Eclipsed by all the headlines of the past week â€“ Condoleezza Riceâ€™s visit, tensions with Venezuela, fighting in Cauca, paramilitary talks in trouble â€“ is a surprising story about something that doesnâ€™t happen very often in Colombia. For the second time in thirteen months, the people of San Pablo, a town in southern BolÃvar department, have risen up in angry protest against the paramilitaries who dominate their town and the police who work with them.
An oil-producing port in the highly conflictive Magdalena Medio region, San Pablo is a tough place. It was an ELN guerrilla stronghold for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Those unfortunate enough to have seen Collateral Damage, the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger-versus-Colombian-rebels movie, might recall that Arnoldâ€™s character spends a good part of the movie trying to get to San Pablo, portrayed as the seat of rebel-held territory (when the CIA agent in the movie points to it on a map, heâ€™s pointing right at San Pablo, BolÃvar). This is wildly inaccurate, since paramilitaries took control of the town years before, during the late 1990s, as part of a bloody offensive that brought them control of much of the Magdalena Medio.
During failed peace talks with the ELN in 1999-2002, AndrÃ©s Pastranaâ€™s government had agreed to an ELN demand to demilitarize San Pablo and two neighboring municipalities (YondÃ³ and Cantagallo) and hold negotiations in the zone. The military fiercely resisted the idea, and the paramilitaries mobilized hundreds of people to protest any possible troop withdrawal. Pastrana was never able to demilitarize the zone.
The AUCâ€™s Central BolÃvar Bloc now runs San Pabloâ€™s town center, coexisting with the contingent of police stationed there. The guerrillas remain nearby, relegated to the municipalityâ€™s rural zone, where they continue to compete for control of the local drug trade. San Pablo and its environs have been important to the narco business for a long time; they lie along a key transshipment corridor, and are not far from Puerto Triunfo, the site of Hacienda NÃ¡poles, Pablo Escobarâ€™s legendary ranch. Today, the countryside is a major coca-growing zone, and cocaine labs can be found in remote areas.
None of this makes San Pablo unusual. Colombia, especially north and central Colombia, has no shortage of violent towns in drug-producing zones where paramilitaries, with the security forcesâ€™ cooperation or acquiescence, have taken control. What makes San Pablo interesting is that the locals actually dare to vent their anger about it.
On March 8, 2004, paramilitaries killed a prominent local merchant named Fidel PeÃ±a. In an episode that the local press calls the â€œSan Pablazo,â€ hundreds of residents, including some from nearby towns, responded with a peaceful protest that soon got out of hand. Though there were few casualties, enraged residents burned vehicles, motorcycles and five houses considered to belong to the paramilitaries.
They pelted the police station with rocks â€“ a choice of target that indicates how completely residents take for granted that the local security forces are in league with the paramilitaries. (In a meeting this week with the governor of BolÃvar, reports Bucaramangaâ€™s Vanguardia Liberal newspaper, the governmentâ€™s regional human-rights ombudsman [Defensor del Pueblo] â€œsaid he was concerned by the kind of complaints that had been coming from San Pablo in recent days, and he indicated that the complaints continue to have to do with a supposed collaboration between government institutions and illegal armed groups.â€)
Nobody was ever arrested or tried for PeÃ±aâ€™s murder. Then, on April 19 of this year, the paramilitaries struck again. Gunmen killed JosÃ© Luis PinzÃ³n, a 27-year-old merchant known to all in San Pablo as â€œEl Chiqui,â€ in broad daylight in the center of town. According to JosÃ© OtÃ¡lora, the mayorâ€™s secretary of government (sort of like chief of staff), PinzÃ³n â€œwas a very well-known kid, a fighter, a leader, a small businessman who was born and raised here in the town. That is why the population rejects [his killing] so strongly, because if it was him today, tomorrow it could be any of us.â€
On the 20th, many San Pablo merchants shuttered their stores to protest the killing. A peaceful protest against paramilitary harassment and police-paramilitary collaboration was planned for the 21st, to accompany the funeral. â€œBy 10:00 in the morning,â€ reports Vanguardia Liberal,
The townâ€™s demands of the authorities were clear: â€œno more crimes by police personnel or friendships with illegal groups.â€ Almost at the same time, the Magdalena Medio police commander, Lt. Col. Jorge William Gil Caicedo, admitted to Vanguardia Liberal that paramilitary infiltration among the institutionâ€™s ranks is possible, and he indicated that an investigation will take place within the corps of police in San Pablo.
Again, the protest didnâ€™t stay peaceful. Up to 500 protesters remained in the streets on April 21 and 22, throwing rocks at the mayorâ€™s office and the police station. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The situation has calmed somewhat, and the BolÃvar governorâ€™s office and local military authorities have held meetings to hear the townspeopleâ€™s demands. The acting governor of BolÃvar has proposed to take the San Pablo issue to the governmentâ€™s high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, so that he may raise it at the negotiating table with paramilitary leaders in Ralito. The killings of both PeÃ±a and PinzÃ³n appear to be among hundreds of clear violations of the cease-fire that President Uribe had demanded of the paramilitaries as a pre-condition for negotiations.
Clearly, San Pabloâ€™s street disturbances are not a model of nonviolent resistance to be replicated elsewhere. They are nonetheless noteworthy because of their very unusual targets: the feared paramilitaries and the security forces who coexist with them.
These actions could invite retribution; the paramilitaries are not known for tolerating opponents, especially in towns like San Pablo. We must therefore remain aware of what is happening in San Pablo and be prepared to respond to alerts about possible paramilitary attempts at â€œpayback.â€
In fact, alerts and early warnings shouldnâ€™t even be necessary. After all, San Pablo is a small town that already has a significant police presence, plus marines on the river and army patrols throughout the zone. The Colombian government forces in San Pablo have to do their job and do more to protect the citizens from the paramilitaries in their midst. Collaboration with the illegal groups must be punished far more systematically than it is now. Those suspected of it must be suspended â€“ the whole unit if necessary â€“ and replaced with forces who are willing to confront the AUC.
So far, security-force officials are proposing to rotate new police into San Pablo (especially mobile, militarized carabineros) and to send troops to keep order. Letâ€™s hope that the new arrivals are less inclined to support or tolerate the paramilitaries. There are no guarantees of this, though, since security-force personnel know that support and toleration are rarely punished. Letâ€™s hope as well that Colombiaâ€™s creaky justice system manages to punish those responsible for the San Pablo killings. Continued impunity will only allow the paramilitaries to tighten their grip over San Pablo and many towns like it.