Paramilitary Forces Punish Barrancabermeja, Disappearing and Killing 25

The following is reproduced from the Weekly News Update on the Americas of June 8, 1998. The Weekly News Update is a publication of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of NY, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012; (tel) 212-674-9499; (fax) 212-674-9139.

On June 4 Colombian presidential adviser for peace José Noé Ríos reported that a rightwing paramilitary group had executed 25 people kidnaped the night of May 16 from the central northeastern city of Barrancabermeja in Santander department in the Magdalena Medio region. Some 50 heavily armed men went through four working-class Barrancabermeja neighborhoods on May 16, killing 11 people and taking 25 others prisoner. According to a communique the paramilitary group sent Ríos, the 25 captives "were listened to and given a trial, and their bodies were burned." The murdered people "were subversives from the National Liberation (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL)," the communique said, referring to two leftist guerrilla organizations [El Diario-La Prensa 6/5/98 from AFP].

The remains of the 25 victims are still missing. Rumors are circulating in Barrancabermeja that they are buried in San Rafael de Lebrija or Sabana de Torres in Santander's Rionegro area. Empty coffins with photographs of the missing people have been laid out at the headquarters of the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO), which represents workers at the state-owned oil company Ecopetrol. "[T]he dead were certainly not active subversives," according to correspondents from the Bogotá daily El Espectador. The victims were all local residents, including a 16- year old student, Jaime Yesid Peña Rodríguez. But the guerrillas are well-established in the area, and many residents say openly: "Here we believe in the guerrillas more than in the authorities." "The problem," El Espectador writes, "is that apparently all Barrancabermeja residents have been declared a military objective for the paramilitaries."

The Barrancabermeja Popular Coordinating Committee was to meet on June 7 to discuss resuming a civic strike to protest the killings [El Espectador 6/7/98]. Residents and the USO struck May 18-22, seriously threatening oil supplies throughout Colombia, since the country's main refinery is located in Barrancabermeja. Colombian president Ernesto Samper responded by setting up a special commission, headed by Ríos, to investigate the fate of the 25 kidnaped people. The strike was suspended on May 22 to allow the commission to do its work [ED-LP 6/7/98 from AFP].

In 1994 evidence emerged revealing a network of killers sponsored and paid by the Colombian Navy's military intelligence in Barrancabermeja. Two members of the network confessed to the daily La Prensa that they had killed more than 45 people, including several leaders of the USO and the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) [Agencia de Noticias Nueva Colombia (ANNCOL) 5/18/98]. At least one military officer believed responsible for killing union leaders in Barrancabermeja is a graduate of the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). Capt. Cenen Darío Jiménez León took a Cadet Arms Orientation Course at SOA in 1980; he is strongly implicated in the 1988 murder of union leader Manuel Gustavo Chacón Sarmiento, whose killing provoked five days of strikes and confrontations between the military and residents of Barrancabermeja [SOA Watch website].

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