Crawling on their bellies through thick underbrush, Colombian army troops exchange gunfire with a role-playing Marxist rebel and wound him with a make-believe bullet to the chest. "Save him. Help him, quickly," a commander bellows as soldiers haul the guerrilla on a stretcher to a medical tent where doctors start an intravenous drip.
Nearby, as a patrol enters a mock village, one of the troops threatens to execute a store owner whom he suspects is a rebel sympathizer. But a fellow soldier intervenes, stressing the need for humanitarian treatment of civilians. "So tell me, how is your family, how are your children?" he asks the merchant, whose wife looks on from their thatched bodega.
These dramatic scenes, acted out by Colombian soldiers, are part of a human rights training program for the armed forces designed to improve what has been widely criticized as a deplorable record of atrocities and abuses during this nation's 36-year-old civil conflict. The program, government officials say, is aimed at developing empathy, understanding and discipline within the military.
A 100-hour training course conducted at several Colombian military bases, it is an exercise in role playing, complete with costumes, props and sounds of war in which troops act as soldiers, guerrillas, priests, union activists, shoe shiners, peasants, children, vagrants and even a statue. The participants stage short skits that deal with war-related human rights themes, from treatment of wounded prisoners to protection of civilians and respect for their culture to procedures for handling Red Cross workers. Soldiers must also attend classes and study humanitarian law and the Colombian constitution before taking a final exam.
Although the human rights training is funded by the Colombians, the Pentagon is helping to pay for a new human rights manual for the armed forces that every member will be required to carry. The United States has also supplied some trainers for the program. And two months ago, the legislature here approved a new military criminal code, which says that genocide, forced disappearances and torture alleged to have been committed by members of the armed forces must be tried in civilian courts. The language of the code, however, is vague in that it refers to international human rights agreements that Colombia has yet to ratify. Military leaders said a main objective is to rebuild public trust in the armed forces, whose 315,000 members are widely viewed with suspicion by Colombia's 37 million people.
About 90 percent of the military has gone through human rights training, as have all of the national police, officials said. Gen. Fernando Tapias, head of the armed forces, said in an interview that he is seeing "palpable results" from the program.
Allegations of human rights violations filed with the attorney general's office dropped from 2,000 in 1996 to 310 in 1998, according to the Defense Ministry. So far this year, 40 complaints have been registered. But analysts said many violations go unreported out of fear of reprisals, as well as other reasons, especially now, during a time of heightened paramilitary activity.
Initiated about three years ago in response to international pressure, the training has taken on greater significance under President Andres Pastrana, who has made peace the top priority of his administration and has vowed to instill a sense of humanity within the armed forces. The Army's poor human rights record also has a bearing on distribution of critical U.S. counternarcotics aid, which by U.S. law cannot be steered to a Colombian military unit that is cited in credible reports for human rights abuses.
After working closely with the Colombian army in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Washington largely cut off direct aid because of human rights abuses. While training conducted by the Special Forces has continued, most U.S. funds to combat narcotics trafficking have gone to the national police, which has improved its human rights record and is recognized as one of the world's premier drug fighting forces.
The Clinton administration, however, is preparing a dramatic boost in military and economic aid to Colombia--which produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine--out of concerns that drug-financed guerrillas here could undermine counternarcotics efforts throughout the Andean region.
"The Colombian army and the military in general over the last year have improved markedly as it relates to human rights," Peter Romero, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said recently. But, he added, "that is not to give anybody a clean bill of health. Human rights vetting and training is still very important."
Local army units have been linked with right-wing paramilitary death squads, while the army has frequently sought to protect officers accused of human rights violations by having their cases heard by a military tribunal. The military is believed to have never convicted a high-ranking officer on human rights charges. In many instances, officers stay on active duty while their cases are pending and some have been promoted during those periods.
In an extraordinary move in April, Pastrana cashiered Gens. Rito Alejo del Rio, the army's chief of operations, and Fernando Millan, both of whom are facing trial for alleged involvement in killings by paramilitary bands. And today, the Colombian attorney general ordered dishonorable discharges for three officers who failed to stop the notorious massacre in May 1998 of 32 people by paramilitary gunmen. While rights activists welcome these decisions, they say that further steps are needed to rid the armed forces of entrenched problems and ties to paramilitary militias, which are responsible for most of the 185 massacres reported in the first half of this year. The massacres left 847 people dead--259 more than during the same period last year.
"Like the Roman god Janus, the Colombian army has two faces. Everything looks good on the surface when they give their own version of events, but when you hear the story from civilians, you get a much different tale," said Robin Kirk, a Colombia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "You hear of an army that continues to support paramilitaries and officers that are not punished for directly participating in or implicitly supporting paramilitary activities."
The Colombian military, which designed the training program, prides itself on the realism of the training, the simulated situations and the nine or so outdoor sets where it occurs. At this installation about 45 miles south of Bogota, the armed forces' largest, one skit was performed around a small church and cemetery covered with crosses.
"Anything you need, ask the closest army squad. We are here to help and protect you," one of the troops told residents in a skit on the "Protection of Life and Dignity of the Civilian Population."
Jose Lozano, a 19-year-old soldier, said after the training, "I have learned how to respect the rights of civilians in a time of war. If we do not use these things, they will be against us. We do not want them to think we are a group of terrorists."
CAPTION: A mock rebel is taken to a medical tent during training instituted to improve army's human rights record.