Right-wing paramilitary militias take rural war to Colombian city
BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia (AP) -- In night tinged orange by flames
flaring off a huge oil refinery, rightist gunmen are methodically killing
suspected rebels and their sympathizers in an unprecedented urban offensive in
Colombia's oil center.
The victims show up most mornings along streets or in grassy gullies. They
are typically young men shot five or six times in the head -- a trademark,
officials say, of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the
Already this year, police have recorded nearly 200 homicides, compared
570 for all of last year.
The landowner-backed AUC previously operated mostly against rural villages.
But the group is now believed to control about 80 percent of the neighborhoods
of Barrancabermeja, a city of 300,000 people that processes three-fourths of the
country's petroleum and was for decades a guerrilla stronghold.
Should the city fall completely into the hands of the rightist gunmen,
observers fear the city could become a thorn in peace talks and a foothold for
the paramilitaries to expand their power and influence nationwide.
"The paramilitaries could become a bigger threat to Colombia's stability
guerrillas," said the regional army commander, Gen. Martin Carreno.
The most recent wave of killings -- including the
assassination of a labor leader dragged from his
home at night and shot several times in the head
-- comes as the AUC opposes government plans
to cede a safe haven in two nearby towns to the
leftist National Liberation Army.
The Rev. Francisco de Roux, who is active in
peace efforts here, believes the AUC could easily
sabotage planned peace talks in the haven, which
is an hour's boat ride up the Magdalena River
from Barranca, as residents call their city.
"This is the most difficult moment in the history
of Barranca," said Antonio Navarro, a Colombian
congressman who has scheduled hearings on the
situation. "My impression is that the paramilitaries
have already taken control."
The city's violence is drawing international attention.
"This city needs to be freed, freed from the guerrillas and freed from
U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, said recently while
touring a soup kitchen run by the Popular Women's Organization.
The group has been declared a "military objective" by the AUC because it
social work in rebel neighborhoods.
A woman who had been slicing onions and cabbage for the day's lunch said
that moments before Wellstone and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson arrived on
March 24, a man scaled a wall behind the building and pulled a gun on her.
The intruder, believed to be a paramilitary member, grabbed her
kitchen knife, cut open her blouse and shoved her, said the frightened cook,
declining to give her name. Before leaving, the man demanded she reveal the
whereabouts of families who had sought refuge with the women's organization.
"I'm sorry this happened to you," Wellstone, a critic of growing U.S. military
to Colombia, told the woman, whose blouse was held together by a safety pin.
"The AUC should not be able to do this with impunity."
The assault on Barranca follows AUC advances in smaller towns and villages
throughout a large northeastern region along the Magdalena River that was the
cradle of the National Liberation Army, Colombia's second-largest guerrilla
The AUC first stormed into a poor Barranca neighborhood in May 1998, killing
seven people at a street fair and taking 25 others away in trucks. The prisoners
were "tried" as rebel sympathizers and executed, the AUC later announced.
Such massacres have now given way to selective assassinations, with rebels
themselves taking part in the slaughter, officials and human rights monitors
said. Offered guns, cell phones and a $250 monthly salary -- more than they
ever earned as guerrillas -- dozens of rebels have defected to the paramilitaries
and identified former comrades.
In addition to grabbing enemy territory, the paramilitaries are reportedly
muscling in on a multimillion-dollar trade in contraband gasoline, "taxing" gangs
that punch holes in pipelines and sell the fuel in Barranca's back alleys.
Increased police and army patrols in the neighborhoods covered with rebel
graffiti and murals of Cuban revolutionary hero Che Guevara have been unable to
stem the AUC onslaught. But police and military officials deny charges that they
are turning a blind eye or working with the paramilitaries.
"I could go into a neighborhood where 20 guys are playing soccer and they
might be paramilitaries, but I can't arrest them if residents are too afraid to testify
against them," said Barranca's police commander, Col. Jose Miguel Villar.
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.