BOGOTÁ -- The beheading of more than a dozen woodcutters last week was the latest of several recent attacks by Colombia's leftist guerrillas to exploit the power vacuum left by the demobilization of 32,000 right-wing militiamen -- and a signal that peace will not come easily to besieged rural areas.
The bloodshed at Riosucio bore the hallmarks of the four-decades -long war waged by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in neglected regions lacking state services or security.
Giovanny Ramírez was chopping wood in the mountains of northwestern Colombia last week when a group of rebels emerged from the jungle and surrounded him and 33 companions.
The guerrillas accused the woodcutters of collaborating with right-wing militias that until recently controlled northern Chocó Province's lucrative corridor for transnational arms and drug smuggling. With the militias laying down their arms in a peace deal with the government, the guerrillas taunted the men, saying they would now rule the territory and exact their revenge.
After hours of marching under armed guard, Ramírez, 26, said he managed a risky escape while bathing in a river at nightfall. Others were not so lucky. The guerrillas decapitated at least 13 woodcutters with machetes, sending a bloody calling card to announce their return.
For those who hailed the disarmament of right-wing militias over the last 2 1/2 years as the first step to diffuse Colombia's long-running conflict, the violent campaign by the FARC to recoup strategic zones now vacated by their rivals shows that peace will be more elusive. The critical challenges for President Álvaro Uribe as he starts his second term this week are to extend state presence to regions where it has been absent for decades, and to disarm or defeat a leftist insurgency.
Over the last month, the FARC have killed at least 18 police, nine sailors, and dozens of peasants in several regions recently abandoned by ``self-defense" armies formed in the 1980s by wealthy cattle ranchers to eradicate guerrillas and their perceived sympathizers.
Accused of brutal atrocities and widespread drug trafficking, the paramilitaries agreed in 2003 to start peace negotiations with the government in exchange for lenient penalties.
Uribe has been unable to open channels of dialogue with the FARC, which began in 1964 as a Marxist movement seeking to overthrow the state, but has devolved into a drug-financed insurgency that targets civilians as well as military targets.
The Organization of American States and independent observers report that hundreds of demobilized paramilitaries are forming clandestine new militias in one-fifth of the municipalities where they once held sway.
If Uribe fails to assert state authority over coca-growing and arms-trafficking regions that the guerrillas and new militias want to control, his strategy to diffuse the country's conflict could badly backfire, analysts say.
``This is the most difficult phase of the peace process," said Germán Espejo of the Bogotá-based Foundation for Security and Democracy. ``The easy part was demobilizing the paramilitaries. The second and much harder step is for the state to consolidate these zones and for the military to guarantee security."
Ernesto Báez, political spokesman for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the umbrella group for the demobilizing militias, said in an interview yesterday that of the 350 areas abandoned by paramilitaries, ``80 percent of that territory is at risk of being occupied by the FARC within a year."
Analysts say the 17,000-member FARC, which has been under siege for two years by a US-funded military onslaught, is incapable of retaking all zones vacated by paramilitaries, but will target coca-growing and smuggling corridors.
Despite a 35 percent increase in security forces during Uribe's first term, according to the Defense Ministry, there are not enough police or soldiers to cover remote reaches of Colombia's mountainous jungle terrain, officials acknowledge.
With 123,000 police for 41 million inhabitants, Colombia would have to boost its police forces by one-third to meet international standards.
It was the absence of security forces within three hours of Riosucio, a riverside community near the Panama border, that enabled the FARC to massacre the woodcutters and four other peasants across the river, local officials contend.
The region had been under the control of a 1,500-man militia known as the ``Élmer Cárdenas bloc," which began to demobilize in October and is scheduled to disband in full by Aug. 2. Local officials say the militia last year gave chainsaws to local peasants and helped them commercialize their wood sales, a collaboration that they say the FARC used as a pretext for killing the woodcutters.
``The situation in Riosucio is terrifying," said Darío Blandón Caicedo, the local human rights advocate. ``We've tried to emphasize to people that they can't make deals with illegal groups or else they will become targets for other groups."
As of yesterday, some 600 residents of riverside villages near the massacre sites had fled in terror to urban centers, according to the Red Cross.
``It is the obligation of the state to come into a zone where they never had a presence, it's their duty to protect citizens," said Victor Raul Mosquera, the human rights officer for Chocó.
Since 2003, the government has added 84 rural police stations, seven army brigades, and 54 mobile police units to cover disputed territories in the sights of guerrillas and new militias. Many of these regions had no state presence for 20 years.
Uribe has promised to establish police stations in 400 small communities over the next four years. This week, the president announced an army brigade will be formed to operate in the part of Chocó where the recent massacres took place.
For the Riosucio victims, that help comes too late. Ramírez is terrified the guerrillas will return and kill him, but said that with no other means to earn money, he has no choice but to go back to the forest to chop wood.