Colombia Challenges Rebels With a New Weapon
Government Bringing Social Programs to Long-Neglected Regions in Bid to Establish a State Presence

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Marxist rebels once ran a visitors center in this town in southern Colombia, the office staffed by a young, amiable female guerrilla and the walls decorated with huge posters of famed fighters. Rebels ran a court, built bridges and taxed locals, including the farmers who grew coca in such abundance that the region became ground zero for the war on drugs.

Those were the days when the government had ceded this town to guerrillas for disarmament negotiations, simply making official the absence of a state presence to which residents had long been accustomed.

Now, in an ambitious government program here and in 52 other towns nationwide, a multi-agency task force operated out of Bogota has built schools and roads and introduced public institutions such as courts. In essence, President Álvaro Uribe's administration is trying to create a functioning state, essential if the government is ever to erode the power of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's biggest rebel group.

If expanded, the program would amount to what Colombian officials describe as a logical second phase of a U.S.-backed campaign, called Plan Colombia, that combines military offensives with aggressive aerial fumigation of coca and opium poppy crops to weaken rebels. With the U.S. Congress now in the hands of Democrats, who have promised to shift more aid from the military to social and economic programs, Colombia may be better positioned to secure funds for nation-building in regions practically devoid of any government presence.

"We have to go to the more remote areas, where we have drug trafficking and illegal groups and we have poverty," said Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. He said the idea, one that has never been applied here, is for the military to work with the government's social action agency and other institutions to provide schools, health care and infrastructure.

"What we're doing now is aligning our efforts in a way that will allow the state to go and clear those areas and then hold those areas -- what the military calls 'clear and hold,' " Santos said. "And the hold aspect has to do with the presence of the state, of institutions different from the military. We go in with brigades of doctors, teachers, the justice system."

Here in San Vicente, symbolic because it was once in the heart of the rebel-run zone the size of Switzerland, the old visitors center run by the FARC was razed after negotiations collapsed in 2002.

Its replacement is a two-story building that houses offices offering government services and even a gymnasium for the town's 32,000 inhabitants. A block away, a new city hall is going up, joining a newly built police station and a community center. The government is nearly finished building a sprawling school and campus for 2,000 students, while three modest schools have been remodeled.

"For us, this signifies a great advance," said Luis Francisco Valencia, administrator of San Vicente and the No. 2 official. "For a long time we were forgotten, and now the government is serving us quickly and trying to resolve problems."

Observers such as Adam Isacson, a policy analyst who follows Colombian military issues for the Center for International Policy in Washington, said the nation-building plan "looks really well-conceived."

But he also said the huge scale of replicating the campaign across Colombia will be a challenge. Even government officials, while holding up the program as a sign of hope, admit it is only a small step forward for an immense country that has 1,100 towns and hundreds more unincorporated, isolated hamlets.

Colombian officials talk of spending $43 billion over the next six years as a second phase of Plan Colombia. This time, though, officials here say the vast majority will go toward economic and social programs.

"I think they're right to go down that road, to provide more resources for it and show that the government can have a positive influence in people's lives," said Tim Rieser, Latin America policy aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations. "We've always looked for opportunities to support that kind of thing, and if we saw that it was taken on seriously, we'd be more inclined to provide funding."

Congressional Democrats, who have had reservations about the emphasis on a military solution to Colombia's problems, say U.S. aid redirected from military to social programs could help Colombia's efforts, though the assistance will probably never top $700 million a year. Colombian officials said they will likely bear the brunt of the funding.

"It's something that has to be done," said Vice President Francisco Santos. "It's very, very important, and that's why we're putting so much attention to it, but you have to be realistic and, in the end, it's going to be us."

Colombia's alternative, grim and violent, is readily apparent barely 120 miles to the southwest, in Nariño state. The FARC regularly battles government troops there. Thousands of poor farmers have fled their homes. And paramilitary gunmen who participated in a government-run disarmament program are rearming, forming new groups that challenge rebels and drug traffickers for control of the cocaine trade. The U.S.-funded fumigation of coca is a constant, pounding farms in much of the state and leaving the shiny green leaves shriveling.

Outside the town of Naranjo, in southwestern, Nariño state, residents complain about the lack of potable water, intermittent electricity and a dearth of health services. They say they have also been rocked by the reemergence of paramilitary groups, just as violent as before but more focused on controlling the drug trade.

"Here, they don't give us anything," said Amparo Ruales, 40. "No housing subsidies, no education, no health care, nothing. Look at the road there, we did that ourselves, out of our own pocket."

In San Vicente del Caguan and the surrounding cattle fields, there are also plenty of signs of guerrilla influence.

Town officials say that many of the shopkeepers in the region have to pay extortion to the rebels.. Authorities here fear being marked for assassination; four town officials have been slain since 2004, the most recent one earlier this year.

Rafael Rodríguez, who was displaced from his farm by rebels in 2004, said that the FARC forms a parallel government. The rebels, he said, seize livestock and forcibly recruit children.

"Every six months, they do a census, asking how many cows do you have, how many chickens, how many pigs, how many children, what ages and what shape are they in," he said.

Still, San Vicente appears to have undergone an important shift from the early part of the decade. The wails of babies can be heard in a new wing at the local hospital for mothers and their children. A youth orchestra has new instruments, and the government has set up nutritional programs for poor families. The curvy roads connecting San Vicente to the outside world are being paved.

And all across the community, residents say they are optimistic in ways they had never been before.

Carmen Yustres said she and her husband felt confident enough to open a general store, with shelves climbing 20 feet along the back wall, requiring nimble young men to climb up and fetch cereal boxes, toilet paper or toothpaste.

On a recent day, the store was packed, with customers buying fruit and chicken feed, fertilizer and tools.

"Things are very good, tranquil," Yustres said with a proud smile. "Maybe people from the rest of the country will get enthused and come here to invest."

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