Colombia's hold over rebel regions still tenuous despite US-backed counterinsurgency plan

LA MACARENA, Colombia (AP) — In May, suspected urban guerrillas took three shots at gravedigger Jesus Antonio Hernandez at his corner store. In July, they tried to set fire to his house. Repeatedly, they telephone him with death threats.

Hernandez's job has put him at the perilous center of Colombia's long-running conflict with rebels, as the government tries to hold on to this remote, wild region with a model counterinsurgency program supported by the U.S.

If the program can successfully anchor the state — police, justice, schools, roads, jobs — in a lawless backwater like the Macarena region, the thinking goes, it could work in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Those security gains remain fragile, however, presenting one of the biggest challenges to Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was sworn in Saturday.

"We aren't in a paradise. There are still serious problems," outgoing President Alvaro Uribe said in reviewing the accomplishments of his eight-year tenure.

They include a recent surge of attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — 10 soldiers and police were killed on June 20 alone, the day Santos was elected. Nine soldiers ad police were slain last weekend, six of them in an ambush less than 100 miles (about 100 kilometers) from La Macarena. And an average of 473 were killed by rebels annually from 2006-2009, when Santos was Colombia's defense minister.

And then there is the gravedigger, Hernandez, who critics of the counterinsurgency program say is helping to hide human-rights abuses in this region the government retook from the FARC in 2002, after peace talks fell apart.

Rights activists claim that dozens if not hundreds of noncombatants killed by the military beginning in 2004 lay in unmarked graves in the La Macarena town cemetery. FARC fighters are pressuring Hernandez to say as much.

"They called my landline once and said, 'You must say there is a mass grave (in town) or we're going to kill you,'" recounted the wiry 52-year-old gravedigger, who sent his wife and daughter away in January for their own safety.

However, Alvaro Balcazar, director of the region's state-run Integrated Consolidation Plan, says nearly all the cemetery's estimated 300-400 unmarked graves belong to rebels killed in combat.

Still, the government must win over a wary populace that lived for more than four decades under FARC dictates. The rebels even issued their own identity cards and land titles.

Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in Latin America, has come far from the brink of failed-state status in the late 1990s: Kidnappings and murders are down precipitously. The rebels have been badly battered, decimated by desertions and driven deep into the countryside.

State agencies have plowed some $170 million into the consolidation effort in the Macarena region since it got under way in mid-2007, with the U.S. and Dutch governments together contributing more than $30 million.

Nearly half the funds have gone to improving and paving roads, work done exclusively by the military. A fifth of the Taiwan-sized region's 100,000 people have received some kind of state support — nearly all of them affected by coca eradication, said Sergio Jaramillo, a former deputy defense minister and architect of the consolidation plan.

In the six-county Macarena region, whose centerpiece is a stunningly beautiful mountain range and national park, the government has succeeded in destroying about 85 percent of the coca crop since 2004 — almost none of it replanted. Coca production in the rest of the country, meanwhile, remained stable.

"Thirty percent of the world's production of cocaine came from this area," Jaramillo said. "This was the bank of the FARC."

While state control is taking root in those areas, huge red zones of rebel control remain. Just this week, an armed rebel blockade of the only road into the town of La Macarena choked food and fuel supplies.

"Neither repression by the army nor the activity of far-right militias have ended — nor has the rebel presence. There are too many human rights violations," said Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest who helped organize a congressional hearing last month in La Macarena that focused on the town cemetery.

About 1,000 peasants converged on this dirt-street jungle crossroads for the hearing, where a stilled crowd heard chilling tales of alleged abuses by soldiers.

Luz Eli Porras, 39, said her husband, Javier Enteno Acuna, and two friends who caught troops stealing cattle were tortured and murdered by soldiers on Nov. 30, 2006 — then presented as rebels killed in combat.

Gerardo Borda, 72, said his 18-year-old son, Everardo, went to harvest cassava on Jan. 14, 2008, in a hamlet in La Uribe, and was taken by soldiers.

A year later, he received a letter saying his son was a guerrilla killed in combat.

Balcazar and other officials say FARC commanders compelled the protesters to travel to the 4,000-resident town for the hearing and protest marches — and levied taxes on people who didn't.

Balcazar said some of the killings and disappearances highlighted at the hearing were under investigation by authorities, while others were accidental killings.

Three days after the hearing, Uribe flew in to praise the soldiers of the army's 7,000-strong elite rapid reaction force based on high ground bordering the cemetery. He accused the FARC of "setting a trap to try to put the brakes" on government security advances.

Nationwide, prosecutors are investigating nearly 2,000 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings of noncombatants by Colombia's military since Uribe took office in 2002.

Rights activists allege the government ignored the unidentified dead in La Macarena's cemetery until the hearing, which was attended by a delegation of European and U.K. parliament members.

The chief prosecutor's office won't comment. But officials said privately that they began to investigate in February and exhumed the first four bodies on July 21, a day prior to the congressional hearing.

The peasants who traveled to La Macarena for the hearing also complained that they had yet to benefit from the government plan — and denied being forced by rebels to make the journey.

Simon Caro, 48, a community leader from La Argentina in Vistahermosa county, said he and other villagers have been living in misery since their coca plots were destroyed in 2007.

"The only thing we peasants have gotten from the state is forced displacement," he said.

Villagers in La Argentina are barely subsisting on corn, said Caro, adding that his four children, ages 18-30, had no choice but to move to the state capital, Villavicencio, to work in construction.

The government has been slow in delivering aid, said Eunice Ramirez, 27, La Macarena's ombudsman.

A project approved two years ago to add classrooms and bathrooms to schools in 14 outlying villages has yet to begin, she said. And she had to dip into her own pocket to pay a part-time secretary because the state hadn't yet.

Not a single private individual in the entire region, meanwhile, has been granted a land title, said Balcazar. Such titles are crucial to getting the bank loans needed for economic development.

A July 2009 report he co-wrote for the U.S. Agency for International Development criticized the project's state-building component as inadequate, slow and inflexible.

It noted that "some public agencies responsible for key services in the consolidation process have a history of corruption, which can paralyze decision-making."

Critics say the program, to date, amounts mostly to short-term handouts.

USAID is nevertheless bullish on expanding assistance to other Colombian conflict zones — and plans to commit at least $274 million over the next five years to such projects.

A U.S. Embassy official involved with the program, who was not authorized to comment on the record, said its success will depend on a major civilian commitment by the new Santos government.

"Is this sustainable?" the official said. "Is this the best use of our resources? Time will tell."