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Barrancabermeja is a city and municipality in Santander Department, in northeastern Colombia. It is located on the banks of the Magdalena River in the Middle Magdalena region, 110 km west of Bucaramanga. Founded in 1536, Barrancabermeja is home for the biggest petroleum refinery in Colombia, which is owned by the state company Ecopetrol. Petroleum and farming comprise most of city's economic activity.

Barrancabermeja has seen extensive fighting between the various armed groups in Colombia's ongoing civil war. Currently, the city is predominantly under the influence and control of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella paramilitary group. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group, remains active in the surrounding countryside. Because of the oil refinery, the city is also home to various gasoline cartels. Illegal tapping of the oil pipelines and sale of stolen gasoline is a common occurrence.


Although there is evidence of a small settlement in the area dating back to the 16th century, the city was not incorporated until 1922, not long after the discovery of oil and the foundation of the first extraction wells by the Tropical Oil Company (Standard Oil Company) [1]. The name Barrancabermeja comes from the explorer Gonzalo Jimenez de Quezada, who wrote that the area of the river near the present-day city was characterized by some "reddish ravines", "unas Barrancas Bermejas"[2]. The state-owned oil company Ecopetrol took over the refinery in 1951 [3], and since then, Barrancabermeja has grown into a city of 214,192 inhabitants (as of 2005 [4]). The city has become a major industrial base for the country, providing most of Colombia's gasoline and petroleum products.

Barrancabermeja has a long history of labour activism and leftist organisations; until recently, it was largely under the influence and control of guerrilla insurgents. The National Liberation Army (ELN) began moving into Barrancabermeja in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The FARC arrived in the early 1990s. The city was considered a warzone while guerrilla groups, the Colombian military, and paramilitary organizations fought over the contested territory.

On May 16, 1998, a large group of paramilitaries swept through the city, killing 11 people and kidnapping 25, who were later killed [5]. This massacre signaled the beginning of the AUC takeover of the city, which would culminate in 2001. During the final year of the invasion, 539 people were killed. [6]

Since 2001, the United Nations, the US State Department, and independent human rights organizations have denounced links between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military [7]. Those human rights groups that continue to operate have done so partly with support from members of Peace Brigades International, who provide international volunteers to accompany human rights workers in their work. In the rural regions surrounding the city, a number of the small fishing and farming communities along the river were displaced by the armed groups. By the request of the Colombian Mennonite Church in Bogota, Christian Peacemaker Teams has maintained an international violence reduction team in the region. With their presence, the communities have returned home and remain there in the face of threats and assassinations of community leaders by the paramilitaries and FARC guerrillas.


To the north of Barrancabermeja lies Puerto Wilches; to the south, Puerto Parra, Simacota and San Vicente de Chucuri; to the east, San Vicente de Chucuri and Giron; and to the west, Magdalena River. It is approximately 2 hours by car from the capital of Santander, Bucaramanga.


Barrancabermeja's culture has been largely affected by the migratory movements caused by the oil boom. The city exhibits an amalgam of many South American customs.

Partly due to its history as an oil boomtown, Barrancabermeja has a reputation as an open and vibrant city. However, its history of violence, proximity to ongoing clashes between paramilitaries and guerrillas, and extremely high murder rate have given the city a seedy reputation. Nonetheless, Barrancabermeja's night life flourishes. Salsa and merengue dance clubs abound, and the port area is vibrant as bars compete for patrons. The drink of choice is Aguila, a Colombian beer whose yellow logo is painted on walls and billboards throughout the town. Despite paramilitary rule, the city has several local and national political organizations including unions, women's organizations, and human rights groups; marches and rallies are quite common.

The predominant music in the city is vallenato and Caribbean rhythms such as salsa and merengue. Porro, fandango, and puya rhythms from the Atlantic Coast and "papayeras" bands are also prominent.

The commercial area of the city is adjacent to the river ports, where motor canoes constantly arrive with fish and agricultural products from farmers along the river, including maize, cassava (or yuca in Spanish), plantain, and cacao.

References/Works Cited

Gibb, George and Evelyn Knowlton, The History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey): The Resurgent Years, 1911-1927 : 39-370.

City of Barrancabermeja official website.

Ecopetrol website

Population statistics from Mongabay.com

"Barrancabermeja: A City Under Siege" - Report from Amnesty International on the 1998 massacre published in May 1999

"The New Masters of Barranca" - An extensive report from Center for International Policy study on Barrancabermeja, Colombia based on a trip in March 6-8, 2001

"In the Spotlight: The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)" summary by the Center for Defense Information.

General Sources for More Information

"The Sixth Division" -Report on paramilitary-military ties in Colombia by Human Rights Watch

"Barrancabermeja, La Otra Version". Report on forced disappearance between 2000 and 2003. CREDHOS & Banco de Datos del CINEP.

External links

Ecopetrol - the city's main petroleum company

Vanguardia Liberal - the city's main newspaper

Corporacion Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos - human rights organisation operating in Barrancajabermeja and the surrounding Magdalena Medio region

Organizacion Femenina Popular - the main women's rights and development organisations in the city

Christian Peacemaker Teams - International violence reduction work.

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