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Documentary : Town Toughs It Out Amid Goon Squads and Guerrillas : In this violent Colombian oil center, bombings and murders are daily occurrences.

March 24, 1992|STAN YARBRO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia — The explosions created three heavy pulses of sound on a horizon suddenly aglow with light.

They were enough to momentarily confuse a visiting reporter but not residents of Barrancabermeja, who recognized the telltale signs of terror. For them, the sudden light and vibration signaled that leftist guerrillas were again at work on the city's outskirts. They also portended bloody retaliation by enraged right-wing death squads.

While a reporter raced with colleagues through the darkness of a power outage to scenes of burning destruction, most residents stayed put. They didn't need to see the towering columns of flame and smoke to realize that guerrillas had once again bombed pipelines around this city of 157,000, a center of Colombia's oil industry. They didn't want to wander darkened streets, just as they would never choose to swim in a black stream that might be infested with piranhas.

They sensed correctly that retaliation for the guerrilla action would come in darkness and that civilians would be the target.

Residents knew all of this from experience. Barrancabermeja's population had already taken the brunt of months of violence between the last active Cuban-inspired insurgency in the West and right-wing killers trying to extinguish it. The conflict has propelled Barrancabermeja to second place on the list of Colombia's most homicidal cities, per capita (the leader remains Medellin, center of the cocaine trade).

In January and February alone, 85 people were killed here, a rate surpassing last year's record average of one murder per day. More than half of the victims fell in the poorer eastern neighborhoods, where two largely rural-based guerrilla groups--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)--have their greatest urban support in this country.

The petroleum-rich region around Barrancabermeja has been a center of the guerrilla insurgency since its beginnings in the 1960s. Rebels found they could finance their activities by extorting money from foreign petroleum companies and by kidnaping and holding their engineers for ransom.

The violence was raised a notch in the early 1970s when right-wing death squads began forming in the countryside to fight the rebels by murdering civilians suspected of supporting them. Over the years, the civilian death toll mounted as the the army randomly attacked rebel bases with helicopter gunships and fighter planes.

This growing insecurity in the countryside caused an exodus of thousands of peasants to the city in recent years. But the peasants haven't escaped the violence.

The leftist guerrillas, taking advantage of the growing poverty in Barrancabermeja, have established urban fronts. In marginal neighborhoods, where open sewers and a lack of water and other services are the norm, guerrillas have filled the vacuum caused by the government's inattention to social problems. Rebels now even act as a sort of police force, executing suspected criminals.

"The guerrillas have the people's sympathy, not because of any political project but because they are the only force of order here," said one resident too frightened to give his name.

To counter the rebel's urban presence, the first right-wing death squads appeared in Barrancabermeja last August. The death squads, often with support of members of the government security forces, are increasingly challenging rebel authority through slayings in the city. Three such massacres this year have left 18 people dead.

In Barrancabermeja, the fear of becoming the conflict's next victim is as palpable as the viciously blazing sun that often sends temperatures over 100 degrees. In the office of the president of a regional human rights committee, a droning air conditioner tempered the heat, but there was still the sense of dread.

"The (rebels') bombings will likely lead to more violence against civilians," said Jorge Gomez the day after the oil pipeline blasts, the worst guerrilla action here in recent history. "There is a possibility that three to five people will be killed shortly in retaliation."

Prophesying doom in Barrancabermeja is like predicting rain when the sky is black with clouds. And many, including Gomez, know what it's like to be caught in a downpour of violence.

Though the 43-year-old activist had recently traveled to the United States to receive the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award (sponsored by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies), once back in Barrancabermeja, he found international recognition an intangible ally at best. It was maybe useful in making enemies think twice before marching into his unguarded office, but not at all helpful at stopping them once they did. For that, there was a loaded pistol. It appeared nestled in a seat cushion every time Gomez rose from his chair.

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