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Perspectives on the contemporary nature of the paramilitary phenomenon in Colombia
Daniel Edgar / Saturday 23 April 2016

Although paramilitary groups have a long history in Colombia (at least thirty to fifty years depending on how they are classified and by whom) their size, resources, capacity for military operations and the extent of overt and covert linkage and collaboration between the paramilitary groups and the security forces (military, police and intelligence) of the State peaked from the mid-1990s until 2005, by which time the many disparate groups and fronts that the paramilitary phenomenon produced had developed a unified national umbrella structure (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC – the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia).

The wide ranging scale and extent of mutual penetration, collaboration and shared interests and objectives that existed between the paramilitary groups and the armed forces extended to all of the other branches and agencies of the State to include many local, provincial and national level politicians, bureaucrats and magistrates, as well as having a major impact on and mutual penetration of just about all economic activities, from extortion of local businesses and commerce to the conduct of massacres to clear arable or strategically important land of its inhabitants, as well as an infinite diversity of direct or indirect ongoing cooperative relations with all manner of businessmen, companies and sectors in the economy. Many “foreign investors”, including some of the largest transnational companies with a significant presence in Colombia, have also been accused of direct and/ or indirect collaboration with paramilitary groups and of benefiting from crimes committed by members of those groups against their employees and communities located where they have major projects, including British Petroleum, Chiquita Brands (United Fruit Company), Coca Cola and Nestlé

While many paramilitary groups were formed directly by large landowners, businessmen and/ or drug cartels in regional and urban areas to combat the guerrilla groups, many others were established or massively expanded and directly supported by the armed forces of the State (including international military officials and advisors, in particular from the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom) to assist in the fight against the various guerrilla groups. Although the paramilitary groups were generally organically connected to elements within the Establishment and owed their creation (and impunity for their criminal activities) to them, as time passed and they became more powerful many of them began to act with increasing degrees of autonomy and some entered into direct confrontation with the Establishment (whether manifested by the local and regional political and economic elite, the security forces or the national government) over particular topics and in particular areas. Despite the consolidation of the national umbrella structure many of the paramilitary groups also frequently fought amongst themselves for control over territory and resources, while some entered into tactical alliances with local fronts of guerrilla groups for specific purposes and activities.

The paramilitary groups were officially demobilized following the signing and implementation of an agreement with the national government of President Álvaro Uribe in 2005, however many critics claimed that the process was not really intended to end the paramilitary phenomenon but was rather an attempt to distance such groups and activities from the State and the Establishment, supporting these claims with arguments such as that only a small number of their weapons were handed in, that many former members refused to demobilize and proceeded to form smaller and more anonymous groups, and that many of the activities in which they were engaged continued to take place with little or no noticeable change from the perspective of the sectors of Colombian society that had suffered the most from the paramilitary groups´ activities (including farmers and rural and remote communities, Indigenous people, leftist and independent political organizations and social movements, trade unions and human rights defenders).

The paramilitary groups were usually described as “ultra-right wing” given their traditional role as blood enemies of and counter weights to the communist and extreme left wing guerrilla groups and their support for and cooperation with the political, administrative and economic institutions of the Establishment which was in turn controlled by what could be generically described as right to far-right wing political parties and groups. Nonetheless, apart from their vitriolic hatred of the guerrilla groups there was never anything resembling a coherent ideological basis or line of reasoning underpinning the existence and activities of the paramilitary groups, the only other common factor amongst them being the use of extremely brutal forms of violence to achieve immediate military, political and economic goals and objectives and total control over the population through fear and terror. This is readily apparent from a cursory reading of the pamphlets or the text of the death threats that they make, all of which follow a very basic and brutal script; a copy of one such document is attached and translated at the end of this article.

This has become increasingly apparent with the successor groups that formed following the formal process of demobilisation. The government refuses to consider them as being in any way related to the paramilitary phenomenon, referring to them generically as “bacrim” (an abbreviation for criminal gangs, bandas criminales) and “groups at the margin of (or beyond) the law” (grupos al margen de la ley). Of the approximately eight major groups that currently exist falling within this category, all of them are heavily involved in illegal economic activities and it is arguable that some or even most of them are now largely or exclusively devoted to such pursuits and could be considered conventional (that is, non-political or apolitical) criminal gangs and organized crime networks.

Nonetheless, several of the successor groups are still fulfilling some of the political roles and objectives that the paramilitary groups performed (in particular the functions of clearing land for large scale agricultural and natural resource projects, and maintaining ironclad social control over the population by instilling fear and terror amongst large sectors of society), albeit without the obvious organic links to the State that characterized the organizational structure, membership and operations of their predecessors.

Two of the largest successor groups are particularly prominent in this regard, the Urabeños (also referred to as the Usaga clan) and the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles). The former appears to have an ambiguous and multi-faceted relationship with the Establishment as such. It is hostile to the current government of President Juan Manuel Santos, which has managed to capture and prosecute many of the leaders of the group; in response, the Urabeños have killed many police officers, and in a recent show of strength imposed a 48 hour shutdown in the provinces where it has a substantial presence that paralysed all economic and administrative activity and transport in six provinces in the north of Colombia. However, at the same time it expressed willingness to negotiate its demobilization with the government on the basis that it has a unified command structure and a sufficient degree of permanent military activities and territorial control to be considered a belligerent political armed group in accordance with international laws and norms. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has so far flatly refused to consider the possibility of negotiating with the group on such a basis or on any terms other than their unconditional surrender to the proper authorities.

Another complicating factor is that the shutdown imposed by the Urabeños in the north of Colombia coincided with anti-government rallies convened throughout the country by far right wing political parties and forces protesting against the negotiations the government is undertaking with the two remaining guerrilla groups (the FARC and the ELN); the protest was led by former president Álvaro Uribe, thought by many to have been a key supporter and beneficiary of the paramilitary groups prior to and during his time in office (from 2002 to 2010). Many social organizations and representatives in the areas in which the shutdown and the political protest overlapped have claimed that the Urabeños actively assisted the political protest, including through providing logistics and offering other incentives to participate, raising the possibility that beyond the confrontation with the government of the day there may still be significant collaboration with, or at least common interests and objectives shared by, other elements within the Establishment that remain dedicated to former president Uribe´s policy of all-out war against the guerrillas (complemented by simultaneous collaboration with the paramilitary groups and their successors).

The Urabeños have also been one of the most active of the successor groups in threatening and assassinating the same individuals, organizations and sectors of society that were targeted by the paramilitary groups, suggesting a significant degree of continuity in the paramilitary project albeit in a new guise and political context. One of the other groups that most suggests the continuity of the paramilitary project is the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), which emerged shortly after the official demobilization process and within a few years had the capacity to issue death threats (and carry out such threats) against all of the sectors and groups previously targeted by the paramilitary groups throughout most of Colombia. Nonetheless, the leadership, organizational structure and size of the group remains largely unknown, to the extent that many question whether it really exists as an integrated organization or loose alliance of organizations or is a nom de guerre used by a large number of crime gangs to instil fear and terror, is a generic term used by the press and the government to refer to unidentified successor groups of the paramilitary groups and other crime gangs, and/ or whether it may be used to cover the existence of some other apparatus of State terror to disguise the identity of those responsible for the ongoing systematic assassination of individuals, organizations and sectors of Colombian society targeted by the Establishment for elimination (pursuant to the doctrine of National Security of the 1970s and 1980s mentioned in the articles below by Alvaro Villarraga Sarmiento and Jose Honorio Martinez, which it turn had its antecedents in the counterinsurgency strategy of the 1960s espoused by US military advisors as discussed in the article by Jose Honorio Martinez).

Published in: SouthFront