Taming one of Colombia's most violent areas. Controversial general imposes his brand of law and order on peasants and rebels
Apartad'o, Colombia — The left calls him Colombia's Pinochet. The right hopes that he will help prevent revolution from invading Colombia via Central America. Gen. Luis Armando Arias Cabrales is the most controversial character in Colombia's northern Urab'a banana-growing region.
The general arrived in Apartad'o, the prosperous hub of Colombia's $200 million-dollars-a-year banana-export industry, in July. President Virgilio Barco Vargas had named him military chief of the zone. His job: to bring law and order to one of Colombia's most conflict-ridden regions.
``The President, columnists, journalists, and political leaders have admitted that the country is at war,'' General Arias says. ``Unfortunately many people still believe the war is taking place on Mars and won't affect them.''
But in Urab'a, a region of more than 300,000 inhabitants, it's impossible to deny the war has begun: Two of Colombia's main guerrilla organizations, the People's Liberation Army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, thrive here. Powerful labor unions are able to paralyze banana production. Assassinations of union members and leftists have become routine. And right-wing death squads, backed by the drug mafia and military officials, preliminary legal investigations show, have taken to killing peasants and farm hands.
This conflict is not, however, exclusive to Urab'a: It reflects what has been happening throughout Colombia for four years. Last year alone there were more than 17,000 homicides in this nation of 28 million, according to statistics, making it the most violent country in the hemisphere.
Those responsible include: leftist guerrillas, right-wing death squads, and wealthy drug traffickers.
The Interior Ministry has documented some 140 right-wing death squads which are killing leftist politicians, union activists, and anyone else they consider ``subversive.'' They have done this so quickly that human rights offices have bought computers to keep death lists up to date.
According to recent legal investigations, these squads are linked to Colombia's infamous drug barons in some cases and to the military in others.
More than 400 Colombians, mostly poor peasants, were killed in 46 collective massacres of five or more people between January and August, a Bogot'a-based, Jesuit-sponsored think-tank says.
The massacres commonly occur in areas like Urab'a, where the political left enjoys support. A rights lawyer calls it ``political genocide.''
In mid-September, helicopter attacks and military ground patrols forced 1,500 peasants, including several hundred children, to flee and take refuge in a school in Apartad'o. The Army troops were apparently searching for 22 soldiers and police kidnapped earlier during a guerrilla attack in a neighboring province.
``The bombs fell in the hills surrounding our cluster of homes ... close enough to fill us with terror,'' a peasant says. ``The next day the helicopters came back with machine-guns and bombs. My wife thought we would surely be killed if we did not leave. So we fled with our five children, leaving behind our chickens, ducks, pigs, rice fields, and corn and bean harvests.''
A government commission eventually negotiated the release of the 22 prisoners. But the peasants are still afraid to return to their farms. If their harvests rot, some will be unable to repay loans, and many may lose their meager plots.
Peasant leaders say the military accuses them of belonging to, or aiding, the guerrilla groups, and often confiscates part of the food they bring back from town, claiming it is ``for the rebels.''
In an effort to keep tabs on the workers, General Arias and the plantation owners have proposed a plan that would impose a strict identification-card system on all employees of the banana farms and their families, who would be registered in the local Army headquarters.
In response, the region's powerful labor unions called a strike by 26,000 plantation workers, cutting the flow of bananas to the US and Europe. Union officials say they fear that military intelligence units will feed this information to paramilitary death squads.
As in other parts of Colombia, the more strength the unions and left gain, the more leaders and members are killed. The largest Urab'a unions say nearly 200 members have been killed since 1984.
Meanwhile, plantation owners' profits have dropped almost 10 percent since the unions began fighting for better salaries and benefits, labor leaders say. Many in the region say the plantation owners have a hand in the violence.
``You ask me why there are so many murders in Urab'a? The right kills the left. Who on the right? The owners of the land. Who owns the land? The plantation owners,'' a local businessman says.