Universities get lesson in terror
Universities get lesson in terror
By Scott Wilson
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel