High Noon in Latin America: U.S. Targets “Lawless” Areas

A war on rebels and drug cartels in Colombia has left the U.S. an unpopular symbol of authority in a region where violence is becoming rampant.

Puerto Colón, Colombia РHere at the edge of the Amazon jungle, chain-saw scalpings, death threats and bodies floating down the river signify a spreading lawlessness that U.S. officials say terrorists could exploit.

But an emerging new military-led response is controversial.

The lawlessness grows from the U.S.- backed war on Colombian rebels and drug cartels – which has cost taxpayers $3.3 billion over the last four years, the third most expensive war behind Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Even my 4-year-old daughter has seen dead people,” migrant barmaid Maria Giron, 22, said recently at this southern outpost. Marauding militias “cut off heads,” and teenagers “go into the violence because there’s no work for them. It’s growing. There’s no end to it.”

Now people and violence spill into neighboring Ecuador, and U.S. military commanders are pressing proxy armed forces to confront what they call a new “war on terrorism” challenge across Latin America.

They’ve identified the pulsing green Ecuador-Peru border region, where oil workers already clash with indigenous groups, as one of several “ungoverned spaces.”

Kidnappings, dealing in drugs and arms, and killings are becoming common here. Military officials say areas like this could give criminals and anti- U.S. terrorists a foothold to destabilize governments and plot attacks against the United States and its allies.

Gruesome stories

The emerging U.S. military strategy for ungoverned space seeks to assert control through armed force. In Ecuador, U.S. officials have trained and equipped some 7,000 troops to create a bulwark against rebel- held southern .

The idea is “to lay a foundation so that we don’t have to use a pre-emption strategy,” said Army Col. David McWilliams, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, which runs operations in Latin America.

Nobody is planning first- strike action to take out threats in Latin America, McWilliams said, and U.S. soldiers also will do humanitarian work.

Yet some Latin American leaders – remembering U.S. military interventions in Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua – say military-led “war on terrorism” action may only make matters worse.

Here in the Ecuador jungle, farmers, refugees, soldiers, priests and local officials tell sometimes-gruesome stories of violence and worsening economic conditions. They call for economic help – not armed force – because families who relied on coca field work now have nothing to fall back on. Without alternative crops and access to markets that pay fair prices, they say, law and order will be precarious.

On Nov. 12, just down the San Miguel River that marks the Ecuador border, militiamen carrying lists of suspected rebel sympathizers massacred at least three villagers at the Colombian town of Afilador, villagers and authorities said.

One man’s hands were tied and his skull sawed open. Bodies were dumped in the river. Some authorities estimated more than 20 people were killed; Colombian officials last week were still investigating. The victims are among tens of thousands of civilians killed in ‘s40-year civil war.

The war pits Marxist rebel guerrillas against U.S.-backed government forces and right- wing paramilitary militias – irregular fighters originally hired by landowners for protection. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe says he’s dismantling the militias.

Yet across ,they still attack, sometimes using chain saws to spread fear in rebel-held areas, according to Colombian officials and Ecuadorean Catholic priest Edgar Pinos.

After the massacre, Pinos, 52, went near the scene, to the Ecuadorean side of the river at Puerto Mestanza, where Afilador villagers had fled. Drunken men were dancing with girls in a blue bordello as Pinos arrived.

The killers, too, crossed the river and threatened Ecuadoreans, said Luis Francisco, 54, a father of three whose wife was cooking at the bordello. “They said we are guerrillas. We’re not. We’re just people who are here to work.”

The threats “affect you psychologically,” a shopkeeper said, asking that her name not be printed. “Everybody’s afraid. You try to live your life, not one side or the other, neutral.”

Frayed nerves

Outside her shop leaning back in a chair, Colombian farmer Fermin Mejias, 40, a coca field cutter, said a boatman he knew and a woman were among the dead he saw in the river.

“The way we are now, it’s not going to get any better,” he said. “People are coming into our towns. It scares you. You don’t know who the people are. You don’t know what they are going to do … On top of this, the United States is spraying crops. They aren’t just spraying the coca. They are spraying our crops.”

Farther inside Ecuador, killings, kidnappings and pipeline attacks fray nerves in Lago Agrio, an oil boomtown and provincial capital where U.S.- equipped Ecuadorean troops patrol the main street in groups of seven. Oil companies that see Ecuador as a potential major supplier have been unable to work easily.

In 2001, armed bandits nabbed 10 oil workers and held them for 141 days, executing Ron Sander of Missouri, before employers met ransom demands. U.S. Embassy officials advise against travel in the area.

Non-U.S. oil workers said gangs attack pipelines to steal etherized “white gas” that “narcogangs” use to turn coca leaves into cocaine. A smuggled tank of white gas sells for $120 on the side of the river, Lago Agrio Police Chief Hugo Cadena said.

This year, Lago Agrio had 70 firearms murders, police statistics show. Most involved Colombians killing Colombians – who increasingly cross into Ecuador for relaxation and supplies, Mayor Maximo Abad said. And hundreds of returning Ecuadorean coca field workers worsen the strain of 25 percent unemployment, Abad said.

“We need help from the United States to improve the quality of life. If we could get food, not arms, that would be welcome. But if we have more soldiers, more arms, more efforts by the United States to fortify the military presence, the results won’t be effective. Violence generates more violence. Many arms. Many battles. Many drug deals. And the terrorism does not end.”

U.S. officials say they intend to work cooperatively with Latin American governments – on humanitarian as well as military missions – to control ungoverned spaces. Among other spaces they cite: the tri-border intersection of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and jungle parts of southern Panama.

The fear is that enemies could set up bases, exploit lax control and use well-established drug routes to smuggle weapons and terrorists into the United States.

In Ecuador, U.S. special forces troops have trained a brigade for jungle operations. U.S. supplies include food rations, fuel and 200 vehicles – Humvees and 5-ton trucks.

The United States may supply night-vision goggles, said Army Col. Kevin Saderup, military group commander at the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

It is “very narrow to believe that something that happens in Ecuador doesn’t harm the United States,” Saderup said, referring to how “the Taliban and al-Qaeda took up station” in Afghanistan. “Just because something is happening in a faraway place doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about it.”

U.S. ignites opposition

Indeed, the jungle here is dense, and the 400-mile Ecuador border is porous. Crossing in a motorboat costs $1; families have relatives on both sides. Cargo moves freely. Even in Quito, a 40-minute flight over snowcapped volcanoes, international travel is relatively unrestricted.

“There are organizations that use Ecuador as a base to smuggle people from other countries into the United States,” said Ecuadorean immigration Maj. Gilbert Orozco, chief of an 11-member enforcement team.

But U.S. officials have not given hard evidence of anti-U.S. terrorists taking root in Latin America.

And from Tierra del Fuego to Tijuana, U.S. military overtures ignite opposition.

At a recent security summit in Quito, defense ministers from Brazil, Argentina, Chile and elsewhere balked at U.S. efforts to create a multinational armed force for .

“The problems that faces are problems that has to resolve,” Ecuadorean Defense Minister Nelson Herrera said at a news conference beside U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

U.S. military aid to Latin America is increasing – nearly surpassing nonmilitary aid this year, government data show.

For ,this year’s $551 million for military/police work is more than triple the $150 million in economic and social aid.

Ecuador this year received $44 million for military/police work, versus $38 million for economic projects.

An estimated 240 million of Latin America’s 600 million people live in extreme poverty, and frequent peasant uprisings in Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and elsewhere have shaken governments.

Weak government control in jungle areas “doesn’t necessarily mean larger roles should be played by armed forces. That could be counterproductive … It is like assuming there will be conflict,” said Gaston Chillier, an Argentinian human rights lawyer at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank critical of U.S. policy.

“A more effective way to address this is to encourage a full government presence – not just military – and have clear policies for development. Otherwise, you are escalating the violence.”

Some U.S. officials agree that work to counter poverty is crucial.

“Could we do more? Sure. My fear is we are going to be cut,” said Ray Waldron, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Ecuador.

On the other hand, those advocating butter over guns must accept that violence can get in the way, Waldron said.

“There has to be some rule of law. There has to be some security.”

In Ecuadorean jungle communities, owners have put land up for sale. Teens try to leave. Tenants such as Blanca Barragan, 55, and Gilberto Gomez, 60, who raise bananas, corn and chickens, wonder how they’ll survive. They’re constantly wary of the militiamen and rebels who pass their fields.

“Maybe some people give them water. You don’t know who they are. The militias can say they are guerrillas. They say ‘hello,’ and you don’t know who they are. I try not to say anything.”

Neighbors “have left, those who know they are being looked for,” Barragan said. For everyone the militiamen kill, “they are paid. They kill whole families.”

The impact of violence

Five years ago, Colombian refugee peanut farmer Edilson Rodriguez, 33, fled with his family into Ecuador after armed men slaughtered nine in the town where they had electricity, a refrigerator and television.

Now, he has hacked out subsistence life as a squatter – no electricity, pollution from a nearby oil well tainting water his kids use to wash, and a peanut harvest that would earn him $5.60.

Real security requires “a fair wage” for “a product that could be exported to the United States,” he said.

Instead, he hears radio reports of massacres that dismay him – “It’s getting worse day by day” – as does U.S. intervention.

“You know what you are doing? You are aggravating the situation. You are making it more complex. Now, there are going to be more people coming out of .There’s more fighting. Instead of investing in armies, you need to invest in industry.”

For some refugees, the impact of violence is such that they may never go home.

Heavy-set truck driver Eduardo Suares, 42, sobbed uncontrollably inside a fenced refugee compound in Ecuador one recent night as his brain-damaged daughter, Maria, 14, patted his back trying to console him.

In April, rebels had hijacked him on his way back from a run to Cali. He drove silently – “thinking they’d kill me out in the middle of nowhere” – when government troops attacked, firing at his blue Chevy C-70. He ducked, swerved, and “when I looked in the mirror, I saw two dead guerrillas.” Then one with a patch over his eye and a woman in high rubber boots accused him of siding against them.

A report he filed to Colombian police gave details of what happened and of how, 15 days later, other rebels came to his house asking him to work for them. He refused. And in September, somebody slipped a note ordering him killed, stamped with a rebel commander’s seal, under the family’s front door.

Suares fled south through rebel-held territory in the back of a friend’s truck hiding under apples and passion fruit, crossing to Ecuador. His family fled later.

Now, after presenting themselves to United Nations representatives, begging to be resettled overseas, they were cooped up in this compound unable to work, insects humming, generator kicking out periodically. Suares was convinced rebels in Ecuador would hunt him down and kill him and his wife and children.

“It’s not good here. We feel in danger.”

He couldn’t sleep, barely ate.

No proclamations of progress in mattered, he said. And though he supported the current crackdown on rebels, he’d never go back even if it ends.

His daughter Maria needs medicine, he said. Recently, she had a violent seizure that left several teeth chipped.

He stared out into the night and just cried, terrified, “waiting for somebody to help us.”