Trapped in the city

As paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas bring their war to town, citizens of Colombia's oil center ask, Whose side is the government on?

Victor Acosta's wife embraces her husband's body after he was killed on a Barrancabermeja street. Acosta was one of eight people gunned down in the city on the same Thursday in July 2000  

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia (CNN) -- Victor Riano Acosta's life ended in a burst of gunfire on a busy riverfront street, 300 meters from the local police station.

Taking a break from his job of hawking second-hand clothes from a small kiosk, Acosta sat down for a drink with a friend. An assassin walked up behind him, pumped four bullets into the back of his head and fled on a motorcycle.

As passersby scattered for cover, a platoon of police and army troops -- which had been patrolling the street only minutes earlier -- rushed to the scene. Their guns leveled, they searched the panicked crowd for the assailant. But he had already gone.

A shriek broke through the circle of onlookers gathering around the body. Acosta's wife stepped forward and saw her husband slumped in his chair, his blood dripping onto the asphalt below him.

"My husband! My husband! Why didn't they kill me?" she wailed. A friend tried to console her, but she pushed him away.

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She threw herself across her husband's shoulders, pulling his head to her cheek. Bent over his corpse, she mourned before horrified spectators, her sobs growing fainter until they were overtaken by the ghostly whir of cycling turbines at the nearby state-run oil refinery.

Acosta was one of eight people gunned down that Thursday in July 2000 in Barrancabermeja, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Bogota.

Four more were killed the next day.

On Saturday, a local paper documented the mood overtaking the city: "Terror in Barranca," the headline blared.

"No one knows who is doing the killing," said one woman, who wished not to be identified. "Everyone is afraid. Every day people are asking, 'When is it going to be my turn?'"

Barrancabermeja has long been a violent city. The capital of Colombia's oil industry and home to the nation's most powerful labor lobby, the oil workers' union, the city has witnessed frequent civil unrest. It has also been considered a stronghold for three leftist guerrilla groups, particularly in its suburban shantytowns -- known as "comunas" -- which were spawned by waves of families fleeing fighting in the countryside.

In recent months, however, Barrancabermeja's murder rate has risen dramatically. More than 300 people have been killed so far this year, a striking statistic for a city of 250,000 people.

When asked how many of those cases have gone to trial, the local public prosecutor laughed incredulously.

"Maybe 10," she said. "No one ever talks. Someone gets shot on a crowded street, people all around, but no one saw who did it. It's the law of silence."

"All the crimes we know of, and those described to us by families of the victims, we pass directly to the public prosecutor and state attorneys. Of these crimes, none are ever solved," said Francisco Campo of CREDHOS, a regional human rights organization. "The impunity here ... in Barrancabermeja, as in the rest of the country, is 100 percent."

War in the streets

Situated on the banks of the Magdalena River, Barrancabermeja has become part of the urban front in Colombia's civil war  

Barrancabermeja, Campo said, has come to symbolize Colombia's nearly 40-year civil war. Many symptoms of the conflict -- massacres, forced displacements, kidnappings, deep poverty -- all beset the city.

"Barrancabermeja is not isolated from the war, from the armed conflict in Colombia," said Yolanda Becerra, head of a women's organization in the city. "Barrancabermeja has lived very cruelly in terms of the consequences of this war."

But unlike in other parts of the country, where fighting has raged primarily in the jungles and mountains, the war in Barrancabermeja has taken on an urban form.

Instead of open battles between guerrillas and army troops, combat is waged between "sicarios" -- killers for hire -- contracted by right-wing paramilitary squads and left-wing guerrilla forces to assassinate suspected enemies.

According to Campo, the recent surge in violence is the work of ex-guerrillas in league with the paramilitaries, who are singling out their former comrades for execution. But many of those killed are ordinary civilians, he said.

For years the paramilitaries have set their sights on Barrancabermeja, a city on the shore of Colombia's most strategic waterway, the Magdalena River, in the heart of one of the country's richest regions.

Barrancabermeja's state-operated oil refinery is responsible for more than 60 percent of Colombia's gasoline production. The nearby San Lucas mountains contain vast deposits of gold. According to police, in the fertile fields along the Magdalena river grow some 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived.

"Whoever wins Barrancabermeja wins the whole Middle Magdalena," said Carlos Arturo Rangel, the regional "Defensor del Pueblo," a government-appointed ombudsman for human rights.

The paramilitaries first struck in May 1998 when heavily armed men swept through several poorer neighborhoods on the southeastern edge of the city, killed seven men outright and took away 25 others. The regional paramilitary commander later told authorities his troops executed the detained men after allegedly linking them to guerrillas.

The massacre sparked international condemnation of the paramilitaries, prompting them to change their strategy, Rangel said.

Now they wage war with the guerrillas in the form of "selective assassinations," he said.

"Despite the problems here, the police have not reinforced the Middle Magdalena. And this is unbelievable because the Middle Magdalena needs police more than any other area of the country," said Rangel.

Of Barrancabermeja's 220 police officers, only 50 patrol the streets, divided in three shifts. Most of the others have been assigned to protecting the oil refinery, the airport and police headquarters.

The problem is not too few police, said the regional police commander, Col. Jaime Eduardo Martinez. The problem is that people refuse to cooperate, he said.

"The people here are frightened," Martinez said. "They say nothing to authorities, even though in many cases they know where the killers came from. But they remain quiet. They prefer to bury their families and not make the smallest comment to help the authorities in their investigations. That is why the city is practically in total chaos, because the people are completely intimidated."

The communes: the militias vs. 'frogs'

Elizabeth Canas was killed in July 2000 after contending for two years that Colombia's secret police were involved in a 1998 massacre attributed to paramilitaries  

Sitting on a bench in a small home made of wood and corrugated steel, Patricia Canas thumbed through photos of her sister, Elizabeth.

One of few witnesses of the 1998 massacre to testify to authorities, Elizabeth Canas denounced government forces for their role in the incident. She claimed at least one of the killers was wearing a shirt bearing the insignia of the DAS, (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad), Colombia's secret police.

Since the killings, Elizabeth Canas had split the past two years between working as a nurse and campaigning for human rights. She had continued to demand information on the whereabouts of her brother and one of her sons, who were among those "disappeared" by the paramilitaries.

But on July 11, 2000, Elizabeth Canas was gunned down outside the hospital in the center of Barrancabermeja, in the middle of the afternoon.

Terrified by the murder, Patricia Canas and her family now refuse to leave their neighborhood.

"Here, it is like a jail," she said.

Canas and 18,000 others live in guerrilla-controlled "comunas" on the outskirts of Barrancabermeja. They are severed from the rest of the city by a set of railroad tracks, and by a social stigma.

"The problem with the other part of the city is that due to the conflict in Colombia, and more so in Barrancabermeja, they have divided the city in two. Here we have Old Barranca and New Barranca, Good Barranca and Bad Barranca. We are, according to Barrancabermeja society, we are in Bad Barranca," said Angel Miguel Solana, a community leader.

"To everyone there, we are guerrillas," he said.

Only the army and police dare to enter the communes, and then only in a show of force. Out of reach of the city's legal system, the communes live under the law of milicianos, civilian-clothed militias employed either by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla army, or by their insurgent rivals, the National Liberation Army (ELN). To complicate matters, a much smaller rebel group, the Popular Liberation Army, or EPL, is also fighting for control of certain neighborhoods.

Graffiti supporting the FARC guerrillas is a common sight in the "comunas" of Barrancabermeja  

Residents in the commune try to keep their distance from the milicianos. When the militias appear on the streets, people shut themselves inside their homes. When pro-guerrilla bulletins are placed under their doors, residents burn them for fear the propaganda might be discovered by authorities or by spies for the paramilitaries, and that their names might soon appear on death-squad hit lists.

They must also avoid government forces. Anyone who cooperates with the police or the army could be labeled a "sapo," or "frog" -- the nickname for suspected spies -- and assassinated by milicianos.

Few in the communes trust security forces anyway. Ever since the massacre two years ago, most have come to view the police and army as paramilitary allies.

"We don't make a distinction between the paramilitaries and state forces, because the paramilitaries' actions in the Middle Magdalena are part of a political war against the guerrillas," said Campo. "There is absolute compliance between the paramilitaries and state forces. That is why we consider [paramilitary crimes] crimes of the state."

For his part, Col. Martinez vehemently denies any connection between his forces and the paramilitaries.

"If they have any proof that we have links to the paramilitaries, I ask them to submit it to the attorney general and the general solicitor of the nation.... I have a clear conscience.... We are neutral," Martinez said.

Most residents in Barrancabermeja, however, simply feel squeezed by all sides.

"There's no security here," said one woman. "All we can do is cross ourselves for protection, nothing else."

'Again, again, again'

Mourners lay 27-year-old Odel to rest two days after he was gunned down on a Barrancabermeja street in July 2000. The reason for his murder is a mystery.  

With the wail of a siren, a procession of cars and minibuses, flanked by dozens of buzzing motorcycles, rolled to a stop at the "Gardens of Silence" cemetery in July 2000.

Hundreds of mourners converged on an open grave to bury 27-year-old Odel, a Barrancabermeja native who had recently taken a job in an oil drilling city a few hours' drive to the east. Two days before, while in town visiting his family, Odel was shot to death on the street.

The motive for the killing remains a mystery.

"We don't understand why he was killed," said his brother. "How could someone so nice, so friendly, be murdered?"

To the doleful strums of a guitar, the mourners paid their final respects to their fallen friend. Notably absent from the funeral were Odel's parents, who were too frightened to attend. Earlier in the day, they had seen armed men waiting outside the funeral home, and they immediately secluded themselves in their home.

As the casket was lowered into the grave, friends and relatives tossed flowers onto the earth. Outside the circle of mourners, another friend gave voice to the sense of helplessness overtaking his city.

"We are powerless to do anything against the violence," he said. "Last year, we marched in the streets and said, 'No More!' But look, it keeps happening. Again, again, again."

Come back to this section of our Colombia site for future reports by Steve Nettleton.

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