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Colombia: Stronger Military Could Threaten Civil Liberties - 2002-03-02

In Colombia, President Andres Pastrana has granted the country's army new powers to control civilian populations in the former demilitarized zone and regions surrounding it. While some political leaders believe a stronger military grip is necessary in the face of the escalating guerrilla war, many officials in the region fear the loss of civil liberties.

The new powers granted to the military are suppose to help them regain control over the former demilitarized zone. For three years, the country's largest left-wing rebel group, the FARC, were allowed to control the Switzerland-sized area while they were in peace talks with the government.

But when talks fell apart, the army sent more than 10,000 troops into the zone. The soldiers are now gaining a territorial grip. But the FARC have years of influence in the region and many ties with the people.

Under the new decree, the army will have more control over the movement of local residents, businesses, and transportation. They'll keep a strict census of the local population, and army leaders will be able to override the decision of local politicians on many issues.

The new measures will not be applied to just the five municipalities in the former demilitarized zone, but also 14 additional municipalities on the edges.

The head of Colombia's armed forces General Fernando Tapias insists the main objective of the new measures is to protect the local people. "We can't forget that in these communities there are still rebels living, disguised in civilian clothes," said General Tapias. "And they are there to continue their acts of terrorism, intimidation and extortion. So we need greater powers to identify these people and stop this intimidation."

But local leaders are afraid the army will abuse their special powers, as has happened in the past with the military.

The governor of the province of Tolima, where one municipality will be affected, is adamantly opposed to the new measures. "Democracy is losing ground every day," said Governor Guillermo Jaramillo. "If the president wants army leaders commanding from inside our city halls, then democracy is being suspended all together."

But some national political leaders, including Colombia's leading presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe, are clamoring for the army to receive far more sweeping powers, arguing that civil liberties must bow to the demands of war.