Colombia’s Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups

Colombia’s Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was hailed for his plan to demobilize the country’s paramilitaries, but observers warn the groups are reforming under a different guise.

January 10, 2008 3:19 pm (EST)

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Colombia’s civilians have been caught in the middle of turf battles between leftist guerilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organizations for decades. In 2003, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe took a step to quell the violence associated with at least one of those actors when he signed a peace deal with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or the AUC, the country’s largest paramilitary group. Over thirty thousand combatants have demobilized since the agreement, and judicial proceedings to try top commanders are in process. Yet political scandals revealing the extent of paramilitary infiltration of Colombian security forces and the upper ranks of the government have rocked the country. In addition, new criminal organizations have emerged in the wake of the AUC that bear a striking resemblance to their paramilitary predecessors. Colombia has long received significant assistance from the United States, primarily for counternarcotics, but the paramilitary scandals have prompted legislative scrutiny of this aid, as well as of a proposed free trade agreement.

History of Paramilitaries

The most notorious of Colombia’s paramilitaries, the AUC, was formed in 1997 as an umbrella organization to consolidate local paramilitary groups. Such groups, however, had existed in loose form since the late 1960s, when legislation was passed that allowed for the formation of local self-defense groups. Some paramilitaries emerged directly from these groups, while others were formed by drug lords, local political and economic elites, and organized crime. All paramilitaries sought to protect their own interests—whether land, a business, or political office. Most also operated under the ostensible ideological banner of combating members of the leftist guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). While paramilitaries liked to position themselves as a necessary counter to Colombia’s leftist insurgents, ordinary Colombians were often victimized—instead of protected by—the paramilitaries. The armed groups displaced indigenous communities from their land, massacred civilians, and kidnapped political figures. As human rights groups have documented, some paramilitaries even charged “taxes” in local areas and regulated how citizens could dress.

The AUC unified what had been a disparate array of paramilitary groups. Under the leadership of Carlos Castano, the organization expanded in numbers and diversified its revenue streams. It also became increasingly entwined with the drug trade. For instance, some leaders of Los Pepes, a collection of drug traffickers formed in the early 1990s to fight the legendary kingpin Pablo Escobar, later assumed high-level positions in the AUC. Within three years of its formation, the AUC’s numbers had doubled (to roughly eight thousand combatants) and it had made significant inroads into the cocaine trade. It tapped fuel pipelines to sell oil on the black market, extorted payments from multinational corporations such as Chiquita, and expanded into the gambling and construction industries. In 2001, the U.S. government designated the AUC a foreign terrorist organization. By 2003, when Uribe signed a peace deal with the AUC, it had penetrated over seven hundred of Colombia’s roughly eleven hundred municipalities.

The Promise and Pitfalls of Demobilization

Since 2003, approximately thirty-one thousand paramilitary members have been disarmed. Between 2003 and 2005, violence committed by paramilitaries dropped sharply; for instance, assassinations dropped from 1,240 to 329, according to a research organization in Bogota. But it’s unclear if the underlying operating structures of these groups has been crippled. In February 2006, a senior U.S. military official told the International Crisis Group that many paramilitaries maintained control over drug trafficking and illegal assets.

The legal framework under which the paramilitaries were demobilized has been strongly criticized. The AUC agreed to a peace deal because the government promised to restrict the legal action that could be taken against its members. The original law submitted by Uribe to Colombia’s congress, however, did not meet international humanitarian standards. After lengthy congressional debate, the Justice and Peace Law passed in 2005. It allowed for the possibility that those who committed serious crimes could escape prosecution, obstructed efforts to dissolve paramilitary structures, and did not guarantee victims’ rights to reparations and truth.

After its passage, Amnesty International suggested that by providing de facto amnesties for human rights abusers, the law may even make things worse. A New York Times editorial said it should be called the “Impunity for Mass Murderers, Terrorists and Major Cocaine Traffickers Law.”

Some took a more pragmatic view. It is important to “reconcile justice and realpolitik,” a diplomat in Bogota told the International Crisis Group in January 2006.

In May 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court amended the Justice and Peace Law. Though it upheld many provisions of the law, most critics of the original legislation agreed that it corrected some significant flaws. The revision allowed victims to participate in all stages of legal proceedings, removed sentence reductions for those who commit crimes again or do not cooperate with the legal process, and required that paramilitary members confess fully. “The court has finally given the law some teeth,” said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.

Surveys conducted by the International Center on Transitional Justice indicate Colombian citizens want a robust prosecution (PDF) process for the paramilitaries. Among those surveyed, nearly 75 percent believe the government must prosecute paramilitary members, and roughly 50 percent considered themselves either direct or indirect victims of the conflict.

But implementation of the law has suffered from inadequate funds, insufficient staffing in the attorney general’s office, and the lack of a clear framework that encompasses all demobilized persons, says an October 2007 report (Word Doc) from the Organization of American States, which is monitoring the demobilization process.

The government offices charged with the paramilitary justice process are “working triple overtime,” says Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy’s Colombia program, but the law limits the number of prosecutors that can work on the paramilitary unit to twenty. Though the revised law only applies to about 2,600 people—top- and mid-level paramilitary commanders who committed the most egregious crimes—this still works out to an overwhelming case load for each prosecutor. Of the few confessions that have been heard thus far, paramilitary commanders have been unwilling to discuss stolen or illegally obtained land and property even though the law requires them to surrender those assets for victim reparation. “They are determined to hang on to these assets,” says Isacson. “Land is going to be the biggest problem” in the paramilitary justice process, he says.

Broad Reach of the Paramilitaries

Despite its problems, the demobilization process has revealed the degree to which paramilitaries have infiltrated the highest levels of Colombian politics. Investigations by the Supreme Court and the attorney general’s office have brought to light startling information about collusion between paramilitary commanders and Colombian security services, military commanders, and high-ranking politicians. In November 2006, the attorney general’s office set up a special unit to investigate links between public employees and paramilitaries.

Human rights groups have long accused Colombian security forces of working in tandem with paramilitary units (Declassified U.S. government documents requested by the National Security Archive confirm this connection). But in 2006 and 2007, a series of scandals broke that implicated top public figures. The former foreign minister, at least one state governor, several legislators, and the head of the national police have all been tainted by the “parapolitics” scandal. In March 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported that the head of the army collaborated with paramilitary groups on military sweeps to eradicate left-wing militias.

As of April 2007, fifty politicians had been implicated. The widening scandal has cast doubts on President Alvaro Uribe, but some say it is the natural byproduct of the paramilitary demobilization process. “The charges underscore the remarkable independence that Colombia’s newly reformed judiciary is exercising,” says a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Funding for the judiciary has increased markedly under President Uribe.

Multinational corporations have also been linked to the paramilitaries. In 2007, Chiquita Brands admitted in U.S. court that it paid nearly $1.7 million to paramilitary group over eight years. Other corporations including Coca-Cola and Drummond are now under investigation.

Evolution and Fragmentation

In September 2007, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told the United Nations that in Colombia, “today there is no paramilitarism. There are guerrillas and drug traffickers.” Many observers—from the United Nations to Colombian analysts—disagree. On the contrary, they say, the paramilitaries are smaller, more clandestine, and operating with just as much impunity as before the AUC’s demobilization.

The Colombian government admits that there is a problem with “criminal organizations,” but it does not identify these groups with the paramilitaries. In a May 2007 report on Colombia’s armed groups, the International Crisis Group says that regardless of what one labels these groups, they all have ties to drug trafficking and criminal networks.

It documents three types of armed groups: paramilitaries that did not demobilize; groups in collusion with drug cartels; and criminal gangs that have arisen to fight for a share of the drug trade. Sergio Caramagna, head of the OAS mission in Colombia, told NPR, “the danger is that these groups have a big fountain of revenue that comes from narcotrafficking that allows them to develop and recruit people and continue affecting the population.”

The new groups, however, do not seem to have infiltrated regional politics to the same degree as the paramilitaries, and lack a strong command structure or ideological bent.  Some analysts suggest that public opinion in Colombia has forced the paramilitaries to develop new strategies; whereas the population used to be sympathetic to their counterinsurgency cause, most no longer are. Gustavo Duncan of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation, author of a book on the paramilitaries, predicts in a column in El Pais the rise of “more discrete armed structures, focused on the control of specific spaces and transactions, appealing to the logic of clandestine infiltrations into power structures, instead of an overt military and political dominion.”

With AUC demobilization far from complete, concluding that the paramilitaries have reformed would be premature. In its most recent mission report, the Organization of American States expressed concern that some mid-level paramilitary commanders remain in hiding and continue to exert influence. Further, armed units have seized control of areas formerly controlled by paramilitaries in a process known as paramilitary “recycling.” The current proliferation of groups may “presage an atomization of criminal organizations” similar to what happened after Colombia’s drug cartels were destroyed, says the International Crisis Group report. The Center for International Policy’s Colombia blog uses Google maps to display the rise of the new armed groups.

A Role for the United States

It is impossible to separate U.S. policy toward Colombia from the war on drugs, a battle the United States has spent roughly $500 billion on since the 1980s. Cocaine cultivation in Colombia was perceived as a major threat, and the United States worked to arrest drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar and fund police in Colombia to prosecute cocaine growers. In 1999, with left-wing guerrillas using drug money to fund their fight against the Colombian government, the United States decided to significantly up its military aid to Bogota, an initiative that become known as Plan Colombia.

Currently, Colombia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Under Plan Colombia, the United States has provided nearly $5 billion over six years. Yet these funds have primarily funded eradication and interdiction, as opposed to economic development or regional security efforts. Back in 2001, Colombia expert Winifred Tate wrote in the Brown Journal of World Affairs that “the failure to address paramilitary violence is the fatal flaw in Plan Colombia” (PDF). Dissolving the paramilitaries, Tate argues, should be a U.S. priority.

The U.S. Congress, concerned over the parapolitics scandal, has held up the passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia that was signed in 2006. Legislators want the Colombia government to make more progress on prosecuting paramilitary commanders and curbing labor abuses. Some experts suggest that the United States should help the Colombian government with these efforts. In a report for the Congress for American Progress, Columbia University’s Aldo Civico writes that Congress should increase its funding for Colombian judges and prosecutors investigating the parapolitics scandal, the body charged with reintegrating former paramilitary combatants, and social development programs for internally displaced Colombians.

In the 2008 foreign aid bill, Congress mandated that at least $20 million must go to the office of the prosecutor-general. In the fight against both drug traffickers and organized criminals, “there is recognition in Congress that the weak link is the justice system,” says Isacson. Still, of Colombia’s 2008 aid, 65 percent will be military.

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