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Massacre illustrates unrest in Colombia

BOGOTA -- La Gabarra has a history of violence. Flanked by jungle and the border with Venezuela, the region in northeastern Colombia has seen hundreds of its people killed in fighting between leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitaries, and, less often, government security forces.

Another 34 workers in a coca plantation were killed Tuesday in the worst massacre since hard-line President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002. The slayings illustrated how far Colombia has to go before it restores law and order to its far-flung regions.

Authorities branded the slaughter the work of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, a leftist guerrilla group eager to wrest control of the coca-producing region from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an illegal paramilitary group known as AUC.

But Tuesday's killings were more than a drug turf war. For Colombia, it was a warning that government peace talks with the AUC set to begin July 1 could leave the road open for the FARC to launch offensives and recover territories it had lost to the AUC.

''This massacre means the guerrillas are there, still have the ability to take over territory, and will fight tooth and nail," military analyst Alfredo Rangel said. ''It shows the government does not have control over those rural areas."

Uribe saw the killings a different way. ''How sad that they slaughtered these peasants," he said yesterday. ''These are the guerrillas that wanted to be considered a political organization? No. That's just vicious terrorism."

Uribe's Democratic Security project, designed to bring back law and order to Colombia, has deployed security forces to virtually all of the 150 municipalities that lacked any police presence when he took office.

But Rangel cautions against excessive optimism, saying that there are places in Colombia where violence was so deeply entrenched that it will take more than new police stations to quell.

According to government human rights prosecutors, the Catatumbo region where La Gabarra is located was the site of 14 massacres with about 130 victims between May 29 and Aug. 21 of 1999 alone. In the state's capital, Cucuta, the murder rate jumped 87 percent between the first half of 2001 and 2002.

When the Red Cross tried bringing aid to people fleeing the violence last year, armed groups set the trucks ablaze.

''Since 1999 there have been some 800 selective murders in that area, dozens of massacres, and they've expelled 30,000 people from their homes," said Gloria Florez, director of Minga, a human rights group. ''People have lost their belongings, their ranches. It's a human rights disaster."

Uribe lashed out at Amnesty International for not denouncing the killings. Uribe has had bitter relations with international human rights groups, accusing them of being sympathetic to the rebels.

The human rights group said it has not denounced the killings because it does not know all the facts, but it will condemn the massacres if the government reports prove true. ''We don't rely too much on the government because oftentimes they don't have all the information or manipulate it," Eric Olson, Americas director for Amnesty International USA, said from Washington. ''We like to do our own verification."

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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