Pubdate: Mon, 14 May 2001
Source: In These Times Magazine (US)
Copyright: 2001 In These Times
Author: Ana Carrigan


Terror Triumphs In Colombia

Something dreadful is happening in Colombia. There will be
presidential elections next year and, given the speed and efficiency
with which counterinsurgent paramilitaries are extending their terror
and gaining control of densely populated territories, Carlos Castano's
political ambition to deliver enough captive votes to elect the
ultra-right leader of his choice has become a distinct possibility.
Such an outcome would signify the ultimate triumph of terror.

It would install the first "democratically elected" fascistic
dictatorship in Latin America, backed with mafia funding and support.

Only the United States has the clout to avert such an

But this would require that the Bush administration abandon Clinton's
absurd Plan Colombia, listen to regional leaders and European allies,
and join with them in giving full support to President Andres
Pastrana's peace negotiations with the guerrillas. The alternative
risks igniting a regional war, from Venezuela to Peru.

Rumor has it that the Pentagon may be having second thoughts about
Plan Colombia.         Testifying before the House Armed Services
Committee on April 4, Gen. Peter Pace, chief of the U.S. Southern
Command, said the paramilitaries were the most serious long-term
threat to Colombian democracy. According to the United Nations, the
paramilitaries have intensified the brutality and frequency of their
operations against the civilian population. They also have infiltrated
universities and gained control of certain labor unions.

In the past 12 months, according to official statistics, the
paramilitaries have increased their forces by 81 percent, and have
expanded their influence to 409 municipalities (40 percent of the
country). For more than 12 months, they have managed to abort the
Colombian government's best efforts to open a second front in the
peace negotiations with the National Army of Liberation (ELN)
guerrillas. In the past three months, they have brought the war to a
major city.

Surrounded by rich oil deposits, Barrancabermeja was built on the
banks of the Magdalena River, one of Latin America's greatest
waterways, to house the work force for Ecopetrol, Colombia's
state-owned petroleum refinery. Though little oil wealth remains in
the city or the region, Ecopetrol pumps 75 percent of the nation's oil
production from Barrancabermeja's grimy, polluted river port. Although
a combined contingent of army, navy and police is stationed here to
provide security for Ecopetrol, their protection does not extend to
Barrancabermeja's quarter of a million inhabitants.

On December 22, 140 of Castano's Colombian United Self-Defense Group
(AUC) gunmen entered the impoverished, northeastern sector of the city
unopposed and began systematically to terrorize one working-class
neighborhood after another.

By the end of January, after this paramilitary offensive had chalked
up 53 assassinations in the first 30 days of the year, Monsignor Jaime
Prieto, the bishop of Barrancabermeja, described the situation:
"Analyze the reality of this city. What do you see? You see a keg full
of petrol, and right beside it, a naked flame. That's what you call a
time bomb. Barrancabermeja is a time bomb."

The paramilitaries first came to the city in May 1998. Two truckloads
of hooded, armed men drove past army and police checkpoints and pulled
up to a local football field.

It was around 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the neighborhood was
holding a block party.

When people heard gunfire they assumed, at first, that the revelers
were setting off fireworks. The paramilitaries killed 11 young men
that night, and abducted 25 others who were never seen again, dead or

Castano claimed they were dead and their corpses had been

The current onslaught was triggered by the Colombian government's
efforts to establish a demilitarized zone in the region and start
negotiations with the ELN, Colombia's second-largest guerrilla force.

A year ago, the government and ELN leaders agreed to establish a
"peace zone" in territory near the city traditionally controlled by
the ELN, but now in paramilitary hands.

Demonstrating his regional control, Castano mobilized mass
demonstrations to block the proposed "peace zone" and threatened to
arm the local population and unleash civil war if the government
insisted on going ahead.

Under threats from Castano--and paid to collaborate by the regional
cattlemen, landowners, narcotraffickers and business leaders who back
him--20,000 protesters threw up barricades on the Pan-American Highway
and paralyzed all road and river traffic for 20 days.

By the time the government capitulated, the blockade had cost the
country $2 million, and the peace accord with the ELN was back on the
drawing board.

Twelve months later, the ELN and the government have agreed to a
reduced "peace zone"; the European Union has offered to invest $200
million for regional development once the talks begin; Cuba, Sweden,
France, Spain and Switzerland are collaborating to make the zone
happen. But the government still has been unable to out-maneuver
Castano, and the "peace zone" remains blocked.

As so often in Colombia, the AUC's December incursion in
Barrancabermeja was an "invasion foretold." Back in April 1999,
Castano's local commander, alias "Julian," announced that his forces
were in Barrancabermeja and would take control of the city "by
December." AUC actions followed an established pattern.

First, a "black hand" silently, anonymously, circulates a list of

Then the killing starts.

In Barrancabermeja the murders began in the summer: 56 assassinations
in June, 62 in July. By year's end, 567 people had been gunned down in
the streets, in the shops and cafes, at their offices and in their

Among the targets of these "macabre human huntsmen," as a local
newspaper described the killers, were doctors, teachers, secretaries,
union members, municipal officials, taxi drivers, church workers,
human rights defenders.

The police saw nothing; knew nothing; did nothing. Witnesses were too
frightened to testify.

A petrified silence protected the killers.

By the time that gun-toting paramilitary squads appeared openly on the
streets, terror had ruptured the trust on which community solidarity

In the second stage, the gunmen tighten the screws.

In Barrancabermeja's poor areas, they set up road blocks, sealed off
streets and went to work. They had a list of suspected guerrilla
sympathizers whom they dragged from their houses and abducted or shot.
Gunmen broke down doors, forced residents to hand over the keys to
their homes and then moved in. They exploited these captive families
to extract information about their neighbors, provide their meals, run
their errands and obey their orders. They cut the telephone lines and
went house to house seizing cell phones. Then they went for the
community leaders.

For 30 years, the guerrillas were a fact of life in Barrancabermeja.
Thirty percent unemployment offered a steady source of rebel recruits;
contraband petroleum, acquired by puncturing local pipelines, provided
a stream of illegal funding; forking over a "protection fee" was a
recognized part of the overhead for doing business in the city. Yet to
describe what is happening in the city today as an urban battle
between guerrillas and paramilitaries is to miss the point.

Since 1998, the focus of the counterinsurgency war has shifted, and
Castano's         campaign to win control of Barrancabermeja has
revealed the wider political and strategic agenda behind the AUC's
offensive, geared to destroy the government's peace efforts and impose
their own regional control.

In the neighborhoods where Castano's gunmen are imposing their
totalitarian dictate today, the guerrillas have long fled or, seduced
by AUC power, money and weapons, yesterday's rebels have switched sides.

Neglected by successive Colombian governments, the people living here
maintain highly developed, autonomous community organizations. It is
these groups the AUC has targeted for destruction.

Gerardo (not his real name) is a leader in a neighborhood known as
"Communa 7." On the morning of January 30, armed men forced their way
into the local headquarters of a women's organization and demanded the
keys to the building.

When the women, who use the building to run a community kitchen and
provide refuge for displaced families, refused to hand them over, the
"paras" gave them until 4 p.m. to leave and ordered Gerardo to
organize a demonstration outside the building to drive the women away.
"It's an order," they said. "If you don't obey, we will know. It's

You work for us. Or you leave town. Or you die."

What about going to the police?

Gerardo shrugged. "The 'paras' make fun of us if we call the police.
'What idiots you are to bring the army and police here,' they say.
'They work with us, didn't you know?'"

The city's civilian leaders have no illusions.

The government is weak and unable to re-establish the rule of law or
take back control of the streets. The paramilitaries' totalitarian
backers are set to prevail. "It's the historic Latin American
phenomenon," says Bishop Prieto. "In moments like these an ultra-right
appears to impose its own political and economic model.

Based on the logic of force rather than the force of logic, it leaves
no spaces for liberty, much less for human rights, or for economic and
social development based on sustainability and consensus. But their
rhetoric is seductive.

It promises peace, security, employment. People applaud.

I've seen it. In moments like these, they'll go along."

A prominent Barrancabermeja human rights defender agrees, adding: "If
this happens in Colombia, we will have 20 years of dictatorship in
this country."

As the AUC closes in, it is this dark vision, bleaker than any yet
seen during the 40-year insurgency, that lies behind any future
escalation of the war. The AUC campaign is driven by powerful economic
forces. Barrancabermeja is the largest city in the Magdalena Medio, a
region of vast potential wealth and strategic importance. The routes
connecting the rest of the country to northern Colombia and the
Pacific, and the main road linking Bogota to the industrial heartland
of Medellin and the Atlantic coast, all pass through Magdalena Medio.

In addition to oil, Colombia's most important deposits of gold and
nickel are buried in the San Lucas mountains north of the city and
large cattle ranches and industrial agriculture dominate in the east.
Yet 80 percent of Magdalena Medio's economy comes from drugs; the
fourth-largest drug crop in the country, some 50,000 acres of coca
plants, provides the cocaine that finances the AUC and underpins the
political power of regional narcotraffickers.

By summer's end, the AUC had routed the ELN from their Magdalena Medio
strongholds, and after October's regional elections, Castano
controlled the local administrations in 28 of Magdalena Medio's 29
municipalities.Barrancabermeja is No. 29.

Barrancabermeja is a young town, a raunchy, tough, independent,
blue-collar town with an anarchist streak.

It is not the place you would pick to establish the bridgehead of a
totalitarian regime.

Pressure on military and police commanders from the international
community and the U.S. Embassy is constant.

Ambassador Anne Patterson has visited Barrancabermeja twice since
December, accompanied both times by Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. Now
the senator and the ambassador maintain communication with local human
rights activists.

When alerted, Patterson calls the Barrancabermeja police

Support from diocesan workers, local activists and international NGOs
all have been crucial to the daily effort to protect lives.

Yet as of the end of March, 200 people had been assassinated since the
AUC moved in, and they are now in control of all but a handful of in
the city's neighborhoods. The AUC is now targeting City Hall. If the
current onslaught succeeds, and the municipal authorities lose their
autonomy, Castano will have gained control of the port, the river, the
access routes to the Magdalena valley--and the votes of a terrorized
population come election time.

As I said good-bye to Bishop Prieto, he told me: "Colombia's worst
enemy is this culture of illegality which is delegitimizing the
government. Magdalena Medio is the mirror through which we will see
whether the state is capable of eliminating all suspicion concerning
its relations with these paramilitaries. Personally, that is why I
feel so strongly about the ELN 'peace zone.' That is where we will be
able to measure the state's response."

Back in the second week of February, Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno,
commander of the army brigade responsible for the region, attacked the
AUC's regional base, located on a bluff overlooking the river 15
minutes from the city. The army found two bunkers, classrooms for
political studies, a heliport for a fleet of helicopters, and five
cocaine processing laboratories. Carreno's attack seemed to offer hope
that at least one senior commander was willing to challenge the AUC.

But Castano's forces now have gone on the offensive against the ELN,
blocking their agreement to start peace talks with the government. And
Barrancabermeja is bleeding to death.

Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia's courageous ombudsman, says the city's
human rights defenders are threatened with extinction: "The conscience
of society is being murdered."
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