Bogota's Threat from the Right ; Outlaw Paramilitary Groups Have Killed More Than 200 People since Jan. 1

Article excerpt

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 common thugs.

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 groups. …