Colombia - Paramilitary Resurgence Going Under The Radar

As violence in Colombia has surged to the highest levels since the country’s 2016 peace agreement, President Iván Duque’s government has been unequivocal in attributing responsibility to the remnants of the country’s guerrilla forces.

colombia paramilitary forces

On 2 January, local leaders in Bojayá municipality, Chocó department, condemned the violent occupation of the village of Pogue by a group known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC). In May 2002, as many as 119 civilians were killed in Bojayá during a battle between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc) guerrillas and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group.

The Farc officially demobilised following the 2016 peace agreement, but with a growing number of dissidents returning to combat, and the continued presence of Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrillas, these groups are still a central concern for Duque’s government. Paramilitary forces, by contrast, are rarely mentioned by government officials. The official position is that the paramilitary demobilisation process that took place between 2004-2006 was successful, and that any remnants should be categorised as ‘successor organisations’. Even this term is rarely used: the AGC, for instance, is referred to strictly as the ‘Clan del Golfo’ drug trafficking organisation (DTO), and its ties to the AUC are denied.

To communities and NGOs based in Chocó, the AGC and Clan del Golfo are more or less interchangeable names, but AGC is far more widely-used, and generally described as a paramilitary rather than a DTO. The government’s insistence on alternative terminology therefore gives the impression of being a deliberate, considered choice. As resurgent paramilitary violence continues to receive far less of Duque’s attention than actions involving Farc dissidents and the ELN, the government’s semantic stubbornness reflects a broader failing to engage with the nature of Colombia’s contemporary security situation.

Identifying paramilitary presence

The origins of this determination to highlight the violent actions of guerrilla groups over those of paramilitaries is essentially ideological. Guerrillas in Colombia are traditionally associated with left-wing politics, and paramilitaries with the right; in practice, both are now pragmatically non-ideological, with economic profit, especially through drug trafficking, their overarching goal.

Duque’s Centro Democrático (CD) party is dominated by an ‘uribismo’ faction loyal to former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), often described as Duque’s mentor. Uribe oversaw the process of paramilitary demobilisation but faced frequent allegations of collusion between these paramilitaries and his own government and security forces. Duque is wary of similar accusations and is loath to recognise the continued presence of paramilitaries, focusing his efforts instead on the Farc and ELN, the natural enemies of uribismo.

The government’s reluctance to report on continued paramilitary violence can make it hard to identify the scale of the problem. The recent case from Bojayá only received such widespread attention because of the community’s own efforts to highlight the danger, and especially because of the prominence of social leader Leyner Palacios, a survivor of the 2002 massacre who has gone on to represent victims of conflict at a national level. Palacios met Duque on 9 January, to appeal for protection of the community. He also emphasised his need for personal protection; according to the NGO Indepaz, 150 social leaders were assassinated in Colombia in 2019, and there are thought to have been at least 24 more such killings in the first month of 2020.

There are other cases of paramilitary violence that appear to be similarly neglected. On 18 January, Ariel Ávila of the NGO Fundacíon Paz y Reconciliación reported that a pamphlet issued by the ‘Águilas Negras’ made threats against his life, as well as against Bogotá’s new mayor Claudia López, and demobilised Farc leader Rodrigo Londoño (‘Timochenko’). An analyst speaking on behalf of the Colombian armed forces suggested that the Águilas Negras name was being used to spread fear, but that the pamphlet posed no genuine threat. Duque made no comment on the issue; by contrast, an alleged plot against Londoño’s life by Farc dissidents on 12 January led to immediate military action, and strong condemnations from Duque.

  • Águilas Negras

The Águilas Negras formed after the end of the demobilisation process in 2006, as an amalgamation of various paramilitary groups, including the AUC. Colombian military officials have suggested that the group has moved away from these paramilitary origins and is now a DTO working in collaboration with Farc dissidents.

An incident on 16 January in Jamundí municipality, Valle del Cauca department, again highlighted the difficulties of identifying the perpetrators of violence. Five civilians were killed after explosives were reportedly thrown into their vehicle while driving. The mayor of Jamundí, Andrés Ramírez, attributed the attack to the Farc, while other witnesses claimed the AGC was responsible. These groups are often in direct conflict with one another and attempting to tackle them in isolation reflects a misunderstanding of the dynamics of violence in the country.

Complex relationships

The reasons for Duque’s reluctance to address the paramilitary threat are not just historical; in many parts of the country, state security forces face accusations of complicity in paramilitary violence. On 11 January, Catholic Church officials from across Colombia issued a joint statement warning of “possible situations of collusion between security officials and illegal groups”. Palacios has also repeatedly identified this pattern of collusion. Speaking after his meeting with Duque, he discussed the presence of the ELN in the region, but emphasised that the AGC, working “in collusion with state security forces”, posed the greatest threat to the security of local communities.

Miguel Ceballos, the peace commissioner appointed by Duque in August 2018, responded to Palacios’ claims with scepticism. Once again insistently referring to the Clan del Golfo rather than the AGC, Ceballos insisted that Palacios was exaggerating the extent of the group’s presence, because “the army says that such a large mobilisation in Bojayá is not possible”, as it would have noticed these forces. Ceballos’ remarks echoed Duque’s attitude towards this issue, embodied by his proposed solution of allocating an extra 50 soldiers to join the 100 already stationed in the area. The problem, identified by social leaders across the country, is that if parts of the military are already complicit in paramilitary action, then increasing its presence is no solution at all.

The problem is not limited to Duque’s reluctance to recognise the identity of the perpetrators of this violence, but also an overly narrow categorisation of the objectives of violence. The ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient vehicle for security policy, as another natural enemy of Duque’s political ideology. Drug trafficking undoubtedly remains the most contested and most lucrative sector available to illegal armed groups in Colombia, whether guerrilla or paramilitary, but a growing proportion of violence is driven by economic motivations that are otherwise entirely legal.

The prime example in Chocó department is intensive agriculture, and especially palm oil production. Since the early 2000s, large corporations have competed for government contracts offering the right to develop large tracts of supposedly uninhabited land. In practice, this land had often been vacated by the many millions of people forcibly displaced during Colombia’s armed conflict, or even still occupied by indigenous or Afro-Colombian communities not yet registered with the Colombian government.

With the presence of the Colombian state in frontier regions like Chocó largely limited to military action, such corporations often develop relationships with armed groups in order to remove people from this purchased land, or to prevent victims of displacement from returning, funding continued violence and insecurity as a convenient smokescreen for the protection of these lucrative economic opportunities.

This process is not limited to Chocó, nor to the palm oil industry. As well as social leaders and human rights defenders, another prominent category of paramilitary victims is environmental defenders. In December 2019, Colombia’s ambassador to the UN, Guillermo Fernández, signed the Escazú Agreement, committing to protect campaigners fighting to defend their land from a range of threats, including mining and logging projects. A week earlier, environmental NGO Greenpeace had published a report condemning human rights violations linked to coal extraction in Colombia.

This brand of paramilitary violence goes beyond partnerships with legitimate companies, as illegal mining and logging are both highly developed industries in their own right, with even fewer limitations on the methods used by armed groups of all persuasions to remove local populations. The government’s near-exclusive emphasis on drug trafficking and coca cultivation as the origin of Colombia’s insecurity, just like the focus on guerrilla groups over paramilitaries, is severely limiting its capacity to resolve this violent crisis.

Proposals for peace

The solution put forward by Palacios is to move beyond efforts to isolate a single universal cause of violence and insecurity - be it drug trafficking, guerrilla groups, or paramilitary presence – and to reduce dependence on military action as a solution. Palacios welcomes military protection, when properly regulated, but argues the groundwork for a sustainable solution has already been laid, in the form of the country’s 2016 peace agreement.

  • Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities

The active role of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in this wave of protest has gone largely unrecognised, by strike leaders and government officials alike. These groups have been disproportionately affected by violence in Colombia, and their exclusion from the protest dialogue sums up a key failing of Duque’s security strategy – the reluctance to believe victims’ diagnoses of problems, such as the continued impact of paramilitary violence, or their prescriptions for a solution, like the call to properly implement the peace agreement, and end conflict through co-operation rather than confrontation.

He is not alone in emphasising this solution: social leaders across the country have offered similar arguments, and this cause has recently exploded into the political mainstream, through the massive popular protests that have swept Colombia since November 2019. Initially centred on a workers’ strike in opposition to proposed economic reforms, the longevity of this campaign can be attributed in large part to its continued diversification, with the escalation of the social leader assassination crisis providing the justification for the first major protests of the year on 21 January.