by Scott Wilson
BARRANQUILLA, Colombia -- Who is sitting next to me?
An abiding suspicion has infected the classrooms, corridors and faculty lounges of the University of the Atlantic. Professors who have spent decades in the gray concrete classrooms of one of Colombia's finest public universities look out over rows of students and choose their words carefully. Students considering a rally think twice.
Who is my classmate?
The University of Atlantic in northern Colombia has been hard-hit by rightist parmilitary violence with eight students and professors slain in the last 18 months. (Scott Wilson - The Washington Post)
"There are students here who never take a test, never write down a thing," said a 21-year-old basic sciences student from Cartagena. "They are only here to identify student leaders, who the teachers are who might be from the left. I can't walk up to a student and say, 'This policy is wrong, let's do something about it.' I don't know who I am talking to."
Across Colombia, the decades-old ideological battle between left and right in the classroom has changed from an intellectual debate to a violent campaign against students, professors and administrators. The country's 32 public universities have long been a recruiting pool for leftist guerrilla armies, whose rhetorical blend of class struggle and social justice has found receptive audiences in the middle- to lower-class student bodies.
Colombia's public universities reflect the deep class and ideological differences that have helped perpetuate the country's civil warfare for almost four decades. Here and across Latin America the public university has traditionally been the wellhead of leftist thought and activism, a training ground for future leftist leaders who often emerge from the disenfranchised lower classes. Private universities, too expensive for most Colombians, train the children of the more conservative elite.
Now, as part of their effort to seize not only territorial but ideological control from the guerrillas, the rightist paramilitary forces have arrived on the campuses of at least eight of Colombia's public universities. They are located in key geographic areas most contested by the leftist guerrillas and the rightist forces who have taken up arms on behalf of land and business owners who feel the government is not doing enough to protect them.
Paid informers monitor lectures for leftist overtones and the activity of their classmates. Lists of those targeted for death surface and disappear in campus corridors. In the past two years, at least 27 professors, students and administrators have been killed, usually gunned down near their homes, according to the National Union of University Workers and Employees.
The most recent student to die here was Miguel Puello Polo, a 24-year-old representative to the university's governing board. He was shot five times in front of his home by two men on a motorcycle, who called out his name before killing him.
As professors censor their own lectures and students abandon organizations that could be perceived as leftist, the paramilitary campaign is choking off leftist activism. Professors and students, who rarely give their names and stop all conversation when a stranger enters a room, say the paramilitary campaign has stifled debate, changed the way they teach and learn, and undermined the universities' traditional role as a wide-open sanctuary of free expression.
"In class, we take so much care in trying not to be seen promoting a leftist idea. We don't know who might be the enemy in our classroom," said a professor in the language department for the past 12 years.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, as the 8,000-member paramilitary army is called, has declared many university figures "military targets." More than 180 students have been threatened with death, according to the Colombian Association of University Centers.
In the past two years, students, professors and university union leaders have been killed at four universities along the volatile north coast; in Bogota, the capital; and at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, where one student and six professors have been slain. Earlier this month the AUC announced its arrival, through a campaign of bathroom graffiti in student and professor lounges, at the University of Cartagena.
"The risk of restricting opinion is one of the greatest to the university," said Elvira Chois, vice rector for academics at the University of the Atlantic, where she was also a student. "While we don't know the origins of the violence, it has led to perhaps too much prudence in expressing opinions, our fundamental right."
No university has been harder hit than the University of the Atlantic in this industrial port city on Colombia's north coast. A utilitarian gray concrete block clogged with book kiosks and leftist murals, the school draws its 17,000 students from six northern provinces. Since January 2000, eight students and professors have been killed.
Most of the students are the provincial poor, the target audience of leftist guerrilla groups, and the region has been fiercely contested by guerrillas and the growing paramilitary forces for the past few years. Some of the worst massacres by paramilitary forces have been in towns where the university expects to attract students.
Prof. Jose Barrios, who has taught law for 26 years, said the university is a "big mirror that reflects all of the country's frustrations."
Garish murals of fallen leftist leaders cover the school's entrance hall and courtyard: Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba; Jacobo Arenas, a founder of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest leftist guerrilla group; and alumnus Jose Antequera, a leftist student leader who was killed in Bogota a decade ago.
For decades, the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia's other main guerrilla group, has had success recruiting from Atlantic and other public universities, where its Cuban-style communist ideology has had more resonance than the FARC's rural orientation. Whether the ELN is still recruiting here is a moot point, because its tradition of doing so has made almost everyone a target for the right-wing forces vying for the same young hearts and minds.
Two currents buffeting Colombia, paramilitary forces and public corruption, have come together in the university courtyards. The regional attorney general's office is investigating 20 corruption cases against the university's former rector that involve millions of dollars of potentially misspent funds. The issue has become a major student and union cause, sometimes taking the form of violent protests against the administration.
Many victims of violence have been leading agitators against corruption, as well as high-profile leftist activists known inside and outside the university. Although authorities say it is too early to tell who is carrying out the killings, students and professors are convinced the right is responsible, with perhaps a little logistical assistance from local authorities.
According to several students and professors, informers pay the roughly a semester tuition after signing contracts with paramilitary handlers. Many of those interviewed say the fact that almost every killing took place on the victims' doorsteps or at friends' houses is evidence that an intelligence network extending beyond the school grounds is in place.
During demonstrations, police officers videotape and photograph the students, some of whom have later been killed. One student, Alexander Acuna, was arrested after a demonstration and not seen until three days later, when his body turned up on a beach outside town. Police officials said he had been released along with everyone else.
During an anti-corruption demonstration in January 2000, police videotaped several students hurling homemade bombs. Most were small, a variety known as "exploding potatoes," but a large one exploded on a police shield and wounded seven officers. Four students were arrested, including a well-known leftist leader named Humberto Contreras.
Awaiting sentencing, Contreras was gunned down last month on the doorstep of a human rights worker.
Contreras, who was 31, was a leader of Alma Mater. With about 50 members, the group started years ago as an academic club but evolved into a secretive political organization with a strain of armed radicalism. Days after the January 2000 rally, two Alma Mater members were found dead in a second-floor laboratory on the school grounds. Although some students believe the two were slain, they may have mishandled bomb-making material found at the scene.
Mauricio Quintero, who heads the local prosecutor's office, said it is too early to tell who is carrying out the killings. The human rights division of the national prosecutor's office in Bogota is investigating the murders of those who also denounced university corruption, while Quintero's office handles the rest.
So far, two men have been arrested in connection with the murders of Contreras and others. One of those in custody, Oscar Rodriguez Herrera, has been identified in the local media as the bodyguard of a paramilitary commander from neighboring Magdalena province.