Office of Asian Pacific and Latin8
Colombia: Paramilitariesigher Profile
In recent months, Colombia's paramilitary groups haveeries of high-profile operational and political activities, establishing themselvesorce to be reckoned with in any effort to bring peace to the country.
In May. the gfoups committed two widely publicized massacres, leaving dozens dead and wounded.
a As part of an appareni two-tiered strategy for increasing their profile, key paramilitary leaders have moved aggressively on the political front, publicly pledging to support the peacecertainadopt rules of engagement aimed at humanizing the decades-old conflict with theniv|
The confluence of several factors is apparently spurring the paramilitaries to expand their activities.
they are seeking to increase their an equal footing with the guerrillas during peace negotiations with the new Pastrana administraQon.
Local press reports indicate mat paramilitary leaders also view their recent attacksignal io the Colombian public thai they arc independentmore effectivemilitary, which has fared poorly in clashes with the guerrillas in recent years.
Stepping Up Operations!
A series of recent bold actions by paramilitary groups has refocused domestic attention on their growing influence andconjunction with the latest surge of guerrillaclimate of widespread insecurity:
Onay. the paramilitariesaring attack on the river port of Barrancabenneja. killingeople and kidnapping more thanthers; 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 guerrilla supporters; they also destroyed businesses, electrical plants, and dynamited the town's airstrip.
In addition, the paramilitaries are widely believed, according to various sources, to be responsible forssassination of two top human rights activists in Bogota in April. |
Recent paramilitary activity highlights the groups' increasing operational clout
their strength has expanded in recent years, to the point that some of the more powerful groups are now able to project themselves into guerrilla-dominated areas in eastern and southern Colombia, which would have been difficult to imagineew years ago.
The recent attacks and the government's inability to curb the paramilitary threat also have triggered sharp domestic and internationalecent report issuedrominent Latin American human rights group accused the paramilitaries of being the leading human rights violator in Colombia and blamed the security forces for complicity in the paramilitaries' activities. In reaction, the government has begun an investigation of at least three Armyunior officer, and nine soldiers
accused of having links to ihc pai amiollowing the BaiTaocabeniieja massacre, lhe Secretary General of Amocsty mlcxriarional condemned the Samper administration for beingpossibly even cnnunally negligent -in failing to safeguard the public.
Paramilitary activiiy has also exacerbated the problem of internal displacementthe long-running insurgency.act'v'(y
is among the chief causes of thehave
totaled morever the past four years. I
looking for Political Legitimacy (CNF)
As pan of an apparent two-tiered strategy to raise their profile and gain recognitionegitimate pobtKal actor, the paramilitaries also are moving aggressively on the polibca) front In late July, CarlosColombia's most notorious paramilitarymoreozen other senior leadersidely publicized agreement with leaders of civilbusiness men, church officials, and local politicalwhich they pledged to support the peace process and laid out rules of military engagement that were ostensibly in line with mlernational humamiariao law.recondition for their participation in peace negotiations, the groups also demanded lhe establishmentemilitarized zone in northern Colombia. Casiano's demands were similar to those laid out previously by the guerrilla groups, highhghting the desire of both his group and the paramilitaries' umbrella organization the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombiabe granted the same political status as the insurgents; it also highlighted, according to some local political pundits, the groups' apparent lackell-lhought-oul political agenda.
In late 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 arioouncement that three new (actions were being incorporated into the AUC. They also reiterated their demand that the government recognize the AUColitical actor andriminal one. |
The confluenceew key factors is apparently spurring the paramilitaries totheir activities.are clearly seeking to expand
their politicalare on an equal footing with
the guerrillas during peace negotiations with the new administration 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. |
Paramilitary Influence Likely To Crow
At the same time, 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 tbe state-are met.
The paramilitaries areignificant force to be reckoned with. and.ajor breakthrough in the peace process, which under the best of circumstances is likely toong and difficult endeavor, their influence is likely to continue increasing in the months ahead:
The growing public perception thai 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 the guerrillas and paramilitaries are likely to increase, particularly as the latter attempt to extend then- influence and operations into areas controlled by the insurgents
RecoguioDg the need to boost their popular appeal, paramilitary leaders also are likely to continue their public relations 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 militarysuspicious of the peace process and frustrated with the mmury'sHBBperfonnance on
themay maeasingly view turningand perhaps 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 arc likely to continue and perhaps 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 am) the widely divergent objectives of the various groups will probably preclude tbe 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 armed guards for narcotics groups. In many instances, such as in die 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 "rurf" issues, including conflicts over the control of illicit activities, than their stated aim of eliminaung the guerrillas or countering the insurgent threat11
Implications for the United States
The growth of the paramilitaries and the possibility of increasingly violent clashes with dieif the nascent peace process breaksundercutting the key US goal of improving Colombia's human rights record, which is already among the worst in the Americas. Moreover, although paramilitary groups have thus far refrained from attacking US citizens and facilities, USparticularly 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 advancmg the peace process. Although many local political 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 toomprehensive 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 the 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 aniinarcotics interests. For example. late last year, paramilitaries acting as guardsruck carrying cocaine were involvedhootout with police, resulting in the death ofaw enforcement officers I
'MnI rule, pmaubuncsto notlve lest mcney from tbe drag trade (banguerrilla! became of tSr guerilla; creaUc iatolvemeat in mrvntia activity and uwir ability to coverlarger imiioryOriginal document.