Colombians Fear Security Measures
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:; AUDIO:%)
SARAVENA, Colombia _ The police station in the center of this embattled town near the Venezuelan border is surrounded by rubble, evidence of more than 60 rebel attacks here this year alone.
Yet the government’s decision last week to give the military broad powers to regain control of Saravena has many residents worried their rights are about to be trampled.
Newly elected President Alvaro Uribe is testing security policies in Saravena and the nearby towns of Arauca and Arauquita, hoping to subdue leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries. The three towns form one of two new ``rehabilitation zones″ where Uribe has invoked special powers allowing authorities to make arrests and conduct searches without warrants, order curfews and regulate travel.
The new measures have garnered broad approval in most of Colombia, but residents worry the government may be going too far.
``Our fear is that the community will be repressed and that it will be the people who suffer the weight of these measures,″ said Leonel Goyenche, a Saravena labor leader.
Saravena long has been stigmatized as a town that collaborates with the rebels and Goyenche is worried that security forces, freed of the burden of proving their cases in court, may indiscriminately target civilians in their efforts to route out rebels.
Unlike most regions in Colombia, the rebels have a certain level of support among the people in Arauca state, Saravena mayor Jorge Sierra acknowledged.
Sierra, who was kidnapped by the National Liberation Army, or ELN _ the smaller of two main rebel groups _ said residents have expressed concerns that the new measures will lead to military abuses because the troops haven’t been trained for such a complicated situation.
``The security forces have been trained for war,″ he explained. ``That opens the possibility of abuses by the soldiers who feel stronger now.″
Because of the frequent rebel attacks on Saravena, marines who patrol the nearby Arauca River jokingly call it ``Sarajevo″ _ the Bosnian capital that saw some of Yugoslavia’s bloodiest fighting in the 1990s.
Soldiers have already mounted roadblocks and randomly search residents and cars entering and leaving town.
``This is about combatting criminality in all its forms,″ said Gen. Carlos Lemus, the designated military commander of the rehabilitation zone. He insisted his forces would respect the rights of civilians. People are worried, he said, because of ``the way in which the terrorists have come here violating human rights.″
Some 20 people have been killed and another 100 injured in Arauca state in 242 ``violent actions″ _ bombings, attacks, firefights _ attributed to the rebels this year, he said.
The largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has about 1,200 fighters in Arauca state while the ELN has another 1,000. Another 600 right-wing paramilitary fighters are also roaming the region. The various groups are fighting for control of an estimated 24,700 acres planted in drug crops, as well as profits they can siphon off an oil field and pipeline.
The security situation is so serious, officials have postponed next week’s elections for governor.
The outcome of the government’s first attempt to flex its muscles in this battle-weary state likely will determine how officials proceed in other war zones around the country. The government has asked the prosecutor’s office and the inspector general’s office to have employees available to consult with the military whenever possible, to ensure that basic rights are respected.
Such guarantees have done little to alleviate fears in Saravena.
``We live in the fear of all the threats that surround us, but we’re becoming accustomed to it,″ said shopkeeper Leonardo Mateos.
``If they do something about it,″ he added, lowering his voice as a heavily armed patrol passed, ``hopefully they will respect the civilians.″