The 30-year-old guerrilla war in Colombia may be entering a new, more violent phase. In an ominous escalation last week, 500 rebels reduced an Army base in the south of the country to rubble, killing 60 soldiers and injuring 19. A further 60 men reported missing are being held as prisoners, the rebels said via the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The attack, which took place Friday night at Las Delicias in the Amazon region of Putamayo, represents the worst bloodletting in Colombia's recent history. It was part of a widespread weekend offensive that saw a further 33 deaths nationwide.
"The situation is very volatile," says Alejandro Reyes, professor of political science at the National University in Bogot. "Two small and separate enemies - guerrilla insurgency and the drug trade, which was previously the responsibility of the police - now confront the Army as a united front."
It also confirms the willingness and capability of the guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to mount highly organized, large-scale assaults on the country's armed forces. "They came across the [soccer field], out of the jungle, across the river. They had dynamited buildings, and they attacked us from all sides," says Norbey Villa, a teenage recruit who survived gunshot wounds.
Guerrilla forces in Colombia are funded, at least in part, by the cocaine trade. They aim to protect peasants who grow coca, used to make cocaine. Friday's attack comes in the wake of months of demonstrations and riots involving more than 150,000 people in the coca-growing regions of Putamayo, Caqueta, and Guaviare. Farmers, allegedly whipped up by the guerrillas, are furious at the government attempts, backed by the United States, to wipe out 70,000 acres of coca plantations this year.
Under pressure from the Clinton administration, and keen to see the threat of US sanctions lifted, President Ernesto Samper Pizano is adamant that his coca-eradication program will continue. But as a result of the farmers' revolt, he has, for the first time, dragged the Army deep into the conflict.
Experts say that the Army is ill-prepared. Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Esguerra acknowledges the Army lacks training and intelligence gathering. Most of the troops in Putamayo are raw recruits doing national service. In recent weeks, soldiers have been filmed taking part in brutal and seemingly indiscriminate attacks on peasant demonstrators. A TV cameraman was attacked and suffered severe cuts and bruises. Generals, meanwhile, are lobbying politicians for increased powers in areas of unrest.
Fifteen of Colombia's 31 regions grow coca. With reports of farmers mobilizing and gathering in the regions of Cauca, Magdelena Medio, and Norte Santander, there are deep concerns that the conflict may get out of hand. "We may be standing on the edge of a precipice," Dr. Reyes warns. "Crises seem to be solved only when they reach critical. Failure to solve this crisis now could result in a social catastrophe."
Academics here see the Colombian government-US approach to the drug war as ham-fisted and worry that it will provoke an increasingly aggressive response from rebel forces.
They claim that reducing coca production in the long term will involve a radical upheaval for some 100,000 families in Colombia. To overcome such a social problem requires negotiation and financial investment to provide real alternatives for peasants.
Analysts here would like to see the US assert more pressure and support on these issues rather than crop spraying. Many argue that Washington and the Colombian government should now accept that the eradication of coca is intrinsically linked to the guerrilla war. They also argue that crop spraying to date has not prevented a single gram of cocaine from entering the US.
"Even if you eradicate every coca plant on Colombian soil, you will simply raise prices and push production deeper into Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador," contends sociologist and author Alfredo Molano. "You will also bring misery and suffering to many thousands of people."