of Asian Pacific and Latin American Analysis
The growing influence of lhe paramilitaries is likely to complicate the twin US goals ofadrandng the peace process and improving the country's poor human rights record.
Some powerful paramilitary leaders' involvement with narcotics traffickers could alsohallenge to US antinarcotics interests.
A senes of recent bold actions by paramilitary groups has refocused domestic attention on their growing influence andconjuncOon with the latest surge of guerrillaclimate of widespread insecurity:
Onay. the paramilitaries"aring attack on the river port of Barrancabermeja. killingeople and kidnapping morethers; the kidnap victims were subsequently executed. The audacity of the attack, which occurred in an areaeavy guerrilla presence and wasear earlier, left many wondering whether Colombia is on the verge of another period of intense paramilitary violence against guerrillas and their alleged sympathizers.
Also inaramilitaries entered the village of Puerto Alvira in eastern Colombia and executed more thanillagers they accused of being guerrillahey also destroyed businesses, electrical plants, and dynamited the town's airstrip.
In addition, the paramilitaries are widely I
esponsible tor the assassination of two top activists in Bogota in
Recent paramilitary activity highlights die groups' increasing operational clout.
heir strength has expanded in recent years, to
: point that some ot the more powerful groups are now able to project themselves into guerriUadominated areas in eastern and southern Colombia, which would have been difficult to imagineew years ago.
The recent attacks and the government's uiabihty to curb the paramilitary threat also have triggered sharp domestic and internationalecent report issuedrominent Latin American human rights group accused the paramilitaries of being die leading human rights violator in Colombia and blamed the security forces for complicity in the paramilitaries' acuvities. In reaction, the government has begun an investigation of at least three Armyunior officer, and nine soldiers
accused of having links io iheollowing ihe Banancabenneji massacre, ihe Secreiaxy General of Amnesty International condemned ihe Samper administration for beingpossibly even criminally negligent -in fairing to safeguard the public J
Paramilitary activity has also exacerbated the problem of internal displacement'he long-running insurgencyparamilitary activity
is among the chief cauies of the growing number of internal refugees, which have totaled morever the past four years. |
looking for Political Legitimacy |
As pan of an appareni iwo-iicred strategy to raise iheir profile and gain recognitionegitimate political actor, the paramilitaries also are moving aggressively on the political front In lale July, Carlosmost noiorious paramilitarymoreozen other senior leadersidely publicized agreement with leaders of civilbusinessmen, church officials, and local politicalwhich they pledged to support the peace process and laid out rules of military engagement Uiat were ostensibly in line wilh international humanitarian law.recondiuon for their participation in peace negotiations, the groups also demanded the establishmentemtfitarized zone in northern Colombia. Castano's demands were similar to those laid out previously by die guerrilla groups, rughlighuhg me desire of both his group and the paramilitaries' umbrellaUnited Self Defense Groups of Colombiabe granted the same pobbcal status as the insurgents; it also highlighted, according io some local political pundits, the groups' appareni lackell-thought -out political agenda
In lale May- paramilitary leaders alsoigh-profilesecond such event in the past twoat consolidating their organizational structure and influence. This event received considerable media play, particularly the groups' subsequent announcement that three new facbons were being incorporated into the AUC. They also reiterated their demand dial ihe government recognize the AUColitical actor andriminal one. |
Why Now? I
The confluenceew key factors is apparently spurring the paramflitaries toiheir activities.are clearly seeking to expand
their political influence in an effort to ensure that they are on an equal footing with
the guerrillas during peace negotiations with lhe new administjarion Indeed, by publicly endorsing the peace process, the paramilitaries are attempting to portray themselves as legitimate political actors and not the vigilantes and military surrogates that the guerrillas have long accused them of being. H
Paramilitary Influence Likely To Crow
At the same lime, according to local press reports, some leaders view their recent actionsay to signal to the Colombian public that they are Independentand more effectivearmed forces, which haveeries of humiliating defeats at the hands of the guerrillas over the past two years. Casuno echoed this themeecent press interview in which he vigorously maintained that the AUC is not an crgan of the state and that it will disband only when keyas an end to guerrilla subversion and the inefficiency of the state-are met.
The pararrulitarics areignificant force to be reckoned with. and.ajor breakthrough in the peace process, which under the best of circumstances is likely toong and cbfliculi endeavor, their influence is likely to continue increasing in the months ahead:
The growing public perception that the military is losing the war against the guerrillas, coupled with the recent wave of guerrilla violence throughout the country, is likely to increase support for the groups, particularly in rural areas where the guerrillas operate.
Clashes between ihc guerrillas and paiamiliiaries are likely to increase, particularly as the latter attempt to extend their influence and operations into areas controlled by the insurgents.
Recognizing the need to boost their popular appeal, paramilitary leaders also are likely to continue their public relauons offensive, simultaneously stressing their willingness to cooperate with the administration in peace negotiations while vigorously defending their right to be afforded political status.
Meanwhile, some senior nuliury officers Already suspicious of the peace process and frustrated with the military's dismal performance on theinoeasingly viewlindperhaps even offering tacit supportparamilitaries as their best option for striking back at the guerrillas.esult, informational links and instances of active coordination between the military and the paramilitaries are likely to continue and perhapt even increase.
Efforts by the groups' leadership toore formal, consolidated organization are likely to make only limited progress for the foreseeable future. In many cases, long standing personal rivalries between key paramilitary leaders and the widely divergent objectives of (be various groups will probably preclude the creationoherent leadership structure.esult, most groups arc likely to continue operating primarily as "guns forith such disparate functions as providing protection to cattle ranchers and acting as aimed guards for narcotics groups. In many instances, such as in (he high-profile massacre in Mapiripan last year, these groups will probably become involved in violent clashes with guerrilla sympathizers for reasons having to do more with "turf" issues, including conflicts over the control of illicit acDvibes. than their stated aim of eliminating the guerrillas or countering the insurgent threat-2]
Implications for the United States |
The growth of the paramilitaries and the possibility of increasingly violent clashes with theif the nascent peace process breaks
undercutting the key US goal of improving Colombia's human rights record. |
Moreover, although paramilitarythus farfacilities. US
particularly those working with human rights groups in remote areas of northernat increased risk of being targeted as guerrilla sympathizers or of being unintended victims of violence should paramilitary and guerrilla Fighting escalate.
The growing influence of the paramilitaries also complicates the key US objective of advancing the peace process. Although many local poliucal analysts argue that the groups must be included in future negotiations in light of their growing clout, their lackoordinated and coherent political program, weak organizational discipline, and the guerrillas' continuing refusal to participate in negotiations with them will hamper efforts loomprehensive and long lasting agreement. Illustrative of this fact, one of the main insurgentArmy of Nationalrecentlycheduled meeting with key members of civil society because of concern that Use paramilitaries would be accorded political status.
At the same time, powerful paramilitary leaders* involvement in or links to narcotics trafficking could pose an increasingly potent challenge to US aminarcotics interests. For example, late last year, paramilitaries acting as guardsruck carrying cocaine were involvedhootout with police, resulting in the death ofaw enforcement officers I
1mri role, pmsuUirici appear to receive lew money from (be drag Dade (ban die guerrilla! hociuie ofguerillas greaUc involvement in nirtoica activity and tbeit ability to coverlarger territory.