Colombia turns to citizen informants to fight rebels

Published Sept. 19, 2002|Updated Sept. 3, 2005

To friends and neighbors he's a mildly successful lottery agent working near this northeastern Colombian city. To police, he's Informant No. 147, one of as many as 1-million civilians Colombia's new government hopes to enlist as secret agents in the nation's long-running civil war.

The nationwide network of informants, launched here last month a day after President Alvaro Uribe took office, is one of a series of programs to get civilians involved in the 38-year-old conflict on the side of the government.

While the government is touting the programs as key elements in its security strategy, human rights groups have warned that directly involving civilians _ who already bear the brunt of the country's violence _ in the fight against insurgents could turn Colombia's already brutal civil conflict into a wider, bloodier war.

But many civilians appear willing to take the risks.

One month after the spy network was launched here, Informant No. 147 is part of a 1,200-member volunteer network on alert for suspicious activity along highways and in rural areas of Cesar province, long plagued by kidnappings and extortion by the nation's two main guerrilla groups and by rightist paramilitaries.

The program has spread to other provinces, and eventually the government wants to have networks throughout the country serving as the eyes and ears of the nation's cash-strapped and understaffed security forces.

"Everyone must collaborate," Uribe said on launching the program Aug. 8. "If we all get involved, we will defeat the violent ones."

Sitting safely behind the tinted windows of an unmarked police van as he rides through a small town outside Valledupar, Informant No. 147 whispers in the ear of his police handler, signaling a man standing idly at the end of the street as a member of a paramilitary group. A day before he had called in a tip about five strangers wandering the streets, looking suspicious.

If the information he gives police leads to an arrest or the prevention of a terrorist attack, the informant receives a reward that can range from $190 to $770, depending on the importance of the arrest.

Officials claim moderate success with the network. The Cesar province police chief, Col. Orlando Paez, said his informants have helped to capture several rebels and to recover stolen trucks.

But officials acknowledge that the program has risks for both informants and the network.

Accepting volunteers from the population opens the police and army to the possibility of rebel or paramilitary plants, but officials say each informant is subjected to a strict background check.

"We are conscious that the guerrillas and paramilitaries could infiltrate the network but as far as we know it hasn't happened," said Capt. Angel Rojas, head of police intelligence for Cesar province. So far, he has rejected 60 volunteers because some of the personal information they provided did not check out.

And security forces have yet to try to recruit informants in areas dominated by leftist rebels, where there is no military or police presence. "We have to get people there but it's very hard; people don't want to get involved because they are afraid," Rojas said.

The greatest fear for informants is retaliation by one band or another, and the only shield they are offered is anonymity.

Rights groups fear that in a country where paramilitaries and guerrillas regularly kill civilians on the mere suspicion that they collaborate with the enemy, government informants will be targeted.

"(The informant) strategy will only serve to drag the civilian population further into the conflict and expose those involved to revenge attacks from one of the sides in the armed conflict," Amnesty International warned in a letter to Uribe.

Another government plan to recruit 15,000 part-time peasant soldiers and police in some of Colombia's most remote and unprotected areas has raised fears that the "support forces" could degenerate into illegal paramilitary groups.

Since they would don uniforms and carry weapons only during their shifts, even some members of the military have warned that the part-time soldiers and their families could be easy targets for rebel attacks.

Security analyst Alfredo Rangel said there is no question the government's initiatives will get civilians more deeply into the conflict. "But I don't see that as a bad thing," he added, saying it is a precondition to resolving the war.

"It could bring about a quicker solution to conflict through the escalation of the war with a violent reaction by the armed groups against civilians," Rangel said. "It may not be the most humanitarian way (to try to end the war) but it could be effective."

Uribe appears ready to run the risks. "We'll all get ourselves killed if we have to but we have to recover peace," the president said.

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