Barrancabermeja is a city of approximately 300,000 inhabitants, and home of the state-owned Ecopetrol refinery – Colombia’s largest oil refinery. The oil and large-scale cattle industries are the largest enterprises in the city. Barrancabermeja is also a major port on the Magdalena River, several hundred kilometres from its mouth in the Caribbean sea, and is the unofficial capital of the Magdalena Medio region.
Paramilitaries took control of Barrancabermeja in 2000 with the tacit support of local security forces, after many years of guerrilla military dominance and control over significant areas of the city –a control maintained by violence, open combat with police and other state security forces, and the extrajudicial killing of civilians thought to be collaborating with the state. (Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries have their origins in US-supported, state-trained, state-sanctioned counter-insurgency militias during the cold war, but have since then evolved to become, first the autonomous private armies of large land-holders, businessmen and drug lords, and later these private armies united under the banner of the United Self-defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), no longer under the direct control of the Colombian military but nevertheless close collaboration continued. For detailed information on the formation and activities of paramilitaries in Colombia see Wikipedia: Paramilitarism in Colombia). The paramilitaries entered the city of Barrancabermeja committing massacres, selective extrajudicial killings, forcing many civilians to displace. (For a detailed account of the Paramilitary takeover of Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Region, see the Center for International Policy report: “The New Masters of Barranca“) Despite the “official” demobilization of paramilitary organizations in 2005 under the Peace and Justice Law, new and reformed paramilitary groups continue to use these same tactics in an effort to terrorize and silence their opponents. In February 2010, Human Rights watched released a new report entitled, Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia and their multimedia presentation, Deadly Threats, Successors to the Paramilitary in Colombia (For more information on the Peace and Justice Law see Amnesty International report for Colombia: Justice and Peace Law will guarantee impunity for human rights abusers.)
The Magdalena Medio takes its name from the Magdalena River – Río Magdalena, and refers to the territory along the middle part of the river, including the river flats and parts of the mountain ranges on either side of the river. It is a resource-rich and fertile area, with large cattle ranches, palm plantations, oil and gas wells, and goldmines in south Bolivar. Coca is also cultivated in various parts of the region, and processed into paste before going to laboratories where the paste is further processed into cocaine. The guerrilla, the military and the paramilitary have focussed much of their attention on rural communities surrounding Barrancabermeja, in their struggle for control over those resource-rich territories. Rather than engage the guerrilla directly, a common tactic of the two latter groups is to try to eliminate the support-base of the guerrilla by depopulating the area of civilians – to drain the pool so the fish have nowhere to swim. This tactic also serves to open up territory formerly controlled by the guerrilla to national and international investors
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