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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 22:03 GMT
Barrancabermeja: Colombia's Sarajevo
Women mourn their dead
Women mourn yet another Barrancabermeja victim
By Jeremy McDermott in Barrancabermeja

Gustavo Balbuena was riding his motorcycle down Barrancabermeja's main drag when a car came up behind him and someone began shooting.

In his desperation to get away, the 25-year-old took a corner too sharply and lost control. Before he could pick himself up, a man in the pursuing car sprang out and fired a shot straight into his head.

Gustavo Balbuena was the tenth murder victim in less than 24 hours - and the 50th in January - as Colombia's civil conflict comes into the cities.

"The warring factions are now fighting neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street and even house by house for control of this city," said Lieutenant Colonel Hernan Moreno, the commander of Barrancabermeja's resident army battalion, Nueva Granada.

This is the country's petrol capital, a dirty city of some 250,000 souls, now known as Colombia's Sarajevo.

Cleansing the city

It was traditionally a stronghold of the Marxist rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). But last year the Self Defence Forces of Colombia, the AUC, an 8,000 strong right-wing paramilitary army, vowed to "cleanse" the city of guerrillas.

"I am concentrating my attention on Barrancabermeja," said Commander Julian, the AUC's second-in-command, who is directing operations in Barrancabermeja and the disputed countryside around the strategic city.

"We cannot allow such a crucial city to be threatened by the subversives," he said.

The poor neighbourhood of Maria Eugenia in the north east of the city has long been an ELN stronghold. But Commandante Jorge, one of the leaders of the ELN urban network, admitted they were in trouble.

Bought allegance

"The paras (paramilitaries) are buying their way into our areas," he said.
The twin symbols of Barrancabermeja, the scuplture of the Christ of Petrol and the oil refinery
Barrancabermeja is Colombia's petrol capital

" Here the people are very poor, there is no employment and the paras are offering wages starting at $200 a month and then giving out $1500 for every guerrilla killed, $2500 if he is a guerrilla commander," he said, his eyes never still, always scanning around for danger.

Andres is 19, although he looks younger. A former ELN guerrilla for three years, he readily changed sides when the AUC offered him a decent wage and training as an intelligence operative.

He has already rolled up the ELN network he used to work for, and is trying to infiltrate new areas.

"I can tell you that by the end of this year we will have cleaned Barrancabermeja of all subversives," he said, his adolescent face burning with new-found fervour. "They don't stand a chance."

The government is under pressure to do something to halt the daily killings. So a task force made up of urban special forces has been deployed.

Wearing wrap-around sunglasses, helmets and black body armour, the soldiers have been dubbed "Robocops" by the locals.

Soldiers escort Alex, a 13-year-old captured teenage rebel
Children are often lured into rebel groups for the money
"There are 70 of us here," said the force commander Major Jorge Maldonado. "We are out every day, acting on the slightest tip off, but we are few and the city is large, and the battle for control is ferocious."

Safe haven

The ELN are waiting for the government to grant them a safe haven for peace talks. The proposed site is two hours from Barrancabermeja by boat.

The AUC are trying to block the zone, but national and international pressure is growing to start negotiations with the battered rebel force, much weakened and desperate for a settlement.

But Julian fears that a safe haven could revitalise the 4000-strong ELN, allowing them to regroup and rebuild their shattered structure.

The larger rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has used its safe haven over the last two years to do exactly that, training cadres, importing arms, exporting drugs and recruiting minors.

"The situation may be affected in Barrancabermeja if the ELN get a safe haven," Commander Julian said, looking pensive. "I may have to take further measures."

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Americas
Colombian rebels turn down talks
21 Oct 00 | Americas
Dozens die in Colombia battle
16 Oct 00 | Americas
Colombia's massive military purge
29 Sep 00 | Americas
Colombian rebels target US troops
17 Sep 00 | Americas
Fierce fighting in Colombia
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