This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Murders in Barrancabermeja, the paramilitary and marching against the FARC

posted by Tim Nafziger on 02/03/08 at 10:02 PM

Nearly a month has passed since we arrived in Barrancabermeja. Our experience serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams has been energizing and inspiring for us. Yet here in Barranca, January was sobering as we read nearly every day about a murder in the city. In a city of 250,000, there have been 14 murders in the month of January. That’s four times the murder rate of Chicago in 2007 (see source for figures ), and double the rate for last year in Barranca.

The context for these killings is part of what makes them especially worrying. I’ve mentioned here before the paramilitary take over of Barranca in 2000 and 2001. Their method of control is a climate of fear created by killings, both random and targeted at those seen as undesirable (gay and lesbian people, drug users and juvenile deliquents, or people who are homeless).

In 2003, the government of Alvaro Uribe began negotiating with the paramilitary with the goal of demobilizing the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries supposedly completed their demilitarization in 2006, but since then, groups of “demobilized” paramilitaries have continued to operate with impunity. On Jan. 25, a demobilized paramilitary chief, Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, (alias Julián Bolívar) admitted before a judge that these re-armed groups were operating in Barrancabermeja.

Despite admissions from the paramilitary leader about continued paramilitary activity, it’s difficult to tie these 14 murders directly to demobilized paramilitaries. When I read articles about murders in the paper, they usually end with the phrase “la policia no tiene datos” which translates, “the police have no evidence.” There are frequently witnesses to the murders, but people are afraid to come forward to testify.

In one case (Vanguardia article in Spanish), the murderer sat down to watch a neighborhood game of soccer for a few minutes before walking to the side line and shooting dead a 26 year old player, while “everyone in the stands watched, astonished.” The article continues:

After committing the crime, the murderer was in no hurry to flee and he walked through the crowd that was gathering around the body of the dead man. Nobody chased him, nor did the police make any attempt to prevent his escape.

The article concludes with the familiar refrain: “What is certain is the fact that the authorities have no evidence since … Unfortunately citizens do not provide any information.”

In a sidebar to the article, the police admit:

“… ‘We can not hide the fact that have these murders have been selective and premeditated and everything suggests that the assasin was well known to his victim. There are many situations where, without assistance from the community, we cannot find the murderers, but we will continue to work with the human intelligence resources we have,’ said Rojas, the commander of the police for Magdalena Medio region.”

This lack of evidence stems partly from the fact that the police have virtually no presence in many poor neighborhoods in Barranca, only swooping in ocassionaly to prevent teenagers under the age of 14 from playing violent video games at local stores.

In a second sidebar to the article, we read the first mention of any connection between the 14 murders this month and the paramilitary. It was a two sentence excerpt from a report from the office of the Defender of Human Rights (an official government branch):

“After the demobilization of the structure of the AUC [the main paramilitary group] the criminal activity in the city has not diminished, but on the contrary it has entered a new phase of violent control and enforcement, for which groups with paramilitary background are responsible.”

So what’s to do with marching agains the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)? You may have heard that tomorrow (Feb. 4), people around the world will march against the FARC (the largest guerilla group in Colombia). Given the violent reality in Barrancabermeja, many human rights partners we work with feel that marching against the FARC is an oversimplistic response to the conflict. The march ignores Colombian military and paramilitary violence and the social economic realities at the root of the civil war. They published a letter on Saturday titled “A False Dilemma” (which I helped translate into English) in which they called for recognition of the social roots of the conflict and an end to all violence by illegal and legal armed groups.

When you read the news tomorrow or Tuesday about this march, take the time to talk with friends about the bigger picture of the conflict in Colombia.

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