Residents of Colombia's deadliest town hope for end to violence
BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia (AP) -- Gunmen from the nation's warring
factions have for years roamed the streets of this oil town in the sweltering
plains of northern Colombia -- one of the deadliest places in the Americas.
But in the midst of one of the most violent months on record, the government
beefing up its security presence as it prepares to establish a demilitarized zone
The government this week dispatched 150 army special forces soldiers to
town to end a series of massacres and bombings that have left 25 dead since the
start of this year alone. In one of the latest attacks, suspected leftist guerrillas
ambushed an armored police vehicle, killing a mother and her daughter who were
driving by in a car.
"Apparently we are at war," said a 37-year-old woman who would only give
first name, Lola. Last October, her mother was killed by unknown gunmen.
Gunmen from rebel groups and rival right-wing paramilitaries roam the town,
drawn to its strategic position on the banks of the nation's largest river, the
Magdalena, and the wealth created by its oil industry.
Suspected collaborators of the opposing side are ruthlessly murdered. More
470 of the town's 195,000 residents were slain last year, according to human
The armed groups support themselves by "taxing" local criminal networks
rob gasoline from the refineries and then sell it on the black market, said army.
Lt. Col. Hugo Moreno, who is charged with wresting control of the region from
This week, the government announced it is on the verge of granting the
National Liberation Army, or ELN, a piece of territory outside this town to meet
the rebels' precondition for beginning peace talks. The two sides are expected to
formalize the agreement soon.
The plan has sparked heated opposition from residents outside Barrancabermeja
who would live in the demilitarized zone. They are threatening to erect
roadblocks to protest creation of the zone, which many fear could go the way of
the DMZ ceded to the nation's largest guerrilla group two years ago.
Critics accuse the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, of
their DMZ in southern Colombia -- an area about the size of Switzerland -- to
smuggle drugs, hide kidnap victims and organize attacks.
Some of Barrancabermeja's residents hope the sending of troops will quell
violence, but many are skeptical.
"When they come by, there is never anything happening," a woman named Maria
said as an army patrol walked past her house. But when massacres or shootouts
between warring factions occur, government security forces are rarely around,
said the woman, who did not want to give her surname.
Some Barrancabermeja residents are also nervous about the prospect of a
5,000-strong insurgent group being given a home outside their town.
The ELN has pledged not to abuse the demilitarized zone, the heart of which
would be the village of San Pablo, 37 miles (60 kilometers) from
Barrancabermeja. The borders of the demilitarized zone have not been set, but it
likely would be far smaller than the one granted to the FARC.
On Friday, ELN commander Pablo Beltran proposed a bilateral cease-fire
the government should the peace talks get under way.
The 150 special forces troops arrived Thursday and will remain indefinitely.
Their presence is a welcome reassurance for some.
"People here want peace," Barrancabermeja Police Col. Jose Miguel Villar said.
In northern Bolivar State, paramilitary gunmen killed six police officers
tried to free their captured commander.
Militia members attacked the police station Friday night in the town of
Zambrano, hours after police brought in the commander. One officer was killed,
police Gen. Alfredo Salgado said. The gunmen returned Saturday morning, killing
five officers, but again failed to free their leader.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.