Down the River in Colombia.

Author:Mitchell, Chip

It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad

My first day off the plane, I see why the Magdalena River Valley of Colombia is considered ,one of the most dangerous places in the hemispheres most violent country. Near the central plaza of Barrancabermeja, the valley's major city, two national police officers are guarding a half-acre of grass and concrete surrounded by a twelve-foot wall. Inside, 150 peasants have been trying to make do since arriving ten days ago, when the Colombian civil war shook their fishing village on a Magdalena tributary called the Cimitarra. They say they ran into the hills to escape bombing and machine-gun fire from a navy flotilla and airborne army troops.

"It was raining bullets," says Ana Garcia, an elderly woman. "We left everything we had. We don't know whether our homes are ruined."

In Bogota, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Curtis Kamman hears of the attack and deflects blame. "It's not always clear it's the army," he tells me. "Apparently, the paramilitaries have helicopters."

That's cold comfort for the peasants, including forty children, who walked for five hours to get here. There's little hope the government will provide shelter or protection if they return home, and Barrancabermeja's churches are already overflowing with refugees. It's an all-too-familiar story for the nearly two million Colombians displaced by the war, which has been raging now for almost four decades.

"We don't know of any actions by the military to stop the assassinations and massacres behind the displacements," says Jorge Rojas, executive director of the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement in Colombia.

Since the 1980s, rightist paramilitary groups have worked for cattle ranchers, drug traffickers, transnational oil firms, mining companies, and other vested interests. The private armies committed 63 percent of the nation's 219 massacres last year, according to the Permanent Committee for Defense of Human Rights in Colombia. A December report by New York-based Human Rights Watch blames the paramilitaries for three quarters of all abuses, and a February report by the group cites collaboration between the Colombian army and the paramilitaries. Together, they are behind most of the 35,000 political slayings over the last decade.

Last year, the United States sent military and police aid to Colombia totaling nearly $300 million, making it the third largest recipient, behind only Israel and Egypt. The Administration is pushing Congress to increase the sum to $1.6 billion over the next two years. Nearly 85 percent is slated for the nation's armed forces. Three army battalions would get U.S. Special Forces training, radar bases, intelligence assistance, thirty-three Huey helicopters, and thirty sophisticated Blackhawk...

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