A Ride With a Woman As She Calms Colombia

Ombudsman helps towns caught in war.

Drought has left the hills outside Medellin parched and dusty, and the view from hillside roads is of dying coffee plants and dry riverbeds.

Nobody is in the town plaza. Even though it's market day, no stores are open. At the arrival of a jeep, people peek out of their windows and then quickly hide. Maria Girlesa Villegas, human rights ombudsman for troubled Antioquia Province, steps out of the jeep and starts rounding up people for a town meeting.

Guintar has been cut off from the rest of the country since Aug. 24, when a group of armed men arrived, identifying themselves as members of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group.

"They said, 'This is a guerrilla town, and we're shutting it down,' " says a high-school teacher who refused to give his name. The paramilitary soldiers painted antiguerrilla graffiti on the walls and blew up Guintar's single telephone before they left.

Many residents have fled, the teacher says, noting that the number of students at the high school has dropped from 70 to 25. The families who could not afford to leave are getting down to their last reserves of food and money, he says. For the past five months residents have been hiding behind closed doors.

"You never know when they're going to return and call out your name," the teacher says. Paramilitaries often arrive with a written list of people marked for execution as guerrilla collaborators.

Guintar is one of countless towns caught in the crossfire between Colombia's left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

The paramilitary groups are funded by large landowners - the left-wing rebels' traditional victims for extortion and kidnapping. The "paras" strategy is described in the Colombian idiom "take the water from the fish." They kill civilians they suspect of helping the guerrillas. They believe that if they cut off the guerrillas' informants and suppliers, they will be able to drive them away.

The paras' methods - which include torture - make them the No. 1 violator of human rights in Colombia, according to a US State Department Report on Human Rights released last month.

Ms. Villegas has the job of trying to extricate towns like Guintar from the conflict. Her last post was in Colombia's most dangerous region, the Gulf of Uraba. There she frequently faced the task of telling the soldiers to get out of town and leave the civilian population alone. Death threats caused her predecessor to leave after a few weeks on the job. Villegas stuck it out until she was promoted.

She seems to prefer barreling about the country in a jeep to working the desk back in Medellin - even though she's armed with nothing more than the insignia on her T-shirt and an ability to fast-talk just about anyone. Her solutions often have to address the situation without directly challenging the violent groups, because in many areas the government has no authority.

The conundrum is quickly apparent by residents' responses to her suggestions. When she asks if the town would like the Army to post soldiers, the response is unanimously negative. "When the paramilitaries come here, they are always scrambled up with a few soldiers from the Army," one resident says. "They all think we're guerrillas," says another. Villegas proposes that a new phone line be set up that can only receive calls. That way, no one will have to administer the phone in defiance of the paras' threats.

But she also emphasizes that the town needs to come up with its own solutions. "You know your problems better than anyone. You should meet with the government, but it will be better if you bring some concrete proposals," she says. The meeting seems to give courage to the villagers. One store opens up, and Villegas buys a round of soft drinks for residents. By the end of her visit, a young woman volunteers to help set up the new phone.

"I think there are people here with a lot of courage," Villegas says. But she admits problems threaten to overwhelm her office. "We're only a few people, and the whole province is in trouble."

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