Colombia's newest troops don't have to leave home

Some 5,000 troops eagerly enlist in a program that lets them serve in own villages.

Like many of this country's forgotten villages, this sleepy hamlet never had a military presence.

That changed six weeks ago when 36 soldiers wearing fatigues and wielding Galil rifles marched into the town square.

But it wasn't an occupation. It was a homecoming.

These young men, ranging in age from 18 to 28, were returning to their hometown from three months of basic training in the capital, Bogotá. They were greeted with anthems and white banners. Schools closed, and the mayor declared the day a civic holiday.

Their mission: to protect their 12,000 neighbors and their families from the creeping presence of leftist guerrilla forces.

These sons of San Francisco are part of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez's newest weapon in the war on terror - recruits of a fledgling program called soldados campesinos, or peasant soldiers.

In order to strengthen the armed forces as quickly as possible, Mr. Uribe has offered Colombia's young men a new way to serve a 18-month mandatory military service. Instead of being stationed in far-flung provinces, where the population regards them suspiciously, the peasant- soldier program allows troops to return to their home villages. The aim is to train more than 15,000 soldiers this year and dispatch them to 450 of 1,098 municipalities over the next six months. More than 150 of Colombia's towns have never had military presence.

The program was announced last fall, and soldiers just began arriving in the nation's war- ravaged villages last month. Some 5,000 eager recruits have already enlisted and the government hopes that being with their families is enough to keep young men from dodging military service.

"This is a very special opportunity to be close to my family ... to feel their warmth," says Johan Murillo, who joined the program, along with his younger brother. "We also receive a lot of cooperation from the population."

The troops get three months' training, and $17 a month in pay, although room and board is provided. They have just begun arriving in Colombia's war-ravaged villages and so far, there have been no major conflicts or casualties.

According to Col. Ruben Alzate, who will train 200 peasant soldiers at the Rincón Quiñones barracks in Bogotá this year, the soldiers' special training is in urban warfare tactics.

"In three months, they are ready," Alzate says.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Army's main foe, has no direct presence in San Francisco. But Alzate explains that the village is a "strategic" point in neutralizing the guerrillas should they try and advance toward the capital, an hour and a half west. Any intelligence gathered in the area would help the Army better plan its offensive operations.

On a daily basis, the troops' main tasks include patrolling the town square, searching cars entering and exiting the village, interacting with the population, and aiding in civic education and cleaning campaigns. According to the platoon's commander, Sgt. Mena Córdoba Edison, common crime, such as theft of cattle and cars, has decreased 80 percent since the troops arrived.

Social workers

Sergeant Córdoba says the role of his troops is as much social as it is in defense of the community.

"The people are always going to be with them," Córdoba commented. "They are sons of the village."

Indeed, in contrast to other Colombian towns closer to the front lines, people did not seem afraid to greet the soldiers patrolling the main plaza with guns slung over their shoulders. On one recent morning, residents shook hands with Córdoba and took him aside to whisper in hushed tones. Such a scene would be unimaginable in other villages where police and soldiers live behind fortified bunkers, afraid to venture as far as the main square.

"It has bettered the peace," says Mayor Nelson Arístizabal, who has been under a FARC death threat since last June and had only seven policemen for protection. "They know the land. They know the people."

The people have more "desire to live," Arístizabal says. "They give us affection."

The soldiers live in a blue-painted barracks, a former private farm, down a gravel path minutes from the town square. With a shaded gazebo, mango and orange trees, bunk beds, and a kitchen where they cook their own food, it resembles something of sleep-away camp with Córdoba as the camp counselor. Every four days, the soldiers take turns sleeping at home.

Uribe's government hopes that the peasant soldiers will form a bond with their home community, giving the Army better intelligence about rebel movements. The president also argues that with the ability to stay near home, young recruits will now choose to join the Army instead of the FARC or right-wing paramilitaries.

But some human rights groups say the young troops aren't given sufficient training - regular troops receive an average of four months' training, continued wherever they are stationed. They also contend that the peasants, along with their families, make easy military targets.

Risky business?

"They are running a lot of risks," says Daniel Garcia Peña, head of the pro-peace group, Planeta Paz. Mr. Peña says that by sleeping in their homes and interacting with their families and their friends, the soldiers are "involving the civilian population in a more direct manner" in the war.

But so far, the plan seems to be working in San Francisco, where the troops, and the people they serve, are content. "One always walks with morale. It is for your family," explains Johan Murillo, who, echoing other recruits, says one of the primary reasons he enlisted was to have the ability to "protect" his family.

In exchange, Murillo adds, "It is almost a responsibility for them to protect us" by supplying information. Though he hasn't confronted the guerrillas head-on, Murillo says he must be ready for whatever comes his way. "You cannot trust. You have to take care of yourself. You can't allow yourself to leave your routine."

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