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Frontier Massacres In Colombia Target Young, Poor Civilians

COLOMBIANS are no strangers to violence - their country has the highest murder rate in the world. But even they are shocked by the ongoing massacres of mainly poor banana workers in the lush northwest region of Uraba.

At least 80 people have been killed recently in five separate massacres in a bitter war between left-wing guerrillas and commandos - former guerrillas now organized in armed groups.

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The revenge attacks began Aug. 12, when commandos gunned down 19 people in a disco in Chigorodo, a small town in Uraba.

In the latest massacre, Sept. 20, guerrillas stopped a bus taking banana workers to the plantations. They dragged 25 workers into a field and shot them. Four survived.

More than 800 people have been killed this year in the violence. But the massacres mark an escalation of the conflict.

The prize is political, economic, and social power. Uraba has most of Colombia's banana plantations and has rich lands for cattle ranching. The Gulf of Uraba leads to the Caribbean Sea and is a busy trading route - arms and contraband goods are imported, and drugs are exported.

Who is fighting, and why

The area, like many frontier regions in Colombia, is historically a guerrilla stronghold.

The battle is primarily between the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and their rivals, the People's Liberation Army (EPL). Both had guerrillas in the area.

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But in 1991, the EPL went legitimate: It laid down arms, signed a peace deal with the government, and set up a political group, Esperanza, Paz y Libertad: Hope, Peace and Freedom.

The FARC consider the Esperanzados, as they're called, traitors to the revolution, especially after some joined the Army and police force.

Esperanzados also worked toward conciliation with the banana-plantation owners, challenging the FARC's political wing, Union Patriotica-Communist Party (UP-CP) in the influential banana-workers union. In addition, the Esperanzados started to win local political office.

FARC began to assassinate Esperanzados, hoping it could scare them out of the region.

But instead, some Esperanzados who still had arms retaliated by killing UP-CP leaders.

Many Colombians are left wondering why the state and the Army are allowing the conflict to rage.

''There has always been a very weak state presence in Uraba,'' explains Gloria Cuartas, mayor of Apartado.

State forces are actually involved in the violence.

''The Army is compromised in the conflict, in logistical help and training,'' says Omar Hernandez, a specialist on Uraba for a Jesuit think tank, Cinep, in Bogota.

The losers in the battle are the civilians. Only 1 in 20 deaths in Uraba results from direct confrontations between commandos and guerrillas. Most of the victims are young, poor banana workers.

''Their only sin is to work on a farm which is controlled by political leaders from one group or another,'' says Luis Carlos Pulgarin, the coordinator of Fedes, which works with families displaced by the violence.

Government promises help

After the first three massacres in August, the Colombian government promised land reforms and social spending worth $400 million. It plans to send a special police task force to the area and boost Army troops by 500 men.

But since the government's announcement, two other massacres have taken place.

Now, the regional government has proposed talks with both sides to ''humanize'' the war - to not target the civilian population.

Independent international observers will be invited to monitor atrocities against the civilian population. This, it is hoped, will force all sides to clean up the war.

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