Colombia's Wild West, Arauca proving hard to tame


Published: Monday, January 27, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 7:58 p.m.

ARAUCA, Colombia (AP) - It is hard to find any place as lawless in Colombia as the towns and sweeping savannas of oil-rich Arauca state, where two foreign journalists were kidnapped last week.

Slightly bigger than Switzerland, Arauca was settled by only a handful of hardy pioneers. But when oil was discovered here in the early 1980s, rebels from the National Liberation Army quickly moved in and began extorting money from the company that built the pipeline.

Then came the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Colombia's main rebel group, and the two groups began bombing the pipeline with astonishing regularity _ 170 times in 2001 alone.

Right-wing paramilitary gunmen entered the fray a few years ago and are trying to push the rebels from Arauca. Civilians living on Arauca's sun-scorched plains endure kidnappings, massacres and cattle rustling.

So when President Alvaro Uribe took office last August, he made taming Arauca state a priority _ declaring special security zones, beefing up the army's presence and appointing a hard-liner as governor. U.S. special forces are to begin training Colombian army troops this week to protect the pipeline from rebel attacks.

But months into the crackdown, Arauca is as wild and violent as ever.

On Tuesday, National Liberation Army rebels intercepted photographer Scott Dalton, a native of Conroe, Texas, and reporter Ruth Morris, a Briton, with a roadblock on an Arauca highway, 70 miles southwest of the state capital.

The rebels led the journalists away with hoods covering their heads and announced Thursday they had kidnapped the two freelancers, on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, and would release them only when "the political and military conditions permit."

Gov. Jose Emiro Palencia, a retired army colonel, recently resigned because of death threats. Bombs still explode in the towns and on rural roads. A car bomb allegedly planted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia exploded Sunday in the Arauca village of Pueblo Nuevo, killing six government soldiers and one civilian and wounding eight soldiers and one civilian, the army said. Rebels and paramilitaries still brazenly carry out attacks in Arauca's countryside.

"The accumulation of all these things really worried me," Palencia said in an interview with The Associated Press. Overwhelmed by the violence, he felt he was "not being able to respond to the people's needs."

Hours after Palencia resigned on Jan. 14, a state government consultant in charge of community relations was murdered in Arauca's state capital, also called Arauca. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing. Authorities arrested a suspected rebel in connection with the case.

In Arauca town, violence most often comes in the form of rebel bombs. They are placed in cars, stuck in garbage cans _ even attached to donkeys. Bombs go off in the dead of the night, or in the middle of the hot afternoon. In October, one bomb exploded in front of a school hours before Uribe arrived for a visit, killing two police officers.

"These criminals have turned Arauca into a laboratory to show off their ability to sow terror," said Col. Luis Alcides Morales, the state police commander. "Here, there is nothing romantic about the guerrillas."

The army and police have focused their resources on Arauca's main towns and on the oil pipeline _ critics say to the detriment of security in the countryside.

At times, the state capital appears more like a military camp than a town of 40,000 residents.

Heavily armed police officers stand on street corners, looking suspiciously at any new faces. Soldiers patrol the streets on foot, often crossing paths with children on bicycles.

At the police station _ built like a military fortification where officers live in barracks _ prosecutors sent from Bogota work around the clock to expedite search and arrest warrants for suspected rebels.

About 30 people a day are brought in to the station for questioning and more than 100 have been arrested since September, Morales said.

Still, few residents of Arauca town feel secure.

Jair Ceballos, who owns a beauty shop and works part-time at a pharmacy, used to love going to the park with his young daughters. Now, he keeps his family indoors.

"I don't even feel comfortable sitting down at a cafe to have a soft drink," Ceballos said. "Because at any moment, a car bomb will explode, or someone will shoot the guy sitting next to you. After work, everyone in Arauca just locks themselves up at home."

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