The United States is considering direct military intervention in Colombia for the first time following the murder of an American and the kidnapping of three others, all suspected CIA agents.
The US embassy in Colombia has recommended Washington make a 'major response' to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels responsible, and American officials have confirmed that military action is being considered to recover the men from the dense jungles of the southern province of Caqueta.
They were captured after their plane crashed into the jungle suffering engine trouble. Despite the swift arrival of the Colombian army, the rebels spirited three survivors away after executing one American and the Colombian pilot who are thought to have put up a struggle.
Washington has refused to release any information about the men, entrenching the belief that they were CIA agents on a surveillance mission.
For the people of Caqueta, the prospect of a US military incursion into the province is yet another nightmare. In the past year, since the collapse of the peace process, they have seen the suspension of local government and are living under a form of martial law. Scores of ordinary people have been tortured and murdered by right-wing paramilitaries and they face a constant campaign of bombing and kidnapping by the FARC
The murder of the first US government worker in Colombia's bitter war has again focused attention on Caqueta. This isolated province first hit the headlines in 1999 when it became central to a truce under which the FARC were given effective control of a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) the size of Switzerland.
San Vicente del Caguán became its unofficial capital and the site for peace talks between the government and the guerrillas, but now the threat of US action hangs over the town, just a few kilometers from the scene of the plane crash. A search for the kidnapped men has been launched by troops, backed by US helicopters and intelligence planes.
Sister Bernadette, a nurse who has worked here for 20 years, said: FARC ran everything. They were able to train and recruit and build up their strength. That is what the peace process achieved.'
The DMZ ended a year ago and thousands of troops poured back into the region, but the FARC still control much of Caqueta.
'In the jungle and the villages, this is still a Demilitarized zone,' said Father Gabriel, a local priest. 'The FARC control everything and if we want to do anything we go to them, not the military.'
The military confine themselves to San Vicente and the main roads, but even so are only partly successful. Two bombs went off near the town's central plaza last month and kidnapping has become almost a mundane activity.
Local guerrillas have perfected a technique they call pesca milagrosa - miracle fishing. The name comes from the biblical story of Jesus telling his apostles to cast their nets on the water and how they emerged bursting with fish. The guerrillas will stop a convoy of cars and buses, and take hostage those they suspect have rich friends or families.
There was a local administration and police force in San Vicente, but when the DMZ ended, they all left - or were murdered. The town hall is closed, the police station was blown up and the area left without any form of non-military government.
Then the paramilitaries turned up. 'They arrived in town one night and the next day there were five bodies in the Caguán river,' said Fr Gabriel. Funded by ranchers and cocaine barons, the paramilitaries have grown into a fearsome force in Colombia. And although illegal, they have strong links to the military. Often no one can be sure which side is responsible for murders in Caqueta.
For anyone working with the community, the risk is from both sides. The guerrillas murdered a colleague of Sister Bernadette who was seen talking to the military. She herself was stopped at an army roadblock and her medical supplies confiscated. Every day for a week she went to the local military commander's office to demand their return but also visited the local FARC commander to explain her trips, lest he decide she was an informer.
A delegation from Amnesty International recorded 17 politically motivated murders, with 78 more noted.
Areas of the Caqueta jungle have been cleared for coca growing and it is targeted by US-backed anti-cocaine measures. Coca is grown by small farmers, but the crop is the FARC's main source of income and they control every aspect of production.
Locals complain the coca spraying destroys crops and wildlife, poisons the land and causes illness. The US has just increased its budget to the Colombian government to fight the cocaine trade and bring peace to the country.
'We'll believe it when the bodies stop floating down the Caguán River,' said Fr Gabriel.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003