In the poor neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja, urban guerrillas belonging to the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been desperately trying to stave-off an urban offensive by right-wing paramilitaries. Most of these neighborhoods have been firmly under the control of the ELN, with a few in the hands of the FARC, since the 1960s. But in recent months, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have successfully gained control of many guerrilla-controlled neighborhoods in Barrancabermeja, known locally as Barranca.
The leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, a former Medellín cartel henchman, announced last year that he wanted this oil-rich port city of 300,000 cleansed of guerrillas. So far, the paramilitaries have succeeded in seizing control of more than half of the city’s poor neighborhoods. As a result of the AUC’s urban offensive, the already high level of violence in Barranca has increased dramatically.
Over the past decade Barranca has averaged 330 murders a year, but according to Régulo Madero Fernández, local president of the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS), the city’s current death rate is far worse, “In the past year there were 567 selective homicides for political reasons. So far this year, in the first 49 days, there have been 105 selective homicides.”
The paramilitaries have been responsible for many of the killings as they infiltrate guerrilla neighborhoods and assassinate anyone they believe to be a rebel sympathizer. Furthermore, they have not implemented this dirty war alone. The few police present in the paramilitary-controlled neighborhoods of Simon Bolivar and Miraflores make no attempt to confront members of the AUC who openly patrol the streets with cellular phones, walkie-talkies and 9mm pistols tucked conspicuously into their waistbands.
According to Mateo, a young FARC guerrilla in Barrio Boston, “The reason the situation is so difficult in Barranca is because the paramilitaries receive a lot of support from the public forces. When there is a problem in Simon Bolivar or Miraflores, the police do nothing. But if there is a problem in a guerrilla neighborhood, they launch an operation.”
The territorial gains made by the paramilitaries have forced the FARC and the ELN to cooperate. The two have historically been at odds and have occasionally been known to confront each other, but Mateo explains that, “because the situation here is so difficult, we have to work together.” Although there are now only about eight neighborhoods not controlled by the AUC, the guerrillas are not yet ready to admit defeat. In fact the level of violence in Barranca is likely to further escalate because, according to Mateo, “We are bringing in more people to retaliate against the paramilitaries. I can’t tell you the number.”
Madero of CREDHOS echoes Mateo’s claims of collaboration between government forces and the paramilitaries, “The complicity between the institution of the government, the public forces and the paramilitaries is a fact. These things generate an anarchic situation and the first victims are human rights and the dignity of the people.”
One of the human rights dilemmas in Barranca is that of the 30,000 displaced people who came to the city to escape the violence in the surrounding countryside. The entire village of La Cienaga de Otun is now living in a building in Barranca’s city centre known as Casa Campesinos. Some 130 villagers live in cramped and unfamiliar urban surroundings unsure about what the future holds for them.
When asked why he came to Barranca with his wife and four children, Luis said, “The paramilitaries killed two friends and so we had to come here to escape.” He claimed that since their arrival in Barranca, they have received little help from the government and it is only because of International Red Cross packages that they have food. But Barranca no longer guarantees the displaced a safe refuge from the violence as many of them are now being targeted by armed groups in Barranca. Consequently, according to Madero of CREDHOS, “Now people are being displaced from Barranca to other places.”
Colombian President Andrés Pastrana recently visited Barranca to address the issue of road blockades by local campesinos that effectively cut the country in half. Pastrana accused the AUC of organizing the blockades that were protesting against the government’s plan to implement an ELN-controlled demilitarized zone in Sur de Bolívar in which to hold peace talks with the guerrilla group. At the blockade in Lizama, 22 miles from Barranca, it was evident that the 3,000 campesinos were very well organized and financed. Food supplies were in abundance and large water trucks were arriving daily to refill the protesters’ water containers.
Pastrana’s accusations of paramilitary involvement in the blockades were also buttressed by the presence of a local AUC leader named Javier at a small roadblock on the outskirts of Barranca. According to Javier, who claimed to be from the neighborhood known as Comuna 7, “We are worried about defending the people because human rights have not existed here.” Ironically, many community leaders and human rights activists in Comuna 7 have been targeted by the AUC.
Three days into the protest President Pastrana ordered the army to clear the blockades and to reopen the highways. When asked about the possible consequences of this decision, the commander of Barranca’s Nueva Granada Battalion and School of the Americas graduate, Lt. Col. Hernán Moreno, said, “It is the National Police who deal with public order problems, not the army. The moment we go in to save the police we will have to shoot the protesters and it’s not constitutional to shoot the people.”
The next afternoon the protesters peacefully terminated the blockade after the government agreed to discuss the implementation of the demilitarized zone with local community leaders. But in Barranca the paramilitary offensive to control the city continues with government forces doing little to halt the fighting. When asked what she wanted for the future, a 16 year-old displaced girl in Casa Campesinos simply stated, “Peace, love and calm.” A simple wish that seems light-years away for the residents of Barranca.