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Plan Colombia: 'I Can Tell Them That This Will Be Worse Than Vietnam'
Published on Saturday, March 2, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Plan Colombia
'I Can Tell Them That This Will Be Worse Than Vietnam'
Rebels Keep Eye Out for U.S. as Colombian Conflict Flares
by Karl Penhaul
 
FARC Camp, Caqueta province, Colombia -- The first rays of dawn cut through the jungle canopy as a Marxist rebel stripped down his Kalashnikov assault rifle and one of his comrades plopped ammunition into the drum of a multiple grenade launcher.

After three years of relative calm in the southern corner of this conflict- torn nation, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are back on a combat footing -- and they say they are ready to take on the United States as well as the Colombian government.

"I smell a war brewing here, and the gringo army with its Ranger force is stoking the fire," senior FARC commander Fabian Ramirez told The Chronicle in a visit to his camp this week. "But I can tell them that this will be worse than Vietnam for them."

Colombian soldiers
Colombian soldiers patrol in an armored vehicle on a main street near Guayavetal, February 28, 2002. Colombia's government declared a large part of the southern part of the country, including areas just outside the capital, a war zone, giving the military special powers and posting rewards for the capture of rebel chiefs after the collapse of peace talks. Photo by Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Fighting flared up last week after peace negotiations with the Colombian government collapsed and the country's president, Andres Pastrana, sent waves of Vietnam-era OV-10 fighter bombers and aging Israeli Kafir fighters to bomb and strafe this jungle region, which until Feb. 20 was part of a government- sanctioned guerrilla haven.

FARC commanders believe the United States may assume a greater role in a war that has claimed more than 35,000 lives in the past decade alone.

Past U.S. administrations have provided military assistance to Colombia as part of America's war on drugs -- a $1.3 billion package called Plan Colombia aimed at wiping out drug-producing crops.

Recently, President Bush proposed an extra $439 million to provide military intelligence and spare parts to the Colombian armed forces. The United States already has 250 U.S. military personnel, 50 Pentagon civilian employees and 100 civilian contractors in Colombia.

In addition, Washington wants an extra $98 million to train, arm and provide air support for Colombian troops to protect a 480-mile oil pipeline jointly owned by the Occidental Petroleum Corp., with headquarters in Los Angeles, and the Colombian state oil company.

So far, there is little sign of active U.S. involvement in the renewed war. The Colombian military, which has airlifted some 11,000 troops into the region, now controls the five main towns in the former safe zone and boasts that the rebels are on the run.

But Ramirez says the FARC, which is skilled in rural hit-and-run warfare, has simply split up into small units -- at most, 60-strong companies -- and dispersed into the jungle and savannah of the Switzerland-size former demilitarized zone.

REBELS BIDE THEIR TIME

"We're not running away. We just don't want to fight in the towns," said Ramirez, who is the No. 2 commander of the FARC's battle-hardened Southern Bloc fighting division. "We'll wait for the army's Rapid Deployment Force and special units to come into the countryside, and then they will meet up with us. "

The rebels insisted on taking this reporter to the camp under cover of darkness and in silence. They repeatedly paused as they strained to hear the drone of a government AC-47 aircraft -- a sophisticated and heavily armored reconnaissance plane -- in the distance.

From here, it does appear that the countryside remains far beyond the government's grasp. Ramirez, one of the architects of some of the heaviest defeats inflicted on the army in 38 years of conflict, said many of his forces had split into units as small as 12 fighters, presenting a highly mobile and extremely difficult target to detect or hit.

Outlining rebel tactics, Ramirez explained that before rebel patrols begin attacking the army, they will wait to see how many soldiers are finally deployed in the area and what firepower -- especially attack helicopters and fighter-bombers -- the military will muster.

Once the army gains sufficient confidence to venture into the countryside, Ramirez said, intense fighting will commence.

In recent days, FARC guerrillas have killed a handful of civilians they suspected of spying for the army or for right-wing paramilitaries, the rebels' arch-nemesis. The slayings appear to be a brutal attempt at hindering enemy intelligence gathering rather than indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population.

Ramirez and his fighters are also stepping up a campaign of infrastructure sabotage. Much of southern Caqueta province has been incommunicado and running on candle power for the last week due to the rebels' dynamiting of electricity pylons and telecommunications towers -- a job that can be achieved by just a handful of fighters.

"The energy and communications industries are in the hands of the big economic conglomerates and the multinationals," Ramirez said, grasping his U.S. -made AR-15 assault rifle. "Now it is time for them to suffer the rigors of war."

ROAD CONNECTIONS CUT

The FARC has also bombed a number of bridges, isolating Caqueta from the center of the country and the capital, Bogota, via overland routes.

The main highway between Florencia, the capital of Caqueta, and San Vicente del Caguan, the main town in the former guerrilla haven, is strewn with the wrecks of cars and trucks that guerrillas have burned after setting up fleeting roadblocks. Traffic has slowed to a trickle and for almost a week was paralyzed completely.

In towns along the route, supplies are running low, sending citizens into a panic.

"President (Andres) Pastrana said he was going to protect us, and yet the army has no way to control even the highway," said one civilian as he waited to fill a plastic tank with gasoline -- rationed by the pump owner to $10 worth per family.

When Pastrana announced the end of the peace process on Feb. 20 -- after the FARC hijacked a commercial airline flight and kidnapped a senator who is a member of Colombia's peace commission -- he warned of a possible upsurge in "terrorist" attacks. Clashes have been reported in rural areas around Bogota, but the rebels have not yet launched a full-blown bombing campaign in Colombia's main cities.

Many analysts, though, predict the FARC may unleash an urban campaign in an attempt to divert government forces away from the southeast.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Carlos Antonio Lozada, the former head of FARC operations in Bogota, said urban guerrillas had received improved training, especially in bomb-making techniques and weapons handling -- a departure from their traditional tasks of fund raising and information gathering.

With the peace process ended, one of the biggest questions now is how much the FARC may have grown in the last three years. Military officials have frequently charged that the rebels used the cover of their haven to step up recruiting and training.

DRUG TRAFFICKING ALLEGED

This week, Klaus Nyholm, head of the U.N. Drug Control Program in Colombia, accused the rebels of deepening their ties to the cocaine trade, which if true could have brought in millions of extra dollars to finance their war machine.

One senior guerrilla source speculated the FARC may have doubled its numbers over the last three years, which could put the total combat force at anywhere from 25,000 fighters to more than 30,000. No government or international sources have confirmed such an expansion.

According to a rebel strategic plan mapped out in the early 1980s and forecast to take perhaps 30 years, the FARC set a goal of expanding to at least 32,000 fighters and building up huge stockpiles of weapons, and then launching what it termed the "first great offensive" -- an all-out assault on Bogota aimed at seizing power by force.

But there is no suggestion at present that "the first great offensive" is imminent. The rebel source said the FARC lacks sufficient weaponry and ammunition.

"As long as unemployment and poverty are rising, and hospitals and schools are closing, then we will recruit more fighters," Ramirez said. "People find they have no other form of protest except to join insurgent ranks."

At first glance, the fight between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels hardly looks like a fair fight: Colombia's armed forces far outnumber their guerrilla counterparts, and President Bush wants to augment the Colombian government's campaign with $439 million in U.S. military support. But this conflict will be fought on the rebels' home turf in the Colombian jungle, and they are skilled in the sort of hit-and-run warfare that figures to be a part of the conflict.

Cop[yright 2002 SF Chronicle

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