by Carlos Hamann
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia, Feb 25, 2002 (AFP) – Fear, shock, even denial — residents in this steamy jungle town that until days ago was controlled by leftist rebels are still adapting to their new life under military occupation.
San Vicente early Monday remained largely isolated from the world, with no electricity, cut telephone lines, and road access blocked by downed bridges and checkpoints run by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.
“People here are freaked out,” said Aldo Pastrana, 27, a town resident, trying to explain the mood.
Lacking solid information, rumors run wild.
Some believed that farmers were being killed by the hundreds in the countryside (at least three were killed by an errant bomb). Others thought that presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt had been shot dead (she was kidnapped nearby).
At least one watch vendor, in total denial, was convinced that life would return to “normal” and peace talks would resume in just days.
Some 20,000 people live in this town, the largest in the Switzerland-sized southern area that President Andres Pastrana ceded to the FARC, Latin America’s most powerful insurgency, in an attempt to negotiate an end to their four-decade long insurgency.
But after three years of bumpy government-rebel peace talks, negotiations abruptly broke down on February 20, and the Colombian military began a long-planned operation to recover the area with an aerial bombardment of FARC targets.
“Many people that live in the countryside did not hear Pastrana’s speech (canceling the haven area), and went nuts when bombs started dropping,” said Roberto Mendoza, a town college student.
Hundreds of countryside residents, mostly small farmers, fled to San Vicente when the violence began. Sober faced and visibly nervous, few gave out their names or details of their jobs — which sometimes involves raising coca, the source plant for cocaine.
“The uncertainty is what is driving people crazy,” said Alan Almeida, a Bogota resident who owns property in area. “When the guerrillas were in charge everyone knew the rules. Now the fear is that the paramilitaries will come in and start murdering people.”
Right-wing paramilitaries from the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have threatened to sweep into the area and slaughter FARC supporters, as they have done in other areas. But over the weekend no such massacres were heard of.
Soldiers carefully entered San Vicente early Saturday, and the rest of the regional towns over the weekend. Wary of ambushes, land mines and booby traps, they took their time securing the areas, but faced little resistance.
Pastrana and the country’s top military brass got a lukewarm reception when they showed up for a brief rally Saturday. Blackhawk helicopters that buzzed the town much of the day just added to the jitters.
The former rebel region is home to some 100,000 civilians, but few in the San Vicente area could flee. The airport was closed, long-distance bus service canceled, and with bridges destroyed, drivers risked being stopped at rebel checkpoints as they made lengthy detours.
Knots of soldiers carrying Galil rifles and grenade launchers seemed to be patrolling every city block, sometimes flirting with the women, other times stopping residents for identification checks.
A gaggle of foreign and local news reporters, most of whom arrived to cover Pastrana’s visit, was also trapped in the town. Only those with satellite phones could file their stories.
A fortunate few made it by land to the nearest airport in the town of Florencia — on the road that Betancourt was abducted — while others left on army helicopters.
“The violence hasn’t really started,” said Oscar Bermudez, 25, a hardware store vendor. “The army has just arrived. Wait a few days, perhaps a month … that’s when we’ll feel the fallout from end of peace talks.”