Colombia’s M-19 Guerrillas Becoming a Major Force in Urban Slums

Times Staff Writer

Commander Reuben of the M-19 guerrilla movement led a festive shantytown crowd in a chant of the sort heard at American pep rallies.

“Give me an M,” Reuben shouted hoarsely over a loudspeaker, and the crowd answered with an ear-splitting “M!” Then came, “One!” followed by, “Nine!”

“What does that spell?”

“M-19!” the crowd roared.


In the clear air, the sound seemed to carry as far as the presidential palace, visible in the distance from the steep hillsides of the Bogota slum called Lourdes.

“We hope President Betancur is listening,” Reuben shouted, and the crowd jeered.

The crowd sang Colombia’s national anthem, and flags were raised. The national colors--gold, blue and red--flew beside the banner of the guerrilla movement, which is blue, red and white, with “M-19" in black.

Dancing in the Street


There was dancing in the dirt street, with men, women and children taking part. The song was “The People Move With the M-19,” set to the rhythm of the vallenato, a popular Colombian dance.

That street party last Saturday inaugurated the 10th slum encampment that M-19 has organized in the last six weeks. There were no guns in sight. The speeches were moderate. But there was an undercurrent of tension.

The tension has increased with the approach of a “national day of protest” scheduled for today against the government of President Belisario Betancur.

The government has outlawed the protest, which includes a call for a nationwide work stoppage. The strike was called by a Communist-led labor union confederation with the support of the country’s main guerrilla groups.


On Wednesday, mines placed by guerrillas killed eight members of a police patrol guarding an oil pipeline near the Venezuelan border.

In Bogota, the guerrillas’ urban command posts, set up in the poorest and most thickly populated sectors of the capital, have alarmed the wealthy and become a security concern for the military and police.

“They are trying to surround us and isolate the capital,” a physician’s alarmed wife said at a social affair in a gabled brick house with an armed guard at the door.

In Cali, the main city of southern Colombia, there are 27 M-19 camps, all in slum areas. Camps have also been installed in Medellin, the main industrial city; Barranquilla, the big Atlantic port, and six other cities.


Until M-19 joined the other major guerrilla group here, the Communist Party’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), in a truce with the government last August, many of its top leaders were in jail. Urban activity was underground, and rural armed columns of the M-19 had been driven into distant jungle areas by the army.

M-19 is a shorthand label for the April 19 Movement, created 11 years ago by followers of the late Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who ran for president on a populist platform in 1970. His backers said he was deprived of victory by Colombia’s traditional parties through fraud. M-19 then was formed with the intent of taking power by force.

The movement originally was urban-based and a number of its first leaders were politically disaffected offspring of the Establishment. Many were university-educated professionals with nationalist ideologies. Some came from military families.

At first, M-19 people attracted attention with publicity stunts. They stole the sword that had been carried by Simon Bolivar, the 19th-Century hero of South American independence. Later, when M-19 began to organize its military forces, the historic sword became a symbol. M-19 announced that it was the new “army of Bolivar.”


After the 1979 overthrow by the Sandinista guerrillas of President Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, M-19 leader Jaime Bateman began active military preparations. Rural guerrilla forces were formed and M-19 arranged for a shipment of arms from Cuba that was intercepted by the Colombian navy. Some M-19 fighters went to Cuba for training.

In 1980, M-19 achieved international attention with the seizure of the embassy of the Dominican Republic during a diplomatic reception. Thirteen ambassadors were held, including Diego Ascencio of the United States. The M-19 people bargained until they obtained the release of some of their leaders and $3 million in ransom in exchange for the diplomats.

But they later received heavy blows from themilitary in rural combat. Many leaders were recaptured. Bateman died in anairplane crash in the jungle near Panama. When Betancur offered amnesty and legal political participation to the guerrillas, M-19 accepted--after the Revolutionary Armed Forces had done so.

Under the truce, the reaction of the two major guerrilla organizations has been different. The Revolutionary Armed Forces has concentrated on getting land or jobs for its 9,000 armed men in their rural strongholds. M-19 has gone for a more ambitious goal of building a political base in the urban slums, which holds millions of unemployed and politically frustrated poor.


In February, the M-19 national command decided to come into the open with its urban militants. The camps in the slums here are led by some of M-19’s best political organizers, some with armed combat experience.

A tour of the first camp, opened by Commander Pacho in the Villa Gloria hillside slum in southeastern Bogota, gives an idea of M-19’s open strategy.

Pacho, 38, a short, bearded man who wears a French workman’s cap, said: “The truce gave us a chance to come into the cities and broaden our base. We are here to be with the people.”

Pacho, whose real name is Alejandro Cardona, is from a well-to-do Bogota family that was able to send him to the National University, where he studied fine arts.


He said he joined M-19 secretly in 1977 when he was teaching the history of culture at a private university. In 1983, he joined the M-19 combat forces and was involved in fighting as recently as January in the Cauca valley, near Cali.

“We had to relieve a column of 65 of our men who were pinned down on a ridge by eight army battalions,” he said. “We caught the army by surprise. When the fighting was ended by a truce, they had lost 31 men and two helicopters.”

As commander of an urban camp, Cardona thinks--along with other M-19 militants--that his public role is more dangerous than rural insurgency. “The only real defense we have here against repression is the support of the people with whom we live,” he said.

Cardona, a lively and witty talker, spends much of his time in the streets of Villa Gloria, visiting with people and listening to their problems. He has organized a sort of boys club out of a street gang that includes thieves and muggers.


The M-19 camp is situated on a lot surrounded by shacks of board, brick and plastic sheeting. From the camp, one can see the approaches through the slums below.

The camp is laid out like a military outpost. There are a flagstaff flying the M-19 banner, a drill ground, a mess tent, a barracks where many of Cardona’s 34 militiamen sleep. But there is no fortification.

Villa Gloria is situated above an old hacienda, which was invaded by squatters and illegal urban developers. There are now more than 400,000 people living on the hacienda grounds. There is no official water or light service. When it rains, the dirt streets become mud. Garbage and refuse is everywhere.

“The main problem of daily life in these conditions, besides hunger, is personal security,” Cardona said. “This place was infested with drug pushers, selling to kids. Stealing and killing happened all the time.”


He ordered his militia to patrol at night, and sent notice to a drug pusher to leave the villa. After a night visit, when his house was doused with gasoline, the pusher left.

“Since these people came, I feel safer here; they are no problem,” said Isabel Rojas, who was frying bits of pork rind on a charcoal stove in a little store. People came in to buy a single cigarette, a single tea bag, a single green plantain.

Cardona said M-19 makes a point of getting along with all political parties that are permitted in the area as well as the land developers, as long as they agree to do things that improve life in the community.

“The first day I came here, my companion and I were fired at by hoodlums who worked for a slumlord here,” he said. “We held a meeting with him and explained that we have guns, too. Now, he doesn’t evict anyone anymore.”


An M-19 medical unit operating in support of all the camps sends a doctor to visit Villa Gloria three times a week.

“The doctors have files now on hundreds of kids and see about 90 patients a week at the camp,” Cardona said.

Rojas, the storekeeper, and other neighbors confirmed that their children are receiving medical attention and some medicines at the camp. They said the nearest public clinic is two miles away, has no X-ray or operating facilities, and only two doctors.

Cardona said an M-19 hydraulic engineer has laid out a system for distributing water to homes through plastic pipes. The water is appropriated from a big public water main nearby. M-19 militiamen protect the lines.


The military and the police evidently have another view of M-19’s contribution to security and community improvement. There is a new army post at the bottom of Villa Gloria’s rutted street. Police patrols often circle the camp.

Training for Youths

The military people object particularly to the military instruction that M-19 militiamen are giving to youngsters in the camps. In Cali, the military has said the camps recruit M-19 rural guerrillas. They have raided the camps frequently in search of arms and have arrested hundreds of people; more than a score are still in custody.

“If they ever try to come in here to throw us out, we will resist, and we know the people will fight for us,” Cardona said.


The M-19 people display no arms in the camps, but they do not deny that they are nearby. When Cardona leaves Villa Gloria, he is accompanied by an armed bodyguard. In settling local disputes, the militia have produced weapons.

The military would have to search every house here to flush out any hidden weapons.

“We are not like a government security force with an arsenal,” Cardona said. “We are part of the people.”