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Universities get lesson in terror

Universities get lesson in terror

By Scott Wilson
The Washington Post

July 5, 2001

BARRANQUILLA + 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.

"There are students here who never take a test, never write down a thing," said a 21-year-old science 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 become 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 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 leftist leaders who often emerge from the disenfranchised lower classes. Private universities, too expensive for most Colombians, train the children of the 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 at Colombia's public universities. They're 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 isn't protecting them.

Paid informers monitor student activities and lectures for leftist overtones. Lists of those targeted for death surface and disappear in campus corridors. In the past two years, 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 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.

As professors censor their lectures and students abandon left-leaning organizations, 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 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 one language professor.

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 Bogotß, the capital; and at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, where one student and six professors have been slain.

In May, the AUC announced its arrival, through a campaign of bathroom graffiti, 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.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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