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
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