April 10, 2007 / 7:26 PM / 12 years ago

Colombia makes arrests in child starvation probe

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia has launched a murder investigation and arrested three people in a jungle province where health funds were stolen, leaving indigenous children to starve to death, the attorney general said on Tuesday.

Two former and one sitting official have been detained so far this month and more arrests are expected amid an uproar over media images of emaciated children in the mineral-rich but poverty-stricken northwestern province of Choco.

“In cases that have to do with stealing health resources, causing death by starvation, we must bring charges not only of theft of public funds and abuse of authority but of murder,” Attorney General Mario Iguaran told reporters.

Entire villages in Choco are often displaced as leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and other groups battle for control of lucrative cocaine-producing land.

Colombia, in the grips of a four-decade-old guerrilla war, is the world’s top producer of cocaine.

Most rural Colombians live in poverty but Choco is an extreme case. It is sandwiched between the Panama border to the north where smugglers are active, and Valle del Cauca province to the south, home to Colombia’s toughest drug cartel.

It is not uncommon in areas like this for public funds to end up in the hands of corrupt officials, sometimes linked to criminal gangs.

“Choco is the poorest and most corrupt area of the country and an investigation like this is a good way for the state to reassert control,” said Pablo Casas, an analyst at Bogota think-tank Security and Democracy.

“But that won’t be easy because Choco is of key strategic importance to guerrillas, paramilitaries and other drug smugglers who need access to the Pacific coast. They are not going to go away without fighting,” he said.

President Alvaro Uribe has cut crime as part of a U.S.-backed crackdown on the rebels and has an approval rating of over 70 percent despite a scandal in which eight of his congressional allies have been jailed for colluding with paramilitaries guilty of massacres and other atrocities.

The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that, although there was still more work to be done, Colombia was committed to improving its human rights record and severing ties with the paramilitaries. The State Department ruling allows for the release of approved aid to Colombia’s armed forces.

The United Nations says Colombia has more than 3 million displaced people. Afro-Colombians and indigenous tribes, which make up most of Choco’s population, are particularly hard hit.

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