Who are the Black Eagles?
/ Tuesday 26 April 2016
The Black Eagles were born from the failures of the demobilization process of the paramilitary groups that was carried out between 2004 and 2006, the stated objective of which was to disarm the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). They are a fragmented group dedicated to protecting the economic interests of the mid-level commanders of the paramilitary groups dispersed throughout Colombia (most of the high-level commanders, who also ended up having high public profiles, were extradited to the United States to serve long jail terms). The “Black Eagles” was a generic term used by the government to describe the remnants of the paramilitary groups that were heavily involved in the trafficking of prohibited drugs throughout Colombia. In many cases the successors of the paramilitary groups have continued threatening and assassinating journalists, lawyers and human rights activists, identifying themselves as members of a group called the Black Eagles. This political tendency and the lack of a central leadership structure distinguish the group from other criminal gangs that operate in Colombia.
The groups that utilize the name Black Eagles have appeared in at least 20 of Colombia´s 32 provinces including Nariño, Cauca, Casanare, La Guajira, Magdalena, Bolívar, North Santander, Santander, Sucre and Córdoba. However, the groups appear to function independently from each other and they don´t respond to a central command. Each cell of the Black Eagles concentrates on the protection of its respective territory and competing with rivals such as the Urabeños and the Rastrojos.
The AUC was a federally structured organization of death squads – some of which were formed in the 1980s – which concentrated their efforts on achieving two principal objectives: the first, to fight against the leftist guerrillas, and the second, to make money, most of which came from drug trafficking. An important faction led by Carlos Castaño attempted to emphasize the ideological purpose and objectives of the AUC, presenting the group as a right wing political organization. This only resulted in more internal ruptures between the groups comprising the national federal structure of the AUC and the fragile coalition broke up. At the same time many of the leaders competed amongst themselves for territory, often in the midst of horrifying massacres and violent displacements of civilians. On 15 July 2003 the AUC agreed to initiate negotiations with the government. In return for dismantling their paramilitary forces and cooperating with investigative and judicial processes, the high level commanders were promised a certain degree of amnesty for the crimes they and their forces committed. A series of important processes pursuant to which specific groups disarmed followed and by 2006 31,671 supposed paramilitaries had demobilized.
However, the demobilisation ended up being a false peace. The majority of the paramilitary blocks only surrendered a small fraction of their weapons. Some young men were paid to falsely present themselves as combatants of the AUC while the mid-level command structures remained intact. Throughout the country small units of armed urban militias were maintained. In the rural zones, former paramilitary members continued to manage the ill-gotten properties, businesses and illegal economic activities of the paramilitary groups in the guise of civilians: the protection of coca plantations, the extortion of land owners and local businesses, the persecution of human rights activists, among many others. In contrast to the blocks of the AUC as they existed prior to 2004, the majority of the successor groups no longer dedicated themselves to fighting against the leftist guerrilla groups. In effect, some of the neo-paramilitary groups sought alliances with their former enemies, as occurred between the Popular Anti-Terrorist Revolutionary Army of Colombia (ERPAC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
It was early in 2006 that armed groups began to call themselves “Black Eagles”, in Cucuta in the province of North Santander and in some areas in the province of Nariño. In North Santander it was probably former members of the paramilitary group “Catatumbo Block” who operated in the region from 1999 until their official demobilization on 10 December 2004. It is believed that in Nariño they were former members of the “Block of Liberators of the South” which had officially demobilized on 30 June 2005. Other armed groups calling themselves the Black Eagles soon appeared in Antioquia and along the Caribbean coast, appearing in Cordoba for the first time in 2007. These other formations of combatants were probably established by former members of the fourteen blocks that made up the “Northern Block” of the AUC, the coalition of groups of the AUC that controlled most of the territory in Colombia north of Antioquia.
On other occasions, Black Eagles was a generic term used by the Colombian press to refer to the former paramilitaries that continued to traffic drugs in specific territories. For example, the organization led by Daniel Rendón Herrera, formed by ex-combatants of the Elmer Cardenas Block (and that would later become the Urabeños), was at one time described as the “Black Eagles of Urabá”. The drug traffickers of the post-AUC era that operated in Antioquia and Cordoba were referred to as the “Black Eagles of the North”. On other occasions, the death threats against groups of lawyers, defenders of human rights and trade union leaders have been made in the name of the Black Eagles. Trade unions, social support agencies and activists trying to reclaim land from which they were violently displaced have received similar threats. Among the groups that have been threatened by the Black Eagles are the Colombian research institute Nuevo Arco Iris and the Washington Office for Latin America.
The appearance of the Black Eagles was accompanied by the appearance of dozens of other criminal gangs, generally involved in drug trafficking and selective assassinations. A study completed by Indepaz in 2006 identified 62 successor groups of the paramilitaries that had registered violent and criminal activities throughout the country, many of which had adopted names that were derived from the blocks of the AUC. It is possible that in some cases criminal gangs adopted the name “Black Eagles” in order to intimidate their victims into paying extortion or abandoning their properties. There is little evidence that the Black Eagles operate in a systematic manner as an integrated organization. To the contrary, it appears to be just a general name for the many successor groups that have adopted the tactics of the AUC and, in many cases, their political discourse.
The upper level commanders of the Black Eagles are generally made up of demobilized paramilitaries – either those that opted out of the peace process with the government or those that were recruited by force. The lower level members of the groups appear to comprise recruits dedicated to drug trafficking for the most part. The Black Eagles have based themselves on the criminal networks that were established by the distinct paramilitary blocks throughout Colombia, but they have done this without adopting the same military structures and hierarchy. For the moment it appears that the different factions of the Black Eagles don´t have systematic relations with each other and they don´t appear to operate according to a federal criminal structure to coordinate their activities on a large scale. Moreover, they are not known for controlling international trafficking routes for the cocaine that is sent from the country.
The group usually announces its presence in a determined area by distributing pamphlets. Such pamphlets generally announce the imposition of a curfew during the night, declare war against any local gangs active in the area, or threaten the community with “social cleansing” (that is to say, threatening consumers of prohibited drugs, prostitutes, or “guerrilla sympathizers” such as trade union organizers or intellectuals). This is the same rhetoric that was once used by the AUC to impose strict social control within a determined area.
In Colombia, the Black Eagles have made their presence felt in areas that were crucial to the economic interests of the AUC. The fact that the first groups emerged in Catatumbo, North Santander and Nariño in 2006 is significant. These areas are some of the most densely planted areas where coca is grown and, ironically, they are also the areas where large numbers of demobilized paramilitary members reside. For the drug traffickers, the presence of coca in these territories made them too valuable to cede control over them to their rivals. After this first phase the Black Eagles then began to appear in the provinces where the major cocaine trafficking routes within the country are located such as the municipalities in the south of the province of Córdoba.
The emphasis of the group on protecting the corridors for transporting cocaine is accompanied by emphasis on maintaining the interests of the former paramilitary groups in land ownership and natural resource extraction. In places such as Cordoba, where some of the largest violent displacements of farmers and rural communities were perpetrated by the AUC, the Black Eagles have been accused of killing activists that were fighting for the restitution of lands acquired in this way. Similar threats have been made against activists and representatives of displaced people and communities in Santander. Armed groups calling themselves Black Eagles have been responsible for more recent forced displacements in Sucre, Choco and in the region of Uraba in Antioquia.
Following the approval of a law in 2011 that opened the way for the restitution of land to the victims of forced displacements and for the compensation of other victims of the armed conflict, there is a serious risk that the groups and individuals that have benefited economically from the conflict will contract the armed members of the Black Eagles to defend their ill-gotten gains. To the extent that Colombia continues selling off land for mineral exploration and extraction, petroleum and agribusiness on a massive scale, there is a high probability that the Black Eagles will be utilized to threaten any communities or groups that resist or protest against such projects.
Las 2 orillas: ¿Quiénes son las Águilas Negras?, 10 September 2014
Published in: SouthFront