BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia — A few years ago, the police could only come into this city’s northwestern neighborhoods in armored trucks because the leftist rebels of the National Liberation Army (ELN) had set up snipers at the three main streets that lead into the area. The government’s police force had to abandon its local post here in 1997 after repeated bombings by the rebels left the station in shambles.
But now, the rebels are on the defensive. Right-wing, pro-government paramilitary groups have launched a vicious street war to seize the city from them. That offensive has sparked equally brutal reprisals from the rebels, creating a spiral of violence that has brought the carnage of Colombia’s decades-old civil war from the countryside into the streets of its cities — especially Barrancabermeja.
Some 500 people were killed here last year alone, according to CREDHOS, a Colombian human rights group, making this city Colombia’s most dangerous, with a murder rate nearly 20 times higher than New York City’s. So far this year, 38 people have been murdered, and the Colombian government has sent 1,000 special forces troops to the city to try to control the violence.
“‘Chang!’ Someone gets popped,” explains Wilson Lozano, a local television reporter here. “Everyone runs over to see who it was, to see if they knew the person. Then ‘Chang!’ Someone else gets killed just a few blocks away, and we all run to see who that was.”
These never-ending ‘changs’ have erupted in all parts of the city: in shops, on street corners, in the outlining barrios. Yet the murderers walk free.
“No one dares be a witness,” said one shopkeeper in the heavily trafficked central shopping district. This middle-aged woman, who didn’t want to be identified, saw two men walk into her fabric and clothing store, murder two relatives of the store’s owner, then hop on their motorcycle and speed away. Police acknowledge the assassins were most likely government-allied paramilitaries.
Barrancabermeja is the Pittsburgh of Colombia. It’s a blue-collar town that’s home to the country’s largest oil refinery, lying along the brown, muddy Magdalena River. Sputtering oil fields dot the countryside around it along with a network of pipelines that run through the low-level hills. There are important gold and nickel deposits buried in the San Lucas mountain range to the west of the city along with what observers say could be as many as 70,000 acres of coca fields, where the key ingredient in cocaine is grown. There’s also an illegal gasoline trade that relies on local civilians to puncture nearby pipelines and siphon fuel into empty milk cartons.
The region’s riches have lured the country’s armed factions to the area. For years, both the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller ELN used money from the drug and illegal gas trade to fund their 36-year old war against the state. The right-wing forces are also known to use drug money to finance their counterinsurgency.
In the mid-1990s, paramilitary groups began taking over outlying towns to the east and north of the city, steadily making their way south and west, closing in on rebel strongholds. By last year, they’d taken over large portions of the San Lucas mountain range, the ELN’s headquarters for more than two decades. In doing so paramilitaries appropriated huge profits from the drug trade and thwarted the rebels’ efforts to negotiate peace with the government.
The government is hoping to peace with the FARC in a 16,000 square-mile area in the south of the country that it pulled its troops out of in order to jumpstart the process. The ELN wanted the same treatment but can no longer stake claim to the San Lucas mountain range as their territory.
Late last month, after the government agreed to discuss clearing its troops out of the outlying areas around Barrancambereja to make way for the talks with the ELN, the paramilitaries vowed to continue their fight.
It’s been hard to count the victims in this regional offensive. There’s talk of close to 100 dead in town of San Pablo alone since 1998, and local human rights groups say there are mass graves in the area filled with the bodies of those suspected of being rebel sympathizers.
The guerrillas have not stood still during this paramilitary offensive in the city. In the northwest neighborhoods, suspected paramilitary collaborators are being killed at a startling rate.
During separate incidents one Friday afternoon, two unidentified men were killed, as was Claudia Bernal, a beautiful 16-year-old girl with green eyes and black hair. Bernal was shot through the head as she left her sister’s house in the northwest on her moped, according to her sister, Angelica.
In the morgue, Angelica wailed into the air, “Why her? She didn’t do anything.”
I asked one of the investigators that same question.
“Who knows?” he said shrugging his shoulders, while his subordinates twisted the girl’s naked body to get a look at some of the bullet holes. Who did it? Probably urban militia groups from the FARC, he guessed.
Guerrillas have also planted bombs in heavily traveled commercial districts. In October, a car bomb exploded in front of a bank killing two people and injuring several others. The police have deactivated more than 20 other explosive devices this year including a bicycle bomb and a canoe bomb. Just prior to a visit by US Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and US ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, to Barrancabermeja in late November, police deactivated two mines and captured a ELN suspected member near a detonating device. The scares have given the police virtual carte blanche to round up rebel suspects with impunity.
While police scour the northwest, local authorities are troubled by the seemingly inadequate response to the paramilitary activities. “They [the police] say they’re investigating, but the results are very scarce,” said the Rev. Jose Figueroa from Barrancabermeja’s archdiocese.
Paramilitaries are widely believed to be behind most of the murders this year. According to the reporter Lozano, some of their leaders are ex-guerrillas who recognize their former rebel colleagues on the streets and then, “Chang!”
The military arrested five suspected paramilitary members in July but are holding them for carrying weapons illegally, not murder. With no witnesses, these men will likely go free. In Colombia the vast majority of crimes go unpunished. And in Barrancabermeja, justice seems especially remote.