This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Remembering the disappeared in Barrancabermeja

posted by Tim Nafziger on 01/20/08 at 10:48 PM

Festival in Parque de la Vida

One of the ongoing tasks for us here in Barrancabermeja is listening to the history of this city and its people. This weekend I attended a concert and rally that made some of the history real for me in a new way. The gathering was a celebration of the life of Manuel Gustavo Chacón a labor leader, poet and singer who was killed by a covert alliance between a paramilitary group and the Colombian navy on Jan. 15, 1988.

The gathering was also a memorial to a massacre carried out by the paramilitaries (right wing militias). In the evening of May 16, 1998, armed men moved through neighborhoods on the east side of Barranca (the poor side of town), killing 11 people and disappearing 25 others. This raid was the start of a paramilitary takeover of the city from the ELN (National Liberation Army), one of Colombia’s two main guerilla groups. It was also the beginning of a reign of terror for human rights workers, feminist activists, journalists and other activists in the city.

This weekend’s memorial festival featured portraits of the “disappeared,” poems by Chacón and a concert of various groups including a rock band led by Chacón’s 21-year-old son. While I was looking at portraits and discussing this history with a Colombian friend, a boy selling ice cream walked up and stood nearby for a minute. He quietly listened to our conversation and then said that his brother was one of those who had been killed in the massacre. They were holding a neighborhood dance as a fundraiser to repair the streets. The paramilitary picked them up and his brother was never heard from again.

Brother of the Disappeared

I asked the young man if I could take a photo of him with his brother’s portrait for this blog post and he agreed. You can see the photo at left.

Both of these tragic events could have become a rallying cry for anger and revenge. And undoubtedly there were people who responded that way (a guerilla cell was named after Chacón). But this memorial festival was a time of celebration and remembrance. It was a space calling for justice and transparency, but not revenge. It was a potent testimony to the resilient and creative spirit of the people of Barranca.

If you’re interested in reading more about the story of Barrancabermeja, I recommend “The New Masters of Barranca,” by Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Project. Isacson wrote the piece after visiting Barranca in March 2001. The city was still in the midst of the transition to paramilitary control and the accompanying power struggle. Isaacson lays out a brief but very useful history of the city including this helpful description:

Like fast-growing industrial cities anywhere, Barrancabermeja has long been a hotbed of labor activism, radical populist politics, corruption and violence. Oil workers formed what is still one of the country’s largest and most powerful labor unions (Unión Sindical Obrera, or USO), which over the years has lost dozens of its leaders and militants to violence, largely state-sponsored violence. Newly invaded neighborhoods organized to pressure the government for basic services, often inviting a harsh response. In turn, repression fed the development of sophisticated local human rights organizations.

Isaacson also writes regular analysis articles on the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Project Web site. There’s a lot going on in Colombia right now politically (i.e. feuding between Uribe and Chavez) that I don’t have the expertise to comment on. Instead, I highly recommend Isaacson’s articles (via the link above) as a good summary and analysis of events here in Colombia.

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