A coed's path from poli-sci major to leftist guerrilla

Ivon Barragan Tovar seemed like a normal 22-year-old still living at home with her parents. Her bedroom in a lower-middle class Bogatá barrio still bore marks of innocence: a heart-shaped pillow and stuffed Winnie the Pooh.

But A.A. Milne wouldn't recognize the rest of Ms. Tovar's room decor. Police found intelligence documents, maps, and political propaganda supporting the Marxist-inspired rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or by their Spanish acronym, FARC.

Tovar was allegedly a FARC rebel. Last October, she was shot in a police shootout during an attempt to assassinate a prominent businessman in downtown Bogotá. The assassination attempt failed, and young "Juana" - Tovar's nom de guerre - is now dead. But her story offers a glimpse into the shadowy world of FARC's urban recruitment and how a seemingly average young woman became an alleged terrorist.

"Juana is more or less the typical young person recruited" by the FARC, says a police captain who supervises antiterrorist probes. "That stage of youth is so romantic."

According to him and other police officials, Tovar was recruited at 18 or 19, during her fourth semester of political science studies at Bogotá's 26,000-student National University.

Shortly afterward, she disappeared, allegedly to receive weapons training in a FARC-controlled area in southern Colombia. Juana reemerged in March 2003, and moved back in with her family.

According to police, the FARC decided to bring their largely rural war to Colombia's cities 20 years ago, but the pace of urban action increased once the government dissolved the rebel safe zone in February 2002. But then FARC lacked the necessary street smarts to put their plan into action. "The FARC couldn't send guerrillas from the mountain into the city without help," says a police major, who also investigated the case. They turned to universities in the hopes of creating an urban "guerrilla factory."

"The most fertile terrain was universities," the major explains, adding that schools provided the potent combination of "impressionable young people," urban savvy, and an "established social structure that gave [the FARC] cover."

Indeed, university students - in particular those at the National University, known for its leftist student body - have allegedly played a key role in many of the larger terrorist attacks in Bogotá during the past two years. After three mortar rounds were launched toward the attorney general's office and the US embassy in November 2002, city police found grenades, weapons, and bombmaking materials on the National University campus. Police are seeking three students from Bogotá's private Catholic University in connection with the Aug. 7, 2002, rocket attack on the presidential palace the day President Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated. In March 2003, two National University medical students were arrested for supposedly planting firebombs on the local bus system known as the Transmilenio.

Bogotá police won't put a number on how many students are involved in terrorist activities, saying the matter is too "delicate" to speak on the record.

But neither the National University's rector nor Bogotá's antiterror police say that the problem is huge. (The antiterror police captain estimates at most 10 students per university become FARC recruits). Though more students might sympathize with the FARC's Marxist ideology, joining is another thing entirely.

"I no longer see [the FARC] as a problem," says National University Rector Marco Palacios. "They no longer have a discourse, a clear ideology. The students are no longer so politicized. They are a little incredulous, apathetic."

Mr. Palacios stresses the FARC's strategic error of leaving a weapons trail on campus following the 2002 attack on the US embassy. He says that left FARC activists "very exposed" to city police, who quickly cracked down on illegal student activity, and since then have vastly improved their intelligence-gathering abilities.

Students interviewed in the school's main plaza, named for the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, seem to agree with the rector. "At the beginning the FARC was a group with some political ideology," says Leonardo Ramos, a 27-year-old studying civil engineering. "Now they are a group of organized bandits." He adds: "Here, nobody likes them."

Colombia's public universities have historically been fertile ground for FARC recruiting drives because they contain students from mostly poor backgrounds, more likely to be frustrated by Colombia's rigid social order. But police say the rebels are also recruiting at private universities, where the offer of cash is often a lure.

"They are people that like to live well," comments the police major. The FARC "gives them money that they aren't going to get from Mommy and Daddy."

But police agree that the typical FARC student recruit was more like Juana, a young lower or middle-class student with a "profound sensibility" for social justice and fairness.

According to police, the FARC often recruits by inviting students with certain ideological tendencies to informal "chats" where they are exposed to the Marxist point of view. But it is not until months later that the recruiters' true identity is actually revealed, once they are convinced that the recruit is on board. Other times the FARC lures students with an offer of free tuition.

In Juana's case, police don't know exactly how she was recruited. But they do know that in 2001 she was in the FARC safe haven participating in mandatory military training. There, they believe she met "Fabio," another FARC rebel with whom they say she had a romantic relationship.

While uninvolved in FARC activities, police claim her sister was aware that Juana had become part of the FARC's urban terror web. The family could not be reached for comment on this story, but press reports have quoted the family as denying Ms. Tovar's FARC ties, calling her death the result of mistaken identity.

Police say that Juana gained enough clout during her short time as a guerrilla that she headed an urban terror cell of about five people belonging to Bogotá's "Antonio Nariño" front. In that capacity, she welcomed rural FARC members into the city, helped them find housing, and taught them how to blend in. Proof of her esteemed position, police say, was the role she played in the Oct. 15, 2003, assassination attempt against Jorgé Visbal, the head of the national cattlemen's association and an outspoken FARC critic. Juana was fatally wounded while covering another FARC comrade with a 9 mm handgun.

Authorities later found a letter in the Tovar home suggesting that Juana didn't expect to to give her life in the line of duty.She talked about future plans, asked God for good luck, and wished the same to her alleged boyfriend, Fabio. Police say Fabio remains a fugitive.

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