Real life in the faculty of death

June 11, 2004

Decades of paramilitary conflict are taking their toll on Colombian higher education, reports Toby Muse.

Jose Luna, a 54-year-old agriculture professor, taught for seven years at the Córdoba University, in northern Colombia. After his election as a union official in the university, he began receiving death threats. In February, Luna and his family fled to the capital, Bogotá, after receiving an unsigned letter that said: "What's going to happen to the Luna family?"

above a cartoon of an explosion occurring next to a child. Below the drawing was the phrase: "Watch out".

While some members of his family have moved to different parts of Colombia, he and his son remain in Bogotá but live apart. "If I've been threatened with death, to live with him would be to expose him to the same dangers," Luna says.

According to government figures, Colombia has made huge advances in making higher education more accessible over the past decade. In 1990, some 12 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 23 went to university, while today the figure is closer to 22 per cent. The government has a target of per cent.

And this growing sector has drawn the attention of Colombia's armed militias.

Colombia's civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against rightwing paramilitaries and the state, kills thousands each year. The country has the worst human-rights record in the hemisphere, the highest murder rate on earth, and the majority of the world's kidnappings.

Conflict is now creeping onto university campuses across the country and turning them into a battleground.

Colombian authorities are particularly worried about Córdoba , which has suffered a particularly volatile history. The university, founded in 1964 and serving 7,000 students, was created to focus on those areas of particular importance to the local industry of Córdoba: cattle and agriculture.

Córdoba is the heartland of the country's extreme rightwing paramilitary movement, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, originally founded in the 1980s by wealthy farmers as a vigilante group to guard against guerrilla attacks in the absence of the authorities. The paramilitaries quickly grew in number and from Córdoba launched a ferocious national counteroffensive against the guerrillas and their supporters, setting up new paramilitary blocs across the country.

About seven years ago, the paramilitaries set their sights on Córdoba.

Since 1985, five professors and five students have been murdered. Most of the killings have not been attributed to any particular group, but the paramilitaries are the only armed group operating in the area. Since the paramilitaries established their control over the university, professors have noticed a change in the atmosphere. "There is no room for free debate here. Everyone feels they're being watched, so many keep quiet," said a member of the professors' union.

Even in the union's offices on the university campus, he spoke in whispers, asking to not be named for fear of retaliation. "Look at other universities, covered in graffiti. Here it's eerily clean. Not even graffiti from a boyfriend to his girlfriend telling her he loves her.

Everyone here is scared of making the paramilitaries even slightly unhappy."

Professors say they are spied on when they lecture, and they assume that what is being taught is reported back. "We hear from many professors that young men sit in their class and when they ask them who they are, they say they're students, but then they're never seen again," he says. The professors' union says that the paramilitaries are attempting to take over those universities that are in their zones of influence, including in some cases installing allies in the universities' administrations.

"The paramilitaries are looking to take over some universities and threatening or killing those professors who won't cooperate," says Pedro Hernandez, the president of the professors' union, in an interview in his offices inside the Bogot - based National University campus.

Union activists say that by taking over universities, the paramilitaries can gain access to the university budgets, stock up on valuable supplies, especially medicines to treat the hundreds wounded in the conflict each year, and control what is being taught.

"In particular, we've seen that the paramilitaries have dissuaded people from studying social problems related to this civil war, including displaced people and the cocaine industry,'' Hernandez says.

Those who ignore the threats do so at their peril. Since 1985, 29 professors and 28 students have been killed, according to the union. Some 14 professors have fled their jobs after receiving death threats. And as the rightwing paramilitaries concentrate on university faculties, Marxist guerrillas are concentrating on recruiting students.

"When the student goes to university, he or she is very open to new ideas, and the groups take advantage of this, they try to lead someone from an ideological debate to being part of an armed group," says Javier Botero, Colombia's vice-minister for higher education.

Colombia's Marxist groups have a long history of recruiting young, impressionable students. The former Marxist rebel group M-19, which staged some of the most spectacular attacks on the Colombian state, including the takeover of the Palace of Justice in 1985, had a strong student component.

But after a peace deal with the government in 1989, the rebels demobilised.

Another burst of student activity came when the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), started a political party in 1984, but it ran out of steam in 1987 after a campaign by sections of the armed forces and the paramilitaries to exterminate the party, which killed thousands.

University students have often been attracted by revolutionary groups in Colombia, Latin America's third most populous country, where politics is widely regarded as endemically corrupt among a population riven by huge social divisions. While a minority lives a life of luxury, more than 60 per cent of the country survives on $2 or less a day.

The Bogotá- based National University, with more than 25,000 students, the country's largest, seems to have been of particular interest to Farc. Last year there were two incidents related to the National University, famous in Colombia for its leftwing politics. In March 2003, two students, allegedly members of Farc, were arrested after leaving explosive devices on Bogot 's public transport system. In October, a medical student from the National University was killed as she attempted to assassinate the head of Colombia's largest business association. According to the authorities, the student had undergone intensive training by Farc.

University authorities hope that growing apathy among students will lead to a reduction in the numbers joining the guerrillas. "The students we see today are much more apathetic than they previously were," says Marco Palacios, rector of the National University. "For many of the students beginning their studies, the guerrillas have lost a lot of credibility."

The education ministry says that it is not really equipped to do anything to prevent the recruitment of students, leaving it in the hands of Colombia's military intelligence. Mean-while, those who work in academic war zones are demanding that these groups leave their campuses.

"Universities should be free of influence from any armed group,'' says one professor at Córdoba. "At the moment, it looks like they're not really listening to us."

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