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"Anyone Who Tries to Organize People ... is Threatened"

Colombia: the Aftermath of Counterinsurgency

by LESLEY GILL

“Gentlemen of the oil port,” the threat began, “we have come to stay.” Directed at the defenders of “faggots …guerrillas, … trade unionists…militant students puppies of the guerrilla, and presidents of neighborhood committees,” the note warned that “we are where you least expect, we know what you do, we have found the guerrilla cave where you meet, with whom, and when.” The author named individuals and organizations in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining town in Colombia’s mineral-rich Middle Magdalena River Valley, and claimed that they were “scandalizing the city.” The statement ended with the ominous warning: “Don’t waste time with denuncias [denouncements] or going to the police, because this sentence is definitive and for death. The intelligent one will flee.” It was dated July 15, 2013, and recipients were given three weeks, until August 4th, to leave town or be murdered.

On three occasions between late June and mid-July, manila envelopes that contained warnings of imminent annihilation were delivered to various social justice organizations in Barrancabermeja from groups calling themselves the “Anti-Restitution Army of the Middle Magdalena,” “Los Rastrojos,” and “Los Urabeños.” And two people received telephone calls in which a muffled voice warned them that they would be killed if they stayed in town. Who was making the threats, how serious were they, and what should be done about them? Were different groups responsible, or was one group using several names? These were some of the urgent questions that preoccupied Barrancabermeja’s social justice advocates during the two weeks in July 2013 that I spent in Colombia, completing anthropological research for a book on the urban counterinsurgency war that had torn the city apart.

For U.S. citizens who have never visited Colombia or moved far from the defended, suburban precincts of the middle class, the thuggish language sounds almost comical, evoking less an invisible, terrifying menace than a cartoonish, B-grade television drama; but it is not an entertaining diversion in Barrancabermeja. There, death threats are an intermittent source of fear and anxiety for anyone who questions the status quo, even though the right-wing paramilitary groups that unleashed a reign of counterinsurgent terror on working class neighborhoods and controlled the city for many years allegedly demobilized in 2006. Nowadays, as the government negotiates peace accords with Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla organization–the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)–, it claims that paramilitaries linked to politicians, regional entrepreneurs, and state security forces no longer exist, although officials acknowledge that so-called “criminal bands” have filled the void created by the demobilization. This Orwellian shift in government discourse erases the enduring political nature of reactionary violence in contemporary Colombia by equating it with common criminality. The linguistic sleight-of-hand obscures how regionally based mafias of drug traffickers, traditional politicians, cattle ranchers, neoliberal entrepreneurs, and sectors of the security forces have used and continue to use privatized terror to decimate the opposition and accumulate wealth and power.

Violence retains a political edge in “Barranca,” as locals refer to their city. Established in the early 20th century as an oil-export enclave of the Standard Oil Corporation of New Jersey, Barranca gave birth to a militant, working class political culture that united oil workers, peasants, merchants, and poor urban residents who fought for land and labor rights in the 1920s and 1930s, better public services in the 1970s, and human rights in the 1980s and 1990s. Barranca is unlike other river ports and small towns in the region, where counterinsurgent political violence decimated a broad-based Left between 1980 and the early years of the 21st century. An independent, radical tradition of working class activism survives as a more influential minority political current than in other parts of Colombia, despite a relentless state and paramilitary campaign of terror that produced the death and displacement of thousands of civilians, expelled guerrilla insurgents, and installed the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia–a nationwide federation of paramilitary armies– as the de facto ruler of the city. The wave of violence that crashed over the city swept in neoliberalism on a river of blood.

Concerns about social justice, labor rights, public services, and human rights that animated struggles in the 1920s, 1970s, and 1980s remain key issues for working people. Yet this radical tradition totters on weak legs. Unlike many Latin American countries, where left-leaning governments have come to power with the support of robust social movements, a far-right alliance of drug traffickers, neoliberal entrepreneurs, cattle ranchers, paramilitaries and sectors of the security forces has consolidated power in Colombia. The toxic mix of unbridled politics, organized crime and free-market economics has deepened neoliberalism through the gillsoafragmentation of sovereignty and the formation of unstable regional power blocks, or “parastates,” in which privatized terror has merged with the state itself. Through fraudulent elections, it has also elected politicians to national office who are tied to the emergent class of violent narco-entrepreneurs. The new public order has arisen on the graves of opposition political leaders, trade unionists, peasants, journalists, neighborhood activists and human rights defenders, and it is continually regenerated through the production of fear.

“Anybody who tries to organize people or work with the community is threatened,” Ramón Menéndez, a soft-spoken LGBTI activist, told me, as we chatted beneath an ancient ceiling fan that chopped through the sweltering air of his living room. The temperature hovered around 100 degrees, but the front door and the darkened windows of his home were shuttered, sealing us off from the prying eyes of unwanted visitors; a bodyguard hovered outside. Once an up-and-coming evangelical preacher, Menéndez had turned to human rights activism after being outed to church elders by his lover, a fellow preacher, and then banned from the congregation. Ever since, he had challenged Barranca’s deep-seated homophobia by denouncing the murder and abuse of gay men and women, organizing gay pride parades, providing support to HIV-infected individuals, and supporting young men as they came to terms with their sexuality. His work routinely led to anonymous allegations of immoral behavior and guerrilla sympathies, even though nowadays most residents of Barranca do not see Colombia’s discredited insurgencies–the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army– as viable political alternatives. On multiple occasions, death threats had temporarily forced him out of the city, and he narrowly escaped an attempted kidnapping in 2010. Years of stress had taken a toll on his health: a month prior to my visit, Menéndez underwent an operation to treat a long-ignored ulcer. Although the surgery was successful, he confessed that our conversation was unsettling his stomach.

As I talked with people about the recent wave of intimidation, considerable disagreement emerged about who was responsible. Some members of the Catholic Church hierarchy had a ready answer: the threats, they asserted, were coming from the activists themselves. According to this argument, political violence had declined in Barrancabermeja, after reaching a bloody crescendo between 2000 and 2004, but human rights defenders and trade union leaders were manufacturing the threats to amplify a non-existent danger and forestall cuts to a state-sponsored protection program that had for many years provided some of them with bodyguards, automobiles, a monthly gasoline allowance and other benefits Not surprisingly, those individuals who found themselves in the line of fire did not share this analysis.

Jaime Guerrero, a burly Coca-Cola worker who lifts weights to relieve stress, had a different assessment. “Someone is trying to immobilize us,” he commented. Over the last fifteen years, Guerrero’s outspoken leadership of the local branch of the National Food and Beverage Workers’ Union repeatedly placed him in the cross-hairs of the paramilitaries, who once tried, and failed, to kidnap his 4-year old daughter when she was walking through a park with her mother. He now traveled in the company of an armed bodyguard and was labeled one of the most “revoltosos,” or unmanageable ones, in the July 15th threat. Schooled in the Christian humanism of Catholic liberation theology as a teenager, Guerrero believed that contemporary Catholic clerics had lost touch with the lives of ordinary people.

We met in the San Silvestre mall, a glass-encased palace of consumption that epitomized the new geography of exclusion that has arisen in Barranca. Clothing stores that hawk up-scale brands surrounded us as we ate Cuban sandwiches in the pseudo-public space of the mall’s over-priced food court. The steamy neighborhoods of the northeastern district, where Guerrero spent much of his life until the paramilitaries arrived, were only a ten-minute drive away. The irony of meeting in this air-conditioned citadel, disconnected from the popular matrix of urban life, was hard to escape. Forty-eight year old Guerrero had spent most of his adult life fighting for a vision of democracy that included living wages and benefits for Coca-Cola workers, public services in working class districts, agrarian reform, and, more recently, human rights Although he could not afford the clothes and the techno-gadgetry on display around us, he felt safe within the closely monitored, authoritarian space of the mall, where private security guards prowled the passageways and guarded the entrances, and throngs of gawking shoppers calmed his feelings of vulnerability.

Guerrero believed that the current spate of harassment was meant to generate a climate of fear and squelch political dissent. The brutal paramilitary dismantling of the organized Left had created the conditions for business to flourish. The assassination of over one hundred leaders of the once powerful oil workers’ union had brought the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) to its knees, and the dense infrastructure of popular solidarity that connected the USO to other unions, political movements, peasant organizations and neighborhood associations did not bear the weight of the forces that descended upon it. Between 1998 and 2004, the overwhelming violence of state security forces and allied paramilitaries reshaped the city around the needs of foreign investors, especially in the oil industry, and eviscerated the ability of working people to collectively express their concerns. The city fathers wanted to keep it that way. Guerrero recounted a city council meeting, convened in late 2012, to discuss the crisis of urban security. “The mayor told us that we shouldn’t denounce all the assassinations, robberies, threats, and disappearances,” he said, “because it will scare away foreign investment. I was the first one to speak against his position, and then some other compañeros supported me. That’s how all this shit [with the death threats] got started.”

Simmering violence lay just below the surface of an apparent calm, but municipal officials were reticent to talk about it. They preferred to explain urban insecurity as the settling of scores between rival groups of street-level drug traffickers and ignore, downplay or discredit the threats and harassment that routinely dogged labor leaders and human rights defenders. Meanwhile, business was booming, but wealth was not trickling down. Condominiums and office buildings were sprouting up in the center of town, anticipating the planned expansion of the oil refinery, but Barranca’s overcrowded, working-class neighborhoods decayed. Chronically high unemployment rates refused to budge because oil industry contractors shunned skilled, local workers with a reputation for militancy, and imported cheaper, foreign laborers to conduct routine maintenance and repair operations. Rents were expensive, and the quality of basic services poor. Anyone fortunate enough to own an air-conditioner had to ration its use or face sky-high electricity bills, and tap water was consumed at considerable personal risk, as decades of oil-industry pollution had contaminated rivers and springs. The economic bonanza remained concentrated on the other side of the railroad tracks that divided working class Barranca from the mall and the condominiums of the city center. According to Guerrero, the city’s gilded veneer rested on a foundation of fear that compelled people to remain silent and endure chronic insecurity, personal and economic.

In contrast to Guerrero’s broad political-economic analysis of deep-rooted precariousness, Camilo Páez, the long-time president of a junta comunal, or neighborhood committee, blamed the intimidation squarely on city hall. Páez had demanded the resignation of a municipal official for allegedly embezzling community development funds, and shortly thereafter a death threat had appeared under his front door. Paez grew morose in the days that followed. It was clear, he insisted, that someone didn’t want him talking about the missing funds, and he implied that the shadow powers who had long pulled the strings of local politics were likely involved. Normally hilarious enough to crack up a crowd, he became subdued and anxious. Paez lived alone with his elderly mother in a small house on a street corner that exposed him to danger from multiple directions. Because of his mother’s fragile health, he ruled out leaving town, even temporarily, but he shouldered a heavy burden of guilt piled on by two siblings who warned him, in no uncertain terms, that if anything happened to their mother, they would hold him personally responsible.

As Páez and others assessed their options, panic gripped their bodies like a vise. Some people complained of sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate; others mentioned stiff necks, back pains, and headaches that started soon after the letters arrived. Everyone varied their daily routines, and, if possible, left the city on weekends, when the pace of social life ebbed, the police paid little attention, and Barranca grew more dangerous. In a gesture to optimism, one man noted that killing everyone mentioned in the threats would be difficult; there were just too many people.

August 4th dawned hot and sunny but then passed without a major disturbance; but nobody relaxed. If the invisible perpetrators aimed to terrify people into silence, their efforts were paying off, at least for the short term. Camilo Páez resigned his position as neighborhood committee president and hunkered down at home. Menéndez stopped reporting human rights violations against the LGBTI community and sought a temporary safe haven in another city. A school teacher fled to Bogotá, and the coordinator of the Workers’ Space–a network of social justice organizations– spent as much time away from Barranca as possible. Efforts to hold Workers’ Space meetings in the poor northeastern district were put on hold after a group of nuns, who had initially agreed to host the first gathering, withdrew their offer; they, too, had been threatened. The parents of a high school student, targeted for leading a protest against the misuse of municipal education funds, pulled their child out of school and asked around about how to change their names.

The student’s mother fretted about her family becoming associated with the USO, which had supported the student protest. “What’s wrong with the USO,” I asked, as we talked on a street corner. “Oh, nothing,” she replied, looking away from me and changing the subject. “We just sell tamales. We have never been involved with anything.” She quickly mounted her motorcycle and started the engine. Realizing that my question had made her uncomfortable, and already knowing the answer, I did not pursue the matter and waved good-bye as she sped off. Our brief interchange spoke loudly about the deep divisions that had fragmented a once powerful, organized working class. The USO no longer represented a source of community support or a champion of the rights of working people for her terrified family. It had become part of the problem. After years of government and media slander that portrayed it as a nest of subversives, even the appearance of affiliation with the USO could be dangerous and expose one to threats. She and her family had turned instead to their evangelical faith for emotional sustenance.

“I am afraid that we are becoming more isolated,” commented Jaime Guerrero, as he and I finished our meal and headed out of the mall into the humid night air. “The Right has won in Barranca.” It was hard to disagree. Decades of unrestrained political terror had converted Barrancabermeja and its surrounding hinterland into a Mecca for capitalist investment that was secured by the continual use of violence against anyone who questioned the new order, and the fusion of politics and organized crime appeared little affected by the paramilitary demobilization and the election of new, supposedly untainted municipal officials. The once formidable opposition had been truncated and disorganized, and working people had to find their way through the violent netherworld of capitalist modernization alone.

On my last day in the city, I met with the archivist of the USO to review a collection of striking photographs and select some of them for my book. One dramatic image showed a large crowd of protesters outside the oil refinery, in 1986, carrying a sign that read “the people speak, the people decide.” Another photograph captured a group of young men defending a street barricade during a 1977 civic strike. And still another caught oil workers in broad-brimmed straw hats marching on the mayor’s office, during one of the first labor strikes in the 1920s. I asked the archivist what made Barranca special. “People in this city always fight back,” he said.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

Lesley Gill is a professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of  The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas.