In a country long torn by a violent civil war, the Colombian town of Aguachica was recently an island of peace.
The town, situated in a fertile valley dominated by cattle farms, is surrounded by all the key players: radical guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries paid by ranchers. The Army enjoys little control. Murders are common.
Last year, Aguachica's citizens voted to make the town a neutral zone, and pleaded with the factions to respect it. "People who previously collaborated with the guerrillas or the paramilitaries had to cut their ties," says Mayor Luis Fernando Rincn.
The town was peaceful for almost a year, until violence returned in September. Leftist guerrillas torched three buses near the town. And throughout Colombia, guerrillas burned dozens of trucks and buses and destroyed factories and power lines. Their new campaign of economic sabotage against a government weakened by a drug-money scandal boosted prices and shook the economy.
The two major groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have doubled their numbers in 10 years. They are spread over 70 percent of the country, and are now creating havoc.
The nationwide offensive launched jointly by the ELN and FARC shows the insurgents' ability to create chaos with hit-and-run operations is growing. Analysts estimate the two groups together have 10,000 to 15,000 armed guerrillas.
The rebel offensive began in the south of Colombia in late August, when the FARC attacked a military garrison in retaliation for allegations that the guerrilla bands were engaged in drug trafficking. Thirty soldiers were killed and another 60 kidnapped. The government is still negotiating their release. It was the biggest rebel victory in recent years.
But it is the guerrillas' economic sabotage that is frustrating even Colombians who are sympathetic to their leftist cause.
Aguachica's Mayor Rincn was a guerrilla himself for 15 years with a now-defunct rebel group. But Rincn says he's bewildered by the current guerrilla tactics.
The surrounding Cesar province, he says, "is in an economic crisis, an unemployment crisis; attacking the economic sector, burning tractor-trailers, won't bring down the government. It won't help the poor."
In guerrillas' stronghold
The guerrillas are based deep in the countryside in strongholds such as Micohumado, a two-hour spine-jarring drive into the mountains from Aguachica. A bright placard announces it as ELN territory. A bit farther, another sign warns, "DON'T LEAVE THE ROAD MINEFIELD ZONE."
Micohumado has been under guerrilla control for the past 10 years. But their presence is not immediately obvious until the morning hours, when a dozen guerrillas come walking and riding motorbikes into town.
In a house, the political head of the local ELN military division, known by the nombre de guerra "Emanuel," makes no apologies for the guerrillas' economic attacks.
"We sent out notices that we were launching a national armed strike - which means all activity stops. Those who choose to disobey pay the consequences," he says.
He says by hitting the government in the pocketbook, as well as on the military front, the rebels hope to force authorities to take their demands seriously.
The guerrillas are pushing a Marxist-Leninist platform that includes a massive redistribution of Colombia's land and wealth to the poor. Ironically, analysts point out the war has forced thousands of peasants to abandon their farms and seek protection in cities.
The rebels are also demanding the dismantling of the Army, the nationalization of the energy sector, and a radical political reorganization to put decisionmaking in community hands. "We, the poor, want the chance to rule this country, too," Emanuel says.
He admits the guerrillas timed the escalation to take advantage of President Ernesto Samper Pizano's government, weakened by allegations of drug cartel ties.
But this offensive has been in the planning for several years.
"If Samper were not sitting in the presidential seat in a political crisis, in any case, our guerrillas would have launched the actions we've taken and that we plan to continue into the future," Emanuel asserts.
But he says serious peace talks are a long way off, because the guerrillas won't recognize President Samper's authority.
"We're not interested in a peace agreement like the ones signed by guerrilla groups in the past," says Emanuel. "They've all ended the same. The government never lives up to its promises and they slowly assassinate all the former guerrilla leaders. We don't want the peace of the graveyard."
Which is why the escalation will continue, Emanuel says. Though this wave of violence is on the ebb, he expects the next will begin three months from now.
"And this time," he whispers conspiratorially "it will be more sustained."
Paramilitaries also active
What's frightening for many Colombians is that the guerrillas are not the only ones escalating their activities. In Cesar province, Governor Mauricio Pimiento is worried. In recent weeks, a new group of paramilitaries has appeared in the province. They've come from other regions, particularly Uraba, a zone renowned for massacres and high paramilitary activity.
"If they're determined to turn Cesar into one of their battlezones with the guerrillas, things are going to get difficult," Pimiento says.
Commander "Jimmy" is one of the 150 new arrivals from Uraba, come to reinforce the local paramilitaries.
"We see that this province is falling apart in the hands of the guerrillas, and we've come to liberate it," Jimmy says. "They say this area is theirs and they're not going to leave. Well, we'll see. They've got guns, so do we. So, let's fight!"
Support for paramilitaries
The group is bankrolled by local landowners, another paramilitary explains. They pay 2,400 pesos ($2.40) per acre of land annually for protection.
According to civilian leaders, what's frightening about the paramilitaries is that their main targets are not guerrillas, but civilians they believe support guerrillas, such as the leftists' friends and family, or activists. Factory workers and farmers are routinely killed over their perceived allegiances.
When the peace finally fell apart in Aguachica, explains Mayor Rincn, "In one week, we've had three groups of killings, 11 people dead in all."
"The first two incidents were apparently by paramilitaries. The third appears to have been carried out by guerrillas. It looks like the paramilitaries have started a social cleansing and the guerrillas are hitting back."
"The situation is deteriorating," he says sadly.