Research: Publications

The New Masters of Barranca

April 2, 2001 | Report


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Yolanda Becerra, an easygoing, dignified woman of perhaps fifty years, is cheerfully patient with gringos who come to her office asking naive questions. She hardly resembles a "military target," whatever that means. But the paramilitary thugs who took over her city a few months ago remind her regularly that she is in their sights.

Ms. Becerra heads the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP), a group that provides food, health services, job training, and legal aid through "women’s houses" (casas de la mujer) in the working class neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja, the main city in the Magdalena Medio region of central Colombia. She looks tired, like she has not had a good night’s sleep in quite a while. I doubt she has, because the OFP has faced the worst of the paramilitaries’ brutal campaign to clear away the remnants of the city’s once-vibrant civil society.

Barrancabermeja is hard to pronounce, and very little of last year’s billion-dollar package of U.S. military aid for Colombia will end up anywhere near this city. But as Washington edges closer to Colombia’s long, bloody conflict, "Barranca" offers a preview of the nightmare to come. For the first time here, the war is entering a scary new phase of urban fighting that may soon appear in Colombia’s larger cities. It is being spearheaded by the paramilitaries, whose growing power the United States can no longer afford to ignore. The only force left standing in their way is a beleaguered but outspoken group of independent, non-violent human rights groups and community leaders like Ms. Becerra.

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