An Invasion Foretold
Terror triumphs in Colombia
by Ana Carrigan
The Progressive magazine, May 2001
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
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, narco-traffickers 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 outmaneuver 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. ln 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,
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. ln 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. lt 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
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 narco-traffickers.
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."