Colombian Rebels Blamed for Killings of 34

Special to The Times

The government on Wednesday blamed leftist rebels for the killing of 34 coca pickers in a spree that has stoked fears of a new wave of drug-fueled violence.

The attack Tuesday morning in the cocaine-rich La Gabarra municipality was the worst massacre since hard-line President Alvaro Uribe took office in August 2002. He began an aggressive military offensive against Colombia’s armed outlaws and kicked off peace talks with right-wing paramilitary death squads.

The government blamed rebels for the massacre.

“It’s the FARC, once again,” Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told reporters, citing accounts from a handful of survivors and referring to Latin America’s oldest and largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.


Both the rebels and their paramilitary foes fill their war chests with drug profits. Local police said Tuesday’s massacre was likely part of a rebel offensive aimed at wresting control of the cocaine crops along the lawless border with Venezuela from paramilitary fighters.

“Coca is still fueling the conflict. As long as coca exists, this will continue,” said Camilo Matiz, a spokesman for the government’s Social Solidarity Network, which offers shelter and food to victims of Colombia’s 40-year civil conflict.

“It’s lamentable,” he said of the attack. “We thought we’d got over this stage.”

Once a hallmark of paramilitary intimidation, massacres took place 19 times during the first quarter of 2004, a 35% drop from the same period last year, the government said. Rebel kidnappings and sabotage attacks also were down as insurgents melted into the jungles and Andean foothills to avoid open confrontation with the military.

Tuesday’s massacre came amid an upswing in the national mood. Many of Colombia’s country highways have been free of rebel roadblocks lately, some tourism is returning and peace talks with right-wing death squads are continuing.

But the few who escaped the Gabarra massacre offered a darker picture. “I’ve never seen so much massacre. Blood everywhere around me. My face all covered in blood,” said one man, who said he played dead after the shooting began. Hospitalized with a bullet wound, he spoke to reporters with his back to their cameras, hiding his identity for fear of reprisal.

He said the attackers opened fire and continued shooting, even as the dying men screamed and asked why they were being killed.

Video images from a makeshift morgue showed one victim with the number 16 scrawled across his bare torso to help forensic experts keep count of the dead. The mayor of the nearby village of Tibu said the massacre had left many orphans.

“In some form, it’s coming back, this horrific and irrational method -- the massacres,” said Volmar Perez, Colombia’s official human rights defender. Three weeks ago, paramilitary gunmen killed 11 peasant farmers in nearby Arauca province.

The U.S. has funneled $2.5 billion to Colombia since 2000 to help an overstretched military and to eradicate Colombian drug crops through aerial spraying. Gabarra, though, has remained a key producer.

And although spraying efforts have increased steadily over the last two years, there has been no significant reduction in the supply of cocaine on U.S. streets, nor an increase in its price.

Military analyst Alfredo Rangel said the Gabarra massacre might have repercussions in peace talks with the right-wing paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. So far, the group’s commanders have refused to withdraw their troops from strategic drug-producing areas, saying the move would only open the way for rebel atrocities. Tuesday’s killings seemed to lend weight to their argument.

“The government is very far from controlling the situation,” Rangel said. “This is a demonstration that the dispute for certain territory between the guerrilla and the paramilitary continues to be very brutal, and could be very intense in the future.”

As news of the massacre emerged Tuesday, the government moved forward with peace talks by decreeing a 144-square-mile “concentration zone.” Once inside, paramilitary commanders participating in negotiations would be safe from arrest and extradition to the United States on drug charges.