Teachers caught in crossfire of Colombia's drug war


TAME, Colombia - In the cocaine-fueled conflict that imperils Colombia's priests, politicians, journalists and union officials at an alarming rate, few civilians face greater risk than the nation's rural teachers.

Working in impoverished areas where roads are mined and combat is frequent makes life difficult for teachers. But it is their use as pawns by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary forces that makes education a dangerous career choice in Colombia.

Until last month, third-grade teacher Marlene Rincon commuted from the government-controlled town of Tame into an area dominated by leftist guerrillas. But then she and more than a dozen other teachers received a stark ultimatum from the rebels: Move permanently into guerrilla-controlled territory or resign and never return.

Unwilling to live with her two daughters in a war zone, Rincon disobeyed the order and is under a guerrilla death threat. She is ready to move without assurance of a new job. Many of her colleagues have made the same decision.

"What the rebels want is for us to teach their politics to the students," Rincon said. "They want us to form the next generation of guerrillas. We don't think the same as them. We have to leave quickly. Our lives are at risk."

More than 200 teachers have been killed since 1999, most of them victims of the nation's 15,000-strong outlaw paramilitary army, according to the Federation of Colombian Teachers. Hundreds more teachers have fled in fear, closing dozens of schools and leaving thousands of students without a place to study, union officials say.

Union officials say insurgents target teachers because they often are the most educated people in rural communities. Many become leaders and represent a challenge to the rebels and paramilitaries alike.

This summer, 25 teachers in the southern state of Narino abandoned their posts after paramilitary forces killed a school director. Later, eight teachers fled an adjacent region after being threatened by leftist rebels, union officials say.

In Tame and the surrounding area, paramilitary gunmen are suspected of assassinating four teachers since September, said municipal and law enforcement officials. Another teacher was killed here last year in a rebel car-bombing.

More than 10 percent of the area's students are no longer in school because of the fighting and threats to teachers. The Colombian school year is at its midway point.

"It's a war of extremists," said Col. Jose Antonio Lopez, head of Colombia's National Police in Tame. "For the extreme right and left, you do what they say or die. It's that simple."

Rincon and other teachers say they try to remain neutral as they pass through insurgents' roadblocks each day. They avoid teaching subjects such as history, economics and social studies out of fear that student informants will relay their views to the insurgents - something that could trigger violent retribution.

The insurgents sometimes force teachers to participate in political meetings and mine areas around schools. Even discipline is difficult in a region where the pupils sometimes are the sons and daughters of rebel or paramilitary forces, teachers say.

"One day I told a 12-year-old student that he needed to study, and he told me, 'I don't need to study because I'm going to be an assassin for the guerrillas,'" said Lucilia Garauito, a third-grade teacher who fled the Tame region four months ago.

Faced with such dangers, union officials are pressing the Colombian government to provide more security to teachers in war zones.

They are also asking that displaced teachers be moved quickly to safer areas where they can continue their careers. Union officials say that 92 teachers who fled rural zones are in Bogota waiting to be transferred to other posts.

But the financially strapped Colombian government lacks the resources to provide security and job guarantees to them even as it struggles to take back large swaths of territory ceded to the insurgencies.

Among the most dangerous places in Colombia for teachers is the northeastern state of Arauca, an oil-rich region long dominated by the nation's two rebel forces, the 18,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN.

Since taking office last year, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has launched a major offensive in the region, supported by U.S. military trainers and equipment. The offensive has sharply reduced the number of rebel attacks on a vital oil pipeline, but violence has soared, according to two recent reports.

A Colombian police official said about 140 people have been killed this year in and around Tame, a town of 30,000 in the heart of Arauca's prime agricultural and ranch lands. Last year, 170 were killed in the Tame region. Most victims are civilians killed by car bombs and mines, in crossfire and by assassination.

Maria del Socorro Colina, director of a Catholic academy in Tame, said about 50 parents whose children were enrolled in the school have fled this year in terror.

A 15-year-old student at a nearby school said her father was kidnapped in October at a rural paramilitary roadblock. His decapitated body was found floating in a river.

"I don't know why they killed him," said Jessica Pena. "He was a simple peasant. He was not involved in politics."

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