Secretary Rice’s trip: three non-Colombia issues A defense minister’s bad week
Apr 292005

Eclipsed by all the headlines of the past week – Condoleezza Rice’s visit, tensions with Venezuela, fighting in Cauca, paramilitary talks in trouble – is a surprising story about something that doesn’t happen very often in Colombia. For the second time in thirteen months, the people of San Pablo, a town in southern Bolívar 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 Arnold’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, he’s pointing right at San Pablo, Bolívar). 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, Andrés Pastrana’s government had agreed to an ELN demand to demilitarize San Pablo and two neighboring municipalities (Yondó 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 AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc now runs San Pablo’s town center, coexisting with the contingent of police stationed there. The guerrillas remain nearby, relegated to the municipality’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 Nápoles, Pablo Escobar’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 forces’ 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 Peña. In an episode that the local press calls the “San Pablazo,” 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 – 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 Bolívar, reports Bucaramanga’s Vanguardia Liberal newspaper, the government’s regional human-rights ombudsman [Defensor del Pueblo] “said 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.”)

Nobody was ever arrested or tried for Peña’s murder. Then, on April 19 of this year, the paramilitaries struck again. Gunmen killed José Luis Pinzón, a 27-year-old merchant known to all in San Pablo as “El Chiqui,” in broad daylight in the center of town. According to José Otálora, the mayor’s secretary of government (sort of like chief of staff), Pinzón “was 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.”

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. “By 10:00 in the morning,” reports Vanguardia Liberal,

The town’s demands of the authorities were clear: “no more crimes by police personnel or friendships with illegal groups.” 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 institution’s ranks is possible, and he indicated that an investigation will take place within the corps of police in San Pablo.

Again, the protest didn’t stay peaceful. Up to 500 protesters remained in the streets on April 21 and 22, throwing rocks at the mayor’s office and the police station. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The situation has calmed somewhat, and the Bolívar governor’s office and local military authorities have held meetings to hear the townspeople’s demands. The acting governor of Bolívar has proposed to take the San Pablo issue to the government’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 Peña and Pinzón 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 Pablo’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 “payback.”

In fact, alerts and early warnings shouldn’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 – the whole unit if necessary – 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. Let’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. Let’s hope as well that Colombia’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.

2 Responses to “San Pablo confronts the paramilitaries”

  1. jcg Says:

    “Collaboration with the illegal groups must be punished far more systematically than it is now.”

    That phrase sums up the situation, for the most part.

    Part of the problem is that when somebody in the security forces directly cooperates with the paramilitaries, apparently most of the individuals just above and below that person(or group of persons, as is likely the case here) prefer to stay quiet or just try to ignore the situation, either for fear of possible retribution (both from the individuals involved and the paras themselves) or simply because of issues of personal sympathy (the old and persistent idea that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”).

    It’s a pretty complex web of that can’t really be unweaved easily in practice, though of course that doesn’t mean that CIP and other organizations shouldn’t continue to do everything in their limited power to highlight these problems and try to put pressure on the Colombian and U.S. governments.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    We’ll keep doing whatever is in our power, repeatedly.

    You bring up a good point, however: Colombia is a terrible place to be a whistleblower. Whether in the military or elsewhere in government, if you denounce a colleague’s wrongdoing – whether human rights abuse, corruption, or abuse of power – you’ve essentially sacrificed your own career, if not your physical security. Not only that, some of the most effective and aggressive whistleblowers, the human rights NGOs, are scorned and condemned as unpatriotic and even in league with guerrillas.

    Until conditions improve for those who come forward to denounce wrongdoing – which means changing incentives and providing vastly better security – it will continue to be hard to punish collaboration with illegal groups. And throwing stones at police stations will continue to be an easier – and more effective – way to protest the phenomenon.

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