Bogotá and Barrancabermeja: a brief journey into Colombia’s guerrilla and paramilitary history

Hello dear readers! Here’s my first proper blog entry after 10 days in Colombia.

My first few days of induction in Bogotá with our partner NGO PAS (Pensamiento y Acción Social in Spanish, a social ‘think-and-do’ tank based in Colombia) was a journey through Colombia’s most recent, tumultuous history. Along with producing the allegorical whiteboard of Colombia’s chaotic timeline shown above, our private history lessons gave my lovely new field colleague, Britta, and me a glimpse of what social resistance has meant here in this country.

Our Colombian colleagues who briefed us so far are ex-guerrilla sympathizers turned to non-violent resistance, Mennonites, Jesuits, Pax Christi and even a survivor of three assassination attempts as member of the Unión Patriótica (UP), the FARC’s legal political arm created in 1985 that succumbed to a ‘political genocide’, with more than 4’000 members assassinated in the span of five years. However diverse their backgrounds and religious affiliations, they all share similar experiences of political exile and persecution for their fight for social justice. This is a country with a long history of silencing any belief that even remotely flirts with leftist or socialist ideology, under the pretext that it is subversive or guerrillero (i.e. sympathizing with the guerrilla).

Our bus-ride view of the Magdalena Medio plains

A ten-hour bus ride up north through the long, winding roads of the Colombian Andes and endless plains of cattle ranching takes us past the former property of the infamous drug baron of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar, and the birthplace of the paramilitary project, Puerto Boyacá, once auto-proclaimed the ‘anti-subversive capital of Colombia’ (it is where the fearless death squad Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS), or Death to Kidnappers in English, emerged). 

Our destination: Barrancabermeja, our new base for the next four months that will serve as a resting place when we come back from the rural communities we accompany.

My first impression of this city is that of a relatively calm and chilled-out place, with low-rise buildings and its neighbourhood feel conferring it a distinct provincial flavour. Looks, however, are deceiving.

Barrancabermeja, dubbed Barranca by locals, is the capital of the Magdalena Medio region and an emblematic case in the Colombian conflict. Due to its geostrategic importance, on the shore of the country’s main river, the Magdalena, and surrounded by an abundance of natural resources (especially oil), Barrancabermeja has been plagued by illegal armed groups for decades. 

Colombia’s biggest oil refinery in Barrancabermeja

Although it lived some episodes of violence before, it is only with the arrival of urban fronts of the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, today’s second biggest guerrilla group after the now demobilized FARC) in the mid-1980s that the oil capital was really taken hostage by high-levels of conflict. In the 1990s, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación) also took control of parts of the city.

The beginning of the 2000s was Barranca’s most ruthless period of violence, terror and impunity, with the takeover of the city by paramilitary groups. Indiscriminate, brutal violence against the civil barranceña population was a paramilitary strategy to weaken citizens’ social support of guerrilla groups and impose total social control.

Paramilitary groups originated in the 1970s as auto-defence movements that mobilized against the expansion of the guerrilla, their practices of extortion and kidnapping for ransom, and increasing land invasions by peasants. However, they converted into real war machines at the quest of local territorial control and thirsty for narco-profits by 1997 when seven regional paramilitary blocks coalesced into the organization known as the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia).

The renowned Colombian research center CINEP (Centro de Investigación Nacional y Educación Popular) estimates a total of 1000 assassinations and 300 enforced disappearances at the hands of paramilitaries in and around Barrancabermeja between 2000 and 2003. During that period, the sight of floating bodies down the Magdalena Medio river was a daily occurrence. Most of these cases were never even brought to justice for fear of retaliation or total disillusion in the justice system. Although paramilitary violence quietened with the collective demobilization of 30’000 members of the AUC between 2003 and 2006, the economic and political power of paramilitaries remains intact today.

In 2005 the Justice and Peace law was enacted, allowing paramilitaries to demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences and requiring them to declare and return all illegally acquired land. However, there is ample evidence that paramilitaries did not hand back the land to their rightful occupants, let alone declare it, and in some cases even falsified land titles with the help of corrupt public officials. Overall, the legitimacy of the demobilization process was greatly undermined by the overly lenient Justice and Peace law, the numerous parapolítica scandals that revealed the collusion between dozens of senior politicians and paramilitaries, claims of false demobilizations, as well as the failures of reintegration and the re-engineering of ex-paramilitaries as criminal gangs (today known as the BACRIM or neoparamilitaries).

Diagram of Barranca presented during our induction session, with its diverse armed groups, oil rigs (black pyramid symbol Δ), palm oil (green squiggly lines γ) and the narco-corridor (pink S-shaped line)

As grim as the city’s history may sound, Barrancabermeja has not only been an urban laboratory for guerrilla and paramilitary activity but also for social resistance, with the country’s most powerful labor union USO (Unión Sindical Obrera, the Worker’s Trade Union in English) headquartered there. 

Maritza, our field coordinator who greeted Britta and me upon our arrival in the oil city and a local barranceña, explains to us how her social activism dates back to her teenage years, when she received her first death threats by the guerrilla, and how Pax Christi’s principles of non-violence gave her the strength to keep on fighting for social justice in her city.

Tomorrow we will attend a reunion of the OFP (Organización Feminina Popular), an incredibly resilient women’s peace movement that has gained much international recognition in recent years and is Barranca’s biggest social organization today. And on Friday we leave to the first rural community by chalupa (a sort of small canoe) with a colleague from PAS who will formally introduce us to all the community members. More on these exciting encounters in the blog posts to come!

As always, thanks for reading! Any comment is much appreciated.

Fun fact of the day: Did you know that, according to a very reliable Harvard study referred to by the packet of coca leaves we bought for tea infusions, chewing 100 grams of coca leaves is enough to ‘replace a full nutritional diet’ due to its ‘high level of protein and medicinal properties’. Who knew that these sought-after leaves were actually so healthy?! 😉 More fun facts to come, so stay tuned!