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COLOMBIA: The Silent War

Largely obscured by more dramatic conflicts in Europe, Africa and Asia, one of history's bloodiest struggles goes silently on in Colombia. In the eight-year-old strife between the Colombian army and anti-government guerrillas, the death toll, according to President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, tops 100,000three times greater than battle deaths among U.S. forces in Koreain a country with a population of only 13 million. Last week TIME correspondent Piero Saporiti toured the front lines of this almost-forgotten battleground. His report: The first, faint light of dawn silhouetted rugged peaks, then picked out the barracks, the ammunition depot and the sandbagged trench surrounding a hilltop army outpost called Praga in the Colombian Andes. Praga's commander, a lieutenant, was not there; he and most of his platoon had been called away to chase cattle thieves, leaving a corporal in charge. A yawning sentry leaned on a bayoneted rifle; 17 soldiers slept. Suddenly the hillside came alive with scores of poncho-clad men, armed with guns and machetes, and charging silently toward the post. A dog barked. The sentry got off only one shot before an answering bullet caught him, but it was enough to rouse the garrison. Halfnaked, the soldiers, boys of 20 or less, rushed to their battle stations and began to fire. All day long, in wave after wave, the attackers stormed the post. At nightfall, as the assailants grouped for a last charge, only the corporal, who was wounded in one leg, and a private were left alive. The corporal drenched the post's ammunition supply with gasoline, limped away into the safety of darkness with the private, then tossed back a hand grenade. The tremendous blast and towering flames were noted miles away by the lieutenant and the rest of the platoon. They returned after ten hours of hard marching, in time to bury the dead and hear the survivors story. The guerrillas, foiled in their quest for arms and ammunition, had melted away. Avenging troops, pouring grimly in toward Praga last week, were able to round up and kill only eight of the outlaws. The Colombian Temper. The clash at Praga, hot, fierce, and fought to the bitter end, was typical of this strange, confused, nearly meaningless war. Its causes are rooted deep in Colombian history and temperament, a striking national indifference to death and lust for combat going back to the battles and matings of the fearless Spanish conquistadors and the warlike native Chibcha Indians. Since Colombia became independent in 1819, the bloodshed has come mainly from Liberals fighting Conservatives, often in protest against a political defeat. The current conflict became inevitable when Conservatives won the presidency in 1946; it actually started after the memorable 1948 riots in Bogot. Conservatives drove Liberals from their lands; Liberals formed hinterland guerrilla gangs to fight back. By seizing the government in 1953 in the name of the armed forces. General Rojas Pinilla kicked both parties out of power and ended the war for a year. But many ex-guerrillas, among them criminals freed when the 1948 rioters unlocked the jails, longed for the free life of banditry in the name of opposition to the government. The fighting picked up again. To complete the

confusion, Conservatives, too, became outlaws. The incentives for battle now include the mutual hatred of Liberal and Conservative, the hatred of outlaws for the government, and the desire of all guerrillas for pillage. Guerrillas' Delight. The Battleground presents a terrain that is a guerrilla's delight. The departments of Tolima and Huila, west of Bogot, scene of the most recent fighting, lie in impressively rugged Andean ranges. No roads, but only mule-paths tie little, white-washed villages together. So deep are the ravines that it is often a day's hike between two houses within hailing distance of each other on opposing mountainsides. Deep forests alternate with coffee plantations shaded by tall trees, all offering good cover. Here guerrillas control and govern regions that add up to an area roughly equal to that of Kentucky. From their individual domains, guerrilla leaders with such noms de guerre as Terror, Black Jug and Danger strike out to blackmail or massacre farmers, rustle cattle, hijack bags of coffee (worth at least $90 each), attack army outposts, murder oil exploration crews. They capture villages, and when forced to withdraw before army attacks, sometimes kidnap whole populations as hostages. Some 4,600 innocents caught in the crossfire were the worst sufferers this year; the army puts guerrilla deaths in 1956 at about 1,000, and sets its own losses at 189 dead and 548 wounded. Crops, cattle and property worth $46 million have been destroyed since January. Repress & Rebuild. The army fights back with firearms and with political and economic weapons. Militarily, the detachment of Tolima and detachment of East Tolima, with 10,750 men, have tried primarily to contain the outlaws by manning posts like Praga on the edges of guerrilla country. Now the army is testing new commando tactics. Forgoing massed columns that guerrillas easily dodged, troops work into outlaw country in small details for sneak attacks and night ambushes. Whenever the outlaws abandon land, the army moves in to get the economy running again. Last week, in the town of Chaparral, a theater of spectacular fighting early this year, military engineers and a battalion of prisoners were building houses, schools and roads. The government believes that roads bring not only trucks and cars but also law and order. Another weapon is tightened control over movements of coffee, the area's main export. No truck convoy can go to market without an army certificate proving that the shipper holds a deed to the land where the coffee was grown, thus curbing the hijacking of crops, hitherto the guerrillas' best source of cash. But the army holds no illusions that it can clean up the guerrillas in a hurry. In the long, painful process of stamping out the marauders, the grim and bloody prospect is for more thousands killed, more crops and cattle destroyed, for endless months to come.