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Posted on Mon, Jun. 17, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
In Colombia, war expanding from jungles to the cities

Special to The Herald

A sudden burst of gunfire echoed off the modest homes clinging to the steep hills of the 20 de Julio neighborhood, one of Medellín's most violent.

Minutes later, two hooded rebels dragged the bloodied body of a young man by the legs down a labyrinth of steps and alleyways that crisscross the slum. At the bottom of the hill, they unceremoniously tossed it in a wheelbarrow and carted him off to be deposited at the door of the local hospital.

Across the valley, up on the opposite hills, paramilitary gunmen had just returned from a shootout with rebel infiltrators who had opened fire from a taxi they hired to take them into the enemy zone. Three paramilitary fighters were wounded.

This is the newest front of Colombia's brutal, 38-year-old civil war. Leftist rebels and rightist paramilitary fighters have transformed Medellín's lawless, impoverished neighborhoods into a battleground as they wage a daily fight for control of the country's second largest city.

Medellín has long been Colombia's most violent city, confronting drug-related killings and gang warfare. But the increased presence of the rebel and paramilitary groups over the past two years has produced a startling escalation in violence.


Colombia's two main guerrilla movements, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, have traditionally maintained small forces in Colombia's main cities, including the capital.

But until now they served mostly as logistics units, supplying food and medicine to the rural fronts and occasionally organizing random terrorist attacks.

That changed in July 2000, when the peasant-based FARC announced a new strategy of taking the war to the cities. At the same time, the paramilitary force known as AUC, for United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, began bringing fighters to the city, provoking street-by-street battles for control of the neighborhoods.

''The urban armed conflict is being seen more in Medellín than in other cities,'' said Gen. Leonardo Gallego, commander of the metropolitan police, which estimate there are 800 paramilitaries and 1,500 rebels active in the city.

Local authorities have reacted to the encroaching war aggressively, and fatally.

A May 21 police and army raid operation in the 20 de Julio neighborhood quickly turned into the worst urban fighting yet in Colombia's war, when rebels met the troops with automatic weapons fire.

The 800 troops returned the fire and by the time the battle ended 10 hours later, nine people -- including two small girls -- were dead and another 37 injured. Police first claimed the dead were members of the militias, then said the civilians were killed by rebel fire.

Edilma Tascón, 53, doesn't know who fired the bullet that killed her 11-year-old daughter Yisel that day, but she blames the police. ''They are killing us in our homes,'' she said. ``As long as the police don't come we live well, but when they come it's just one gunfight after another.''

Last month's urban battle here was a wake-up call for the country's largest cities, a clear warning about the increased possibility of expanding urban warfare.

''The violent events in Medellín reveal the risks of a general intensification of urban armed violence in the country,'' the Human Rights Ombudsman's office said in a statement. The strategy for Medellín's authorities is to fight their way into the lawless barrios.

''We cannot permit any areas to be off-limits for the police. The police have to continue going into the barrios,'' said Mayor Luis Pérez, who was nearly the victim of his own city's violence when rebels opened fire on a bus carrying him to a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The mayor was unharmed.


The mayor admits the police haven't had real control over the hills for more than 15 years, so when the rebels and paramilitaries decided to bring the war to the cities, they found fertile ground in crime-ridden slums.

''Constant violence has become part of the city's being,'' said Gonzalo Medina Pérez, a political analyst at the Universidad de Antioquia.

Observers trace the violence to the 1980s, when Pablo Escobar's powerful drug cartel outsourced murder to hordes of impoverished youths from squatter settlements surrounding the city. In 1991, at the height of Escobar's killing spree, 6,300 people were murdered in this city of two million. After his death,the rate declined to about 3,000 per year, mostly involving gang killings.

Today, rebels and paramilitaries have co-opted many of the independent gangs that arose after the death of Escobar, killing off those who will not cooperate.

The number of murders jumped last year to 3,445, mostly in the disputed neighborhoods. In the first four months of this year, 1,571 homicides were reported -- an average of 13 murders per day.

And while the death of nine people in the open battle here last month alarmed many Colombians, the war in Medellín is mostly fought one enemy a time, like the recent killing of the intruder in the 20 de Julio neighborhood.

Authorities say they are fighting both the rebels and paramilitaries, but the only problem neighborhoods cited by the mayor and police chief are those controlled by the FARC or ELN militias, or a third, Medellín-specific militia known as the Popular Action Commandos, or CAP.

The paramilitaries claim to control over 80 percent of the hillside neighborhoods, the same percentage the mayor cites as areas that ``function in complete peace.''

But Mayor Pérez denies the authorities are allowing the paramilitaries a free hand to combat the guerrillas. ''What we have recovered we have done with the visible forces of the state,'' he said. ``We don't want the paramilitaries here.''

But paramilitary commanders are bent on continuing their own recovery efforts.

''We started off small to see how people would react to our presence and two years ago the top commanders decided to start hitting harder,'' said one neighborhood paramilitary leader known as Piolín.

''We now control 80 percent of the barrios,'' Piolín boasted as two paramilitary fighters in camouflage took position with an AK-47 assault rifle and a mortar on the corrugated plastic rooftop of a modest home. ``Our goal is to liberate the other 20 percent in the next two years.''

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