The bloody fight between guerrillas and paramilitaries in Barranca and other areas of Magdalena Medio

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While the guerrillas agreed to expand politically and territorially by taking over towns, the paramilitaries sought, along with state agents and groups purely dedicated to drug trafficking, counterinsurgency front. All these actors committed serious violations of international humanitarian law


Oscar Mauricio López

The bloody struggle between guerrillas and paramilitaries in Barranca and other areas of Magdalena Medio

According to the volume 'Colombia inside' of the Final Report of the Truth Commission, the guerrillas contemplated taking over towns to consolidate their expansion. In response, paramilitary groups resorted to the same strategy to confront the Farc and the ELN. Infobae (Jesús Avilés)

April, 1993. The eighth conference of the Farc-EP was taking place. The main agreements were to expand their armed actions to the center of the country and carry out a restructuring that changed their mode of operation, since they went from guerrilla warfare to one of movements: they created fronts, blocs, joint commands, and a central command that directed the war maneuvers.

Three years earlier, the ELN agreed in its Second Congress to have the same objective: the seizure of power, and to apply labor as an 'indispensable tool for the revolution' Social. Clearly, this strategy had to be replicated in Magdalena Medio and Santander, the main department of this region.

Barrancabermeja, the oil capital and the place where the country's largest refinery was located, suffered the most serious consequences of the confrontations at the end of the century, as a former commander of the former FARC told the Truth Commission.

“When the paramilitaries arrived, the fundamental territory in dispute became the south of Bolívar and Barrancabermeja. […] Then, the territory became disputed because it represented some interests, the Magdalena Medio has some specific interests in the strategy of control of the State, the wealth and the megaprojects that were being established in the region”, was the story collected by the entity that was born after the signing of the Final Peace Agreement, in 2016. In that order, both Barranca and Bucaramanga became a constant zone of dispute between the insurgency and the public force.

Under this scenario, the guerrillas stubbornly took over towns. It must be taken into account that, during the III Congress of the ELN (held in 1996), they also agreed to rely on kidnapping as one of their main ways of financing and political pressure. With that stipulated in their strategies, both this guerrilla and the Farc attacked a good part of the Santander municipalities between that year and 1997.

In 1996 and 1997, members of the ELN's Efraín Pabón Front and the Farc's Front 46 took over the urban centers of Capitanejo and Guaca, respectively, which are located in the provinces of Guanentá, Vélez, Soto and García Rovira. They also attacked the Police stations in these areas, greatly affecting the local economies, this because the offices of the Banco Agrario, the mayors' offices, the courts and other important buildings were destroyed by the cylinder bombs.

You can also read: The ELN takeover that allowed Mogotes to hold its first constituent municipal assembly

A memorable case was the taking of Mogotes (also Santander) on December 11, 1997. In contrast to what happened in other towns, groups of inhabitants there motivated a constituent municipal assembly in which later teachers, municipal employees, some boards of community action and even a team diocesed by Bishop Leonardo Gómez Serna.

Both guerrillas also intervened in the local elections burning ballots and ballot boxes, the most common method used by these groups. There was also a notable increase in extortion, threats and murders of members of Ecopetrol and other state institutions; It was “armed clientelism”, according to a social leader commented to the CEV, since they demanded a certain percentage of a contract or a part of labor quotas to include people related to them. When the paramilitaries arrived in this area, the stigmatization of local officials was felt very strongly.

The Truth Commission gathered testimonies from workers of companies such as Ecopetrol who suffered pressure from the guerrillas and paramilitaries. For example, there is the case of Ubencio Rueda, who was the victim of intimidation by alias Palomo, a member of the ELN, and alias Guevara, from the Farc. Agents of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia also threatened him. All these groups focused their pressure on extortion between 1998 and 1999.

The guerrilla dynamics and the little help from state agents

The planting of antipersonnel mines was another mechanism used by the guerrillas to exercise territorial control, so that other armed actors could not enter the areas that were destined for operational planning, coca planting or simply to cause terror, because according to figures from the Single Registry of Victims, 12,148 people suffered mutilations from these mines or other improvised explosive devices

The forced recruitment of minors was another of the barbarities that, although it was carried out by insurgent actors, was not well treated by the State; that is, the girls and boys who were forced to join the guerrillas were classified as military objectives by the State and paramilitaries, just for being part of the ELN or the FARC (against their will).

An example of this was the Berlin operation, carried out between November 19, 2000 and January 5, 2001 in the moorland of the same name located in the Eastern Cordillera, jurisdiction of the Tona municipality, Santander. p>

With the objective of dismantling the Arturo Ruiz mobile column of the Farc, the Army took this region under the authorization of General Martín Orlando Carreño, commander of the fifth brigade. The insurgent division was made up of almost 400 members, of whom 141 were mainly indigenous and peasant children. Many of them were led into the war by men under the command of Mono Jojoy and Timochenko, then commanders of the Eastern Bloc and promoter of child recruitment.

The Army, Despite being aware of the minors who were part of the guerrilla command, he did not request accompaniment from the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare(ICBF) and decided to interview the detainees (including minors) without the supervision of any entity that guaranteed their rights. “The Army acknowledges that it detained 23 minors and another 27 turned themselves in and records that 62 guerrillas died in combat,” the Commission states.

In addition, of the 78 necropsies carried out by Forensic Medicine , 28 corresponded to minors; of them, six had firearms burst into their skulls, understanding that they were murdered in a defenseless state. One of the girls was 14 when she died, so that was another serious violation of IHL.

While insurgent actions, such as the seizure of towns, the use of non-conventional weapons (antipersonnel mines, tacos and cylinder bombs), kidnappings, extortion and rape of minors, extended the power of these groups in the region; The public forces, groups dedicated to drug trafficking and parastatal agents hit these guerrillas hard, weakening them in areas where they had historically been strong.

In 1997, the paramilitary machine underwent a restructuring with the founding of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a 'super-army' that brought together parastatal structures withdrawn from different parts of the country. A good part of the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) joined, as well as the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Puerto Boyacá, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Magdalena Medio, the United Self-Defense Forces of Santander and Sur del Cesar, and similar groups.

In 2000 the Bolívar Central Bloc of the AUC was created and was led by Carlos Mario Jiménez Naranjo, alias Macaco, while Ernesto Báez was in charge of the political wing. Its center of operations was the South of Bolívar, a key place for the concentration of the guerrillas. There the war was bloody for territorial control, the population and the income from drug trafficking and gasoline smuggling. It was a struggle for power in all its spheres by any means possible.