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Latest Crackdown on Paramilitaries Comes Up Empty

Luis Alberto Rodriguez is packing up his belongings and leaving the little town of La Horqueta.

He is among the last to go after an attack by right-wing paramilitaries caused almost the entire town to flee.

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"It makes you sad. This was a beautiful pueblo. Now it's completely abandoned," says the storekeeper. Mr. Rodriguez can personally testify to Colombia's violence and the displacement it causes: 42 years ago as a young man he came to La Horqueta fleeing violence in the neighboring region of Sumapaz. La Horqueta is only 60 miles west of the capital city of Bogot, but it has been considered territory of left-wing guerrillas for years.

The Nov. 21 attack, which left 14 dead, is part of a strategy announced by Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries to take the war into the guerrilla heartland.

The last two months of 1997 left more than 60 dead in a paramilitary killing spree. Paramilitary groups have existed for decades in Colombia. They even enjoyed a brief legal existence as civilian militias in the 1980s, before being outlawed after many of the organizations were implicated in death-squad activity.

Today the armies are bigger, better armed, and more organized than ever. Numbering as many as 5,000, they hold a huge area in the north wrested from the guerrillas.

"They're cowardly criminals who kill humble farmers and innocent people, even women and children," said Colombian President Ernesto Samper in an address shortly after the La Horqueta massacre.

Mr. Samper called on the heads of all the branches of the armed forces to pursue paramilitaries and put rewards on the heads of several known death-squad leaders. He also formed a task-force - similar to the one that put away the heads of the Cali drug cartel - to go after the 'paras.'

But critics are quick to point out that similar measures were taken before last year with no results. After an equally bloody run of massacres in the fall of 1996, Samper put a price on the head of paramilitary leader Carlos Castao. The bounty was left uncollected, even though Mr. Castao's whereabouts are known - he even gives interviews to journalists.

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US Embassy sources say that no progress tracking down paramilitaries has been made and, in many cases, the Army seems to tolerate the death squads.

Area residents suspect that the La Horqueta massacre may be another example of Army complicity. "The Army was there," says the Rev. Pastor Bogot Soto. Father Soto was traveling to administer communion in La Horqueta on the day of the massacre - he estimates that he arrived about a half an hour after the killings.

"The soldiers stopped me just outside the town. They said 'you shouldn't go there right now, father, it could be dangerous for you," he says. Soto went despite the warning, and found the village riddled with bullets.

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