DON GABRIEL, COLOMBIA
GOVERNMENT officials recently visited this dusty town in northern Colombia to watch approvingly as members of a small leftist guerrilla group disarmed and cast their military fatigues onto a raging bonfire. When bullets accidentally left in the pockets of the uniforms began exploding, the officials reacted like other members of the crowd watching the event - they ran like the blazes. The story would be merely funny were it not such an obvious, tragic allegory for the guerrilla violence that will not quit Colombia: bullets that will not stop going off.
There were other explosions on Jan. 25 as the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT) was burning its fatigues and destroying its arms. Two other rebel groups carried out more attacks as part of one of the most ferocious guerrilla offensives in 30 years of Colombian insurgency. Five rebels and a police officer were killed in fighting.
Attacks this week by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have caused at least nine more deaths. Since New Year's Eve, when the rebel offensive began, about 190 people have been killed, including guerrillas, soldiers, and civilians.
Beyond the cost in lives, guerrilla wars are expensive in other petroleum industries, transportation, and communications networks have caused damage estimated at $97 million.
The level of violence has forced the government to rethink its partly successful peace policy that has led to the disarmament of the PRT and another group before it. The April 19 Movement (M-19) last March became the first Colombian rebel organization to lay down its arms and transform itself into a political party.
Two other rebel groups, compelled by the M-19's political success, are concluding peace agreements with the administration of President C'esar Gaviria Trujillo.