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Colombia's civil war drifts south into Ecuador

More than 100 people in an Amazonian province have died as FARC and rival paramilitaries move in.

The Colombian civil war is quietly drifting south into Ecuador.

After 40 years of conflict in Colombia, the Bush administration's Plan Colombia has succeeded in forcing the country's largest guerrilla organization, the FARC, to retreat to the southeastern jungle.

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In theory, Colombia's southern border should help contain the insurgents. In practice, though, it is no more than a line on a map in the distant offices of government.

The Colombian Army has not controlled its southeastern border in five years, and the military in neighboring Ecuador rarely comes within 20 miles of the border, which has very little road access. "The terrain is difficult if not impossible to control," says one foreign security official, who did not want to be identified.

Worst hit is Lago Agrio, 12 miles from the border in the remote province of Sucumbios.

Despite being Ecuador's oil capital, it is one of the country's poorest communities – a conglomeration of shacks, seedy bars, and brothels serving oilmen, smugglers, and a steady stream of refugees. The town has fallen easy prey to Colombian combatants – members of the FARC or its rival paramilitary groups. In the past five months more than 100 people have been killed by assassins connected to these groups.

Locals in contact with the guerrillas claim that the FARC has a list of 300 people still to be executed. Hundreds of people have been kidnapped along the border, and inhabitants of six villages fled their homes at gunpoint when the FARC moved onto their land in February.

The guerrillas have used the area for supplies and recuperation since the mid-1990s, but they are now coming in greater numbers. In the past two months, the FARC has established its presence in Sucumbios with its own radio station broadcasting propaganda. Many frightened residents are selling their belongings and moving away from the border.

Others are staying on to do business with wealthy Colombian combatants. Hipolito Torres owns a little shop by the rugged dirt road leading out of town. He sells his wares of warm soda and jungle survival gear through heavy iron bars.

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"There is no way to tell which of the customers buying a Coke are guerrillas or paramilitaries," he says, frowning nervously at a line of unmarked jeeps rumbling in from Colombia.

"To tell the truth, I don't want to know. It is safer that way. They pay good money, usually more than local people. Just stay quiet and don't look at them, and they generally won't shoot you."

Last month, five men were killed by a gang of combatants in front of Mr. Torres's shop. "I heard the shots, and I just lay down on the floor and didn't move. I was that terrified," he says.

Since the shootings began in January, the streets here empty at nightfall. "It is risky enough during the day, but it is pure stupidity to go out at night," Torres says.

This kind of fear is new to this town of 24,000, which was virgin jungle just 30 years ago.

The Ecuadorean police estimate that 60 percent of the population of Lago Agrio is involved with commerce with irregular Colombian forces.

Pedro (who asked that his real name not be used) has fallen into the typical trap. A taxi driver, his customers were once locals and tourists. Now, he shuttles smugglers working with both the FARC and the paramilitary groups to and from the border. With the growing violence, jungle tourism has dropped by 40 percent since last December.

"I used to get three or four good taxi customers every day," he says. "Now, it is more like once every few weeks. I have to work for the guerrillas to survive."

It started when a man stopped Pedro on the highway and asked him to carry a few propane cylinders to the border. The FARC uses the cylinders as bombs, and the smugglers quickly instructed Pedro how to bribe the Ecuadorean army and police along the road for untroubled passage – $2 per cylinder.

"The problem is that once I know how they work, I'm trapped," he says. "Now, if I refuse to work with them anymore, I will be shot and probably my wife and children too. I have seen it happen to other drivers."

Smugglers estimate that the FARC receives 1,500 cylinders of propane each week from Lago Agrio. "That's 1,500 bombs," Pedro adds.

The past month has brought increased attention from the Ecuadorean government. The provincial police force of 200 has been doubled, and the Army has sent several hundred troops to the border. Last year, the US contributed $37 million in military and economic aid to Ecuador.

"We have been reinforced but, even so, the cordon is very long and ragged," says Cornel Alexander Riofrio of the provincial police. "We are doing the best we can but we still can't stop the combatants from coming over the border."

The presence of police in the city has partially calmed local residents, including numerous Colombian refugees. Only 700 official asylum seekers live in Lago Agrio, but the town hosts thousands of displaced people without refugee status.

Angelita Chavarlo came here a year ago, after the FARC killed several members of her family.

"Ecuadoreans must act quickly to stop violent people from taking over the entire area," says Ms. Chavarlo, who works at a local restaurant.

"I try to tell them not to do business with the guerrillas."


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