In February, Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, a former paramilitary leader, completed three days of public court testimony in Colombia about his role in the violent assault on Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining center in the country’s conflicted Magdalena Medio region. Once the commander of Colombia’s largest paramilitary militia, the Bloque Central Bolívar, Pérez Alzate played a crucial role in the paramilitary assault on Barrancabermeja beginning in 2000. By testifying, he sought a reduced prison sentence under the controversial Justice and Peace Law, in exchange for demobilizing his troops and confessing his crimes. Yet the unrepentant Pérez Alzate said little about the 24 deaths and 208 disappearances attributed to him in Barrancabermeja. He revealed nothing about the local elites, military officers, and government officials who had colluded with him, facilitating the BCB’s violent incursion into the city. Instead, he accused the local president of the National Food and Beverage Workers’ Union, William Mendoza, and several other trade unionists and human rights defenders of criminal activities and ties to left-wing guerrillas.
“He couldn’t kill us or displace us from the city, so now he is trying to publicly discredit us and entangle us in lawsuits,” Mendoza said. The testimony, he added, formed part of a new strategy by former paramilitary commanders and their government allies to stigmatize social movement leaders and subject them to unfounded criminal prosecutions—the latest attack in Barrancabermeja’s long-running dirty war. In the 1990s, paramilitaries tied to drug lords and the military attacked guerrilla strongholds, thereby violently consolidating landholdings in the city’s surrounding countryside and evicting peasants from some of the most fertile lands in Colombia. Fleeing massacres, rural dwellers fled into Barrancabermeja, and the guerrillas followed their support base into the city’s burgeoning peripheral neighborhoods and put down roots.
With the new guerrilla presence in Barrancabermeja, “pacifying” the city thus became an important political objective for the government and its clandestine mercenaries, Pérez Alzate’s BCB. It also offered the paramilitaries an opportunity to strengthen their grip on the regional cocaine traffic, as they began regulating commerce on the Magdalena River and cultivating coca in adjacent Bolívar department. The process of pacification was largely completed by 2003, after paramilitaries had vanquished the guerrillas, killed labor and human rights activists, and terrorized the general population through massacres, threats, and disappearances. The Colombian state’s counterinsurgency, whose dirty work was outsourced to paramilitary warlords like Pérez Alzate, hastened the neoliberal restructuring of the local economy and shaped a violent, unaccountable paramilitary state, or parastate, that today rules the city.
The government’s Justice and Peace Law, passed in 2005, threatens to further blur the distinction between the parastate and the official state. Sold to the public as a means of putting an end to paramilitary violence, the law is in fact a way of regulating paramilitaries’ incorporation into the state and the political process. So while BCB members like Pérez Alzate have participated in highly publicized ceremonies that marked their official demobilization, the Justice and Peace Law makes no effort to expose the state’s responsibility for creating, consolidating, and expanding paramilitary entities, thereby ignoring the most fundamental problem of dismantling the organizational and financial structures of the BCB. Even though it requires paramilitary commanders to hand over illegally acquired arms and wealth, there is no mechanism to force them to do so, and paramilitaries have revealed very little in their public testimonies about the structure of their illegal operations.
Not surprisingly, with their wealth and organizational structures still intact, paramilitaries have had little difficulty enlisting new recruits. Even as the government of President Álvaro Uribe asserts that paramilitarism no longer exists in Colombia, dozens of “new” groups have emerged. Their ranks include rearmed mercenaries who took advantage of the material benefits offered as part of the demobilization process (health care, education, and monetary subsidies), as well as former mid-level commanders who have stepped into the power vacuum created by the demobilizations to rise as the new leaders of reconfigured paramilitary entities. In Barrancabermeja, trade unionists and human rights activists have repeatedly received threats from one such group that calls itself Las Águilas Negras (the Black Eagles.)
Nowadays, the peace that reigns in Barrancabermeja resembles what Forrest Hylton describes for Medellín as “the peace of the pacifiers.”1 Massacres intended to terrorize urban residents are no longer necessary, and shoot-outs between paramilitaries and guerrilla militias no longer erupt on the streets. Daily life has regained a patina of normalcy. But selective assassinations and death threats against anyone who challenges the new order leave little doubt about who is in charge.
Barrancabermeja is home to a rich tradition of labor militancy. In 1951 the city’s oil workers fought for, and won, the nationalization of the petroleum industry. They nurtured a strong nationalist and anti-imperialist politics and, in some cases, harbored sympathies for expanding guerrilla insurgencies. In the 1990s, the city’s militant social organizations and unions, especially the oil workers’ union, the Union Sindical Obrera, opposed government-backed, free-market reforms, like privatization, the “flexibilization” of labor, and outsourcing, that began to reshape social and economic life. From the 1980s onward, Barrancabermeja emerged as a key battleground in the Colombian state’s dirty war, officially waged against left-wing insurgencies but unofficially against nonviolent social movements, trade unions, human rights groups, and peasant and civic organizations.
The dirty war turned on creating and manipulating a crisis through massive violence. Gruesome spectacles of terror perpetrated by the BCB ruptured social networks and organizational forms, like labor unions, that had protected people from the full impact of the market. The paramilitaries pushed ordinary people to the extremes of vulnerability by threatening their lives, eliminating any feeling of safety, and making daily life completely unpredictable. Along with massacres, they committed disappearances and extrajudicial executions, forcing hundreds of people to flee the city. The ensuing social disorganization facilitated the incorporation of poor urban residents into new authoritarian forms of labor regulation, rent extraction, and political subjugation that deepened insecurity and weakened any collective response.
Paramilitaries seized control of neighborhood councils that had once advocated for affordable public services and used them to mobilize residents for political meetings. They wiped out entire trade unions. After murdering 20 members of the taxi drivers’ union in 2000, for example, they transformed the organization into a source of rewards for supporters, who received jobs in exchange for using their vehicles to carry out intelligence work.2 Paramilitaries also took over subcontracting firms that had begun to proliferate in the 1990s, after neoliberal labor laws eroded unions’ power and gave employers greater access to part-time, non-unionized workers. By controlling the subcontracting process, paramilitaries could not only extort money from workers and employers, but also dictate who worked and who did not.
One former union leader described how, as a condition for him to work at Ecopetrol, the state oil company, paramilitaries demanded a large sum of money from the Union of Temporary Workers. (Like the rest of the people interviewed for this article, he requested that his name and personal details be withheld for safety reasons.) The union, founded in the late 1990s by unemployed oil workers to pressure Ecopetrol to provide temporary jobs to members and thus avoid the discounts and commissions charged by subcontractors, did not survive the paramilitary takeover. When the union refused to pay, hit men tried to kill him and eventually forced him to flee the city. As his case illustrates, in Barrancabermeja, with its high and constant level of unemployment, access to patronage networks is essential for getting a job. Yet as these networks fell under paramilitary control, applicants with a trade union background or who lived in a neighborhood stigmatized for its left-wing sympathies were either excluded or forced to hide their personal histories to avoid harm.
The erosion of economic well-being and widespread impunity have generated a constant sense of insecurity among many of Barrancabermeja’s residents. Many have been pushed by economic vulnerability into coercive debt relationships with the paramilitaries after, say, a health crisis or a financial emergency. Residents of the city’s northeast sector describe how flyers offering generous credit started to appear in their neighborhoods after the paramilitary takeover. To access this money, one has only to call a cell phone number, and a young man will appear on a motorcycle to negotiate a deal and provide funds, which usually require repayment at 20% interest. The arrangement builds on an older form of quasi-legal credit known as gota a gota (drip by drip), but it requires no guarantors, collateral, or signed documents. It works through fear and intimidation.
One woman explained that after surviving a traffic accident with a public bus, she faced the task of paying for expensive repairs to the vehicle because the owner, a paramilitary, insisted that she bore sole responsibility for the accident. Yet neither she nor her husband could afford the repairs. The husband had lost his job with the oil company, and the family of five depended on her wages as a nurse. Fearing what might happen if she neglected the damaged bus, husband and wife borrowed money from a local lender whom they suspected of paramilitary ties, and then began to repay the funds immediately. When they fell into arrears, two paramilitaries came to their home and threatened them. As the woman later explained, “I didn’t know what to do. I could borrow from one paramilitary to pay off the first one, or I could plead with my relatives to lend me the money, which they don’t have.”
The paramilitaries weave such exploitative relationships of credit and debt out of local residents’ vulnerabilities—vulnerabilities that, to a considerable degree, the paramilitaries themselves created—and these relationships in turn allow them to launder drug profits and siphon additional wealth out of the local economy. Although many people avoid paramilitary credit, they find it much more difficult to ignore the mercenaries in their neighborhoods, where local enforcers provide a dubious “security” by extorting protection payments. Most residents understand that their “contributions” to these enforcers are little more than an exemption, sometimes only temporary, from the violence of the paramilitaries themselves. The paramilitary security includes monitoring the comings and goings of residents and enforcing social norms, including evening curfews for young people, the prohibition of marijuana, the repression of homosexuality, and a ban on earrings and long hair for men.
This imposed morality seeks to re-establish rigid gender, generational, and sexual hierarchies disrupted by violence and economic restructuring. A young man from the northeast sector, for example, explained how paramilitary youth, recruited from his neighborhood, murdered one of his friends for smoking marijuana and socializing on a street corner in the evening.
“There have been many cases in which paramilitaries threaten or harm young people who smoke marijuana, gather on corners because there are no parks, or steal a chicken or a pair of shoes,” he said. He then noted the hypocrisy of paramilitaries, who monopolize illegal drug traffic, enforcing a ban on marijuana consumption, and he lamented that some residents do not object to paramilitaries’ murdering of “undesirables,” a practice widely referred to as “social cleansing” because “seeing young men hanging around makes them uncomfortable.” He also said that because residents are obliged to turn to paramilitaries to resolve neighborhood problems, they inadvertently legitimize their presence.
Vigilante justice, manipulation of fear, extortion, and rigid social control undergird a social order in which the boundaries between the private power of paramilitaries and the public power of the state are difficult to distinguish. The paramilitaries have erected a mafia-like surrogate state in which organized crime fuses with the politics of counterinsurgency. They manipulate elections by openly or tacitly supporting certain candidates, while intimidating others and dictating to people how to vote. Through the control of government office, the paramilitaries tap municipal treasuries, determine who receives government contracts, and demand kickbacks from state officials. They also monopolize the theft of gasoline from the state oil company and the illegal cocaine traffic in the surrounding region, and they operate a variety of legal businesses like the lottery, apparel stores, and subcontracting agencies. And finally, they have divided the city into zones of control with the state security forces, with whom they have negotiated the imposition of order.
Paramilitaries have further sought ways to legitimize their power and consolidate their control by creating foundations and nongovernmental organizations. In Barrancabermeja, Semillas de Paz, an NGO comprising demobilized members of the BCB, illustrates the depth of impunity in the city. The organization presumes to counsel victims of political violence and document cases of abuse. In March 2007, for example, it convened a meeting for the family members of victims of the armed conflict to promote its activities and gather documentation about the dead and disappeared from relatives. Meeting participants realized only afterward that Semillas de Paz represented the victimizers of their loved ones, not fellow victims. The widow of a man murdered in a BCB massacre recalled how members of Semillas de Paz visited her home and expressed a desire to “reconcile.” She found their unannounced arrival extremely threatening, and when they refused to provide any information about the fate of her husband, she told them not to return.
Yet even as the paramilitaries have begun to consolidate a relatively autonomous parastate, they have simultaneously become a threat to the official state that gave birth to them. While the paramilitaries and their allies in the security forces were clearing Barrancabemeja and the surrounding region of guerrillas and destroying reformist political projects, government officials willfully ignored the paramilitaries’ involvement in cocaine trafficking and their violent dispossession of small rural landowners in order to establish their own coca-growing operations. They did so even as they backed a U.S.-financed campaign to wipe out coca cultivation and extradite major traffickers.
But as paramilitaries outgrew their role as the state’s clandestine enforcers and claimed power for themselves, the presence of paramilitary armies that massacred civilians and illegally accumulated wealth became untenable for the state. Mounting evidence of the links between paramilitary commanders and leading members of Uribe’s ruling coalition, as well as Uribe’s own ties to paramilitaries and drug traffickers, have undermined the government’s efforts to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States. Moreover, the extradition, in 2008, of 14 high-ranking paramilitary commanders to the United States suggests that the alliance between drug-trafficking paramilitaries and the official state may not be as solid as it was when the BCB seized control of Barrancabermeja.
Thus, the parastate in Barrancabermeja is highly unstable. Brutal violence has sustained paramilitary control, but this violence has done less to create a legitimate, peaceful social order than to establish the conditions for the further accrual of power and wealth. Paramilitaries have always represented less a single actor than a marriage of convenience between drug lords, sectors of the state, and regional elites. With the reconfiguration of paramilitarism taking place today, there is no overarching entity to regulate the competing claims of diverse groups and criminal entities. Leadership quarrels, turf battles, and tensions between mobilized and demobilized mercenaries are typically resolved violently, threatening fragile alliances between powerful bosses prone to betrayal. The Colombian state must now confront the task of harnessing the paramilitary violence that it once unleashed.
Market-based economies can operate with strong trade unions, affordable public services, and state control of strategic resources, but unlike other Latin American states, Colombia has not turned away from the neoliberal policies that are now widely discredited in the region. These policies intensified processes of commodification and privatization, as well as the destruction, weakening, or co-optation of social solidarities that stood in the way of redistributing wealth to elites and global corporations. Colombia is an extreme example: The private power of a mafia-like parastate has usurped many functions of the official state, and terror has severed social relationships and made working people available for incorporation into new relationships of inequality on terms to which they have not agreed. New forms of rent extraction and “flexible” labor relationships now form part of illegal networks and organizations that are beyond the reach of the official state, and they are maintained by fierce coercion.
Neoliberal states typically rely on security forces, both legal and illegal, to contain the social disarray generated in part by their own policies, but the result is not stability but a durable disorder that constrains the theory and practice of democracy.3 In Barrancabermeja, “security” masquerades as peace, while threatened labor leaders and human rights activists carve out protected spaces with bodyguards, fortified residences, and armored cars amid continuing threats and uncertainty. As ordinary Barranqueños become dependent on authoritarian, hierarchical relationships with the paramilitaries in an ever more fractured informal economy, the extent to which they can create, and even imagine, relationships that offer them an alternative remains an open question.
Yet Barrancabermeja differs from other urban centers and working-class communities in Colombia because of the continued vitality of some of its unions and human rights organizations. A small group of trade unionists cling to direct labor contracts that continue to provide them with a decent wage and benefits, and they do not have to turn to the paramilitaries for economic support. They use weakened but still militant unions to fight neoliberalism and paramilitarism in both the workplace and the broader community. A few human rights groups also continue to denounce the ongoing rights violations in the city.
Together, trade unionists and human rights defenders have built national and international alliances with student, religious, labor, and human rights organizations that circumvent the official state and the parastate to support their struggles, physically accompany them, and combat impunity. Many ordinary people also quietly refuse to give in to paramilitary extortion and keep activists apprised of paramilitary activities. In these and other ways, people constantly push against the status quo, evaluate its strengths, and take advantage of its weaknesses. By so doing, they take stock of what they can do by themselves and with each other. This, in turn, is the first step toward refashioning a broad-based solidarity that can form the basis of a renewed challenge to impunity and capitalist privilege.
Lesley Gill teaches anthropology at Vanderbilt University and is the author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2004). She is conducting research on political violence and neoliberalism in Colombia.
1. See Forrest Hylton, “Medellín: The Peace of the Pacifiers,” NACLA Report on the Americas 41, no. 1 (January/February 2008): 35–42, available at nacla.org/node/4459.
2. Gearoid Loinsigh, “The Integral Strategy of the Paramilitaries in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio” (unpublished manuscript, 2002).
3. I borrow the concept of “durable disorder” from Mauricio Romero, “Nuevas guerras, paramilitares, e ilegalidad: una trampa difícil de superar,” in Mauricio Romer, ed., Parapolítica: la ruta de expansión paramilitar y los acuerdos políticos (Bogotá: Nuevo Arco Iris, 2007).