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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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