, living up to his campaign promise to govern with a "firm hand," Uribe declared a state of "conmocion interior" – a limited state of emergency – to help the government combat the country's rebel groups, the strongest of which, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), allegedly committed the inauguration-day crime.

While Colombian public opinion tends to split along socioeconomic lines – the rich and better-educated welcome the declaration, while the poor say it will only exacerbate the killing here – experts say that if history is any indication, this state of emergency is likely to continue here until the end of the now four-decade-old civil war.

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"States of emergency aren't that unusual in Latin America," says Eduardo Gamarra, the head of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida's International University. "The problem in Colombia ... is it's a state of emergency that is not going to be temporary but long term."

Peru lived under a constant state of emergency when Alberto Fujimori was president from 1990 to 2000. Bolivia has declared a state of emergency for economic reasons during every democratic government since 1985. And within the past year, temporary states of emergency have been declared in Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay.

In Colombia, besides imposing a 1.2 percent tax on the wealthy to raise $800 million to augment the armed forces, the de facto state of emergency, which will initially last for 90 days but can be extended twice, allows the government to restrict the movement of citizens, tap cellphone calls, and raid homes of suspected criminals, in some cases without a judicial warrant.

Last week, Minister of Defense Martha Lucia Ramirez said that the government would arm 15,000 farmers under the new decree in order to form a rural defense force. And on Tuesday, Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londono suggested in a speech to Congress that some of the emergency powers may need to become permanent, including combating the smuggling of gas, a primary weapon of the FARC, and ending a law that returns goods to narcotraffickers.

States of emergency in Latin America have not necessarily ended well for their leaders. Argentina's brief state of emergency late last year failed to quell unrest following then-President Fernando de la Rua's economic austerity program, and he was ultimately forced to resign.

And though Mr. Fujimori is credited with eliminating the rebel groups Shining Path and Tupac Amaru in Peru, in 2000 he fled to Japan to escape trial for his alleged connection to 25 death-squad slayings of terrorist leaders during the early 1990s. Fujimori denies any connection with the killings, and Japan has thus far refused to extradite him.

In April 1992, Fujimori abolished Congress and the country's Constitution. Though neither of these has yet happened in Colombia, Gamarra says that Uribe is modeling his fight against the FARC on Peru's example.

"One might ... argue that Uribe is borrowing many, many pages from Fujimori's battle against the Shining Path," Gamarra says. Based on the American strategy of arming peasants in Vietnam, Fujimori used "rondas campesinas" similar to the rural defense forces Ramirez announced last week, he explains.

"It worked for Fujimori, but there was a cost," Gamarra says, pointing to weakened democratic institutions and violations of human rights, a concern of many observers here. "In Colombia, you really are talking about arming a society that is already armed and that has many risks. And the most important risk is once you arm a population like this it's hard to take those arms away."

Since the establishment of Colombia's new Constitution in 1991, there have been five emergency decrees, which don't require approval from Congress (except to extend them for a third time), but do require ratification by the nation's Constitutional Court. Three of those decrees were supported by the court, and the current one is also expected to receive judicial approval.

"I think we are going to see more measures," says Carlos Gaviria, a senator and former constitutional court judge. "In all respects, the government has, without doubt, an authoritarian orientation" that could grow.

In a list sent to the court to justify the decree, Uribe pointed to the worsening security situation, including death threats by the FARC that have caused 200 regional officials to resign, as well as the economic effects of the civil war.

In El Cartucho, residents don't know much about the state of emergency, and mistrust of the new government, particularly the local police, runs high.

"They didn't protect anything," says Cesar (who doesn't give his last name), a community leader who blames Uribe, not the FARC, for the Aug. 7 attacks and the gruesome death of his friends. "If he wasn't president, this wouldn't have happened."

But in the upper middle-class neighborhood of Pontevedra, Guillermo Galvis, an accountant who lives two blocks from where another round of mortars was fired, blamed the FARC for the inauguration day attacks and wholly supports the state of emergency.

"The guerrillas have this country kidnapped," says Mr. Galvis, who voted for Uribe. "We have to violate human rights in order to protect the people."

Galvis says he would not only invite the police into his home, he would open his arms to American armed forces. "Right now, the United States is helping us with technology and intelligence ... but if they want to send people and soldiers, they are welcome."

The civil war's original Marxist social causes are largely driven by lucrative cocaine, kidnapping, and arms trade which pits more than 25,000 guerrillas against government forces and 12,000 paramilitaries.

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