Bogota's threat from the right

Outlaw paramilitary groups have killed more than 200 people since Jan. 1.

A chilling New Year's resolution echoed through Barrancabermeja, an industrial city in Colombia's north.

As 2001 dawned, armed paramilitary groups put out the word that they had a hit list of 400 people in the city, including union leaders, leftist guerrillas and their suspected sympathizers, and common thugs.

Five months later, they've kept their word. After a wave of violence in which gun-wielding bands took over several city neighborhoods and went house to house searching for their victims, more than 200 of the targets are dead, and others have fled.

The terror is evidence of the rising power of right-wing armed groups in Colombia's prolonged civil conflict.

"The growth of the paramilitaries is a dangerous example of another illegal force expanding and shifting into a kind of legality," says Fernando Cubides, a political analyst at Bogota's National University of Colombia.

But even as Barrancabermeja officials condemn them, the groups rule parts of the city unchallenged.

The same equivocal position has held at the national level: Colombia's leaders have insisted they were getting tough with the "paras," yet the illegal groups have for more than a decade often acted as handmaid of the country's armed forces.

But now, "there's a growing realization that the paramilitaries pose a threat, as the guerrillas do, to democratic stability in Colombia," says a US Embassy official in Bogota.

Yet to some citizens, weary of four decades of violence, partly committed by leftist guerrilla organizations and often involving the country's narcotics trade, paramilitaries can offer an illusion of order in a lawless land.

"Socially there is as yet no stigma" against supporting the paramilitaries within many social sectors, the US official says - just as it was once acceptable for some sectors of Colombian society to associate with drug traffickers.

Many people in Barrancabermeja lament the city's recent violence, but quickly add that the streets are safer now.

A growing number of rural areas once dominated by either the FARC or the ELN, Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla organizations, are now in "para" hands.

A hotel maid in the far-south jungle town of Puerto Asis says with a smile - though her husband was killed by paramilitaries a decade ago - that her neighborhood is safer now because the FARC was chased out by "the boys" - meaning paramilitaries.

With the Colombian Defense Ministry placing total membership in paramilitary groups at more than 8,100 - up from less than 6,000 just last year and less than 2,000 as recently as 1993 - defense officials are suddenly sounding alarms about the "self-defense groups" becoming the Colombian state's biggest threat.

The Army says 873 civilians were killed in the first four months of the year by the country's armed groups, the majority by paramilitaries. More than 40 union leaders have been assassinated over the same period.

But the government's consternation over paramilitaries can be explained by more than statistics.

Evidence of ties between certain battalions of the armed forces and the paramilitaries continues to blacken Colombia's reputation in the eyes of foreign governments and international human rights groups.

Last week, for example, Colombia's People's Defender's Office found that an April massacre by paramilitaries of at least 22 farmers in the tiny rural community of Naya (another 20 remain missing) looked suspicious because of the close proximity of an Army battalion.

But some key recent arrests of paramilitary leaders, including Francisco Javier Correa Gonzalez, thought to be the head of paramilitary operations in Barrancabermeja, have started to give the Army more credibility.

Still, despite a few well-publicized cases of military officials jailed for working with paramilitaries, the government is not doing enough, critics say.

Some observers say the paramilitaries are more autonomous from the government than just a few years ago - a position the guerrillas are particularly loath to accept. "The guerrillas' position is that paramilitarism is an annex of the government, and I think they're mistaken, there's more autonomy than that," says Carlos Lozano Guillen, editor of the Colombian Communist Party daily La Voz.

Officials also worry that the paramilitaries could trigger a return to the urban terror that Colombia endured in the late 1980s and early 1990s at the hands of the drug gangs that some of today's paramilitaries were defending. Recent bombings in Cali and Medellin, and an unexploded bomb found hidden in a truck in a busy section of Bogota, heighten this concern.

The paramilitaries are also heavily involved in Colombia's drug trade, reflecting their origins in the 1980s, when United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) leader Carlos Castano - whose father was kidnapped and killed by the FARC -- formed groups to defend the lands of the country's then-dominant cartels.

Interviews with former FARC soldiers, paramilitary soldiers, and evidence that hundreds of former FARC soldiers have switched camps because of better pay offered by the AUC, offer evidence of the paramilitaries' financing from the the coca trade, kidnappings, and extortion.

The government is making some efforts to stop paramilitary growth. At peace talks between the government and the FARC, the two sides earlier this month set up a commission to find ways to cut paramilitarism's appeal. But even commission members say the job won't be easy, because it will require an acknowledgment by both the government and guerrillas that they played a role in the rise of the paramilitaries.

Paramilitaries retain influence because they are allowed to operate with impunity, says Mr. Guillen. Only the government can change that, he adds.

Barrancabermeja brings the issue into painful focus. "There are 5,000 soldiers stationed there and patrolling the streets, yet the paramilitaries are able to assassinate who they will and stay on to take control," Guillen says. "What besides impunity explains that?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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