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 outcome. 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 alive. Castano claimed they were dead and their corpses had been incinerated.
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 names. 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 homes.
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 depends.
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 simple. 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 chief. 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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