Office of Asian Pacific and Latin American Analysis
Colombia: Paramilitaries Gaining Strength
local powerbrokers and fueled by frustration over the military's inability to control the expansion of guerrilla activity, paramilitary groups are growing and are likely to continue to expand their membership, capability, and influence over economically important territory.
The cliroiie of insecurity in vast areas of Colombia offers the
eady and lucrative market among wealthy businessmen, including dntg traffickers. I
.Although they are no match militarily for the I
guerrillas who operate nationwide, paramilitary groupsorce to be reckoned with, particularly in nurU-.em Colombia.
Possible military links to these groups arc of particular concern because of the upsurge in human rights violations attributed to paramilitary groups in recent years.
of paramihtary violence are most commonly unarmed civilians who are murdered for suspected ties to the guerrillas. |
Amid these ominous trends. President Samper and other top officials have said that the government is prepared to take firm action against the paramilitaries, but so far they have not matched their words with deeds.
have investigatedraction of the many serious incidents that have taker, place in recen: years, and.BlilliHEf^EaiiH
some outstanding arrest warrants have
see scant indications that the military is making an effort to directly confront the paramilitary groups or to devote additional men or
Paramilitaries Crowing, Expandinp. Actjvibes (CNF)
erm used by many Colombians to refer to bands of armed civilians paid to protect the interests of various sponsors, are stepping up their activities in economically important areas of the country. The areas include key agricultural and cattle ranching areas, as well as mim-nd extraction regions in the northern andf the country. (Sec mr-*
A former Human Rights Ombudsman claims that paramilitary activity has increased byercent over the past four yean. Frustration over widespread insecurity caused by the military's inability to curtail the activities of the guerrilla groups-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Armyrobably are fueling the upsurge in activity by these groups. J
The use of private security forces to compensate for shortcomings in the state's ability to provide security, especially in the countryside, is notut in recent years the seemingly unabated escalation in cases of kidnapping, extortion, theft, and murder by the gucmllas-who now number00 full time armed fighters, according to government estimates-has led growing numbets of local powerbrokcrs to sponsor panunibtarics to strike back at guerrillas and their sympathizers. Sponsors have come to view the weakuess-or in some cases absence- of government authority in rural areas as an opportunity to use violence with impunity to consolidate and expand their control over territory and licit and illicit economic activity.
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The civilian sponsors of paramilitary activity include business owners, such as cattle ranchers, coffee plantation owners, and emerald miners. In some areas narcoiraffickers. who, like other wealthy Colombians have been targe's of guerrilla extortion and other crimes, have largely displaced legitimate landowners and are using paramilitaries to mtimidaie and eliminate guerrillas and others who interfere with trafficker business.'" Paramilitaries sometimes do more for traffickers than
protect against guerrillas; they arc used by traffickers to force owners and sewers off land.
Area* with vigorous economic activity, such as cattle ranching, emerald ixuning, or oil producDOn arc magnets for both guerrillas and paramilitaries. As guerrillas target areas of high economic activity for extortion of "waro do business people in these areas hire paramilitaries to protect their interests against the guerrillas.
Paramilitaries Seeking Unity
growing body of reporting suggests that Castano and other key paramilitary leaders have been trying to join forces under an umbrella group in an effort to portray themselvesegitimate force in their own right, rather than bands of vigilantes and surrogates of the military, as the guerrillas chargeational conference in Uraba attended by some ISO activists in mid-April, the largest paramilitary groups announced that they wereational, unified coordtaating committee known as United Self Defense Groups of Colombiahe leaders of these groups appear to be motivatedesire to position themselveslace at the table if and when peace negotiations occur between the government and the guerrillas. Improved coordination, also affords the possibility of creating better networks for obtaining arms and sharing training expertise. |
It seems unlikely however, mat this new structure willignificant impact on the paramilitaries' day-to-day operations. The groups have admitted that their various regional commanders willde pendent responsibility for their respectisx military actions.
The paramilitaries may be cooidmating plans to violently disrupt the coming state and local elections scheduled forctober. The AUC asserted in late April that it will stop leftist poUticians from campaigning in areas under theirhreat similar to that of FARC, which indicated that it would stop campaigning in its areas of influence, according to press reports. Presumably, however, toeFARC will allow politicians who arc sympathetic to their cause to campaign.
Murky Tics Between the Military and Paramilitaries
Historic links between the military--especially the Army, which is the largest service and the one that bears the brunt of the battle against the gtiernllas-and paramilitary groups are well known and publicly acknowledged by the government, but the nature of the contemporary relationship is more difficult to ascertain.
Many military officers have been embarrassed by several high profile, rebel-innicted setbacks over the past year, and some who are demoralized by thenability to make headway against the guerrillas may see tolerance or support for the paramilitaries as one avenue for striking back. These officers tend to blame the military's shortcomings on the government's failure to adequately support the armed forces. Such views have been indirectly, but unmistakably articulated by Military Forces Commander Harold Bedoya, who frequendy bemoans the njlitary's manpower shortage and the judiciary's lax policies on prosecuting guerrillas*
It is difficult io corroborate the sketchy information avatlabie on the cooperation a! the local level and the extent to wh:ch top military officers are aware of such tics and approve of them. In theory, goveinmcoi-ipoojored rural security cooperanvrs kno as "ConvivuV are theeyes and ears" in remote pans of the country, but practice some local commanders reportedly also rely on the paramilitaries for information on guerrilla activities.
^tiuwiaricA nave grown aod intensified then activities, so coo have the number of human rights abuses attributed to these groups. Victims of paramilitary violence are mostly unarmed, noncombatant civilians who are murdered for suspected ties to the guerrillas, accordingariety of sources. In some departments, paramilitaries carry out selective assassinations, while in other areas, particularly in northern Colombia, paramilitaries are suspected of carrying out numerous massacres of suspected leftist sympathizers.
human rights prosecutors Name paramintarics for the majority ofreas such as Uraba. Cordoba, Magdekaa Medio, and the Eastern plains I
to addition, paramilitary operauons have exacerbated the already serious problem of internal displacement caused by the long, ruunmgecent government report indicated that paramilitary attacks arc now the primary cause of the rising number of internal refugees, findings thai arc consistent with thosetudy carried out by two human rights
study found that moreolombians were displaced by violencet blamed paramilitary groups forercent of the forced migration and guerrillas forercent of the displacement.
In April this problem gained international attention when several hundred refugees crossed the border into Panama to escape clashes involving
paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the Colombian Army. Paramilitaries allegedly pursued the refugees, some of whom they apparendy believed to be guerrilla sympathizers, into Panama, where they killed Eve people, according to various press reports |
Paramiliiaries also add-albeitelatively small scale-to Colombia's kidnapping statistics. In an effort to seek revenge and pressure the guerrillas to release the hostages they hold, paramilitary leaders periothcally kidnap collaborators, sympathizers, and relatives of theeadersliip.
Has Done Little to Stem the Tide
Amid growing turmoil, particularly in northern Colombia. President Samper and other top officials have uttered strong pronouncements in recent month* claiming that the government was prepared to take firm actionaramilitary groups. Thus far, however, the administration has not matched its words with deeds.
a surprisingly candid admission, the government concededecent report dialas been slow to perceive the gravity of the paramilitary problem and in mobilizing resources to confront it I
A team of prosecutors who specialize in investigating human rights abuses has been pursuing cases against numerous paramiliiary leaders and activists, but the problem has grown so large that they are only able toraction of the many serious incidents that lake place each day.7
year, the team addressedases involving massacres, kidnappings, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killingsvrr,v dsecurity forces, and others.
esult of these efforts and those of the police, several important paramilitary commanders and lower level members have been arrested, but many other arrest warrants, some many years old. have not been enforced,!
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Onpril police arrested Luis Alfredo Rubio Rojas. who was charged with rjaramihtahsni and pamciparionassacremong other crimes.
In January, Jose Aotbal Rodriguezember of Castano's Peasant Self-Dcfense Groups of Corboda and Uraba, was sentenced toears in jail for the kidnapping and murderenator and the massacre of
Efforts to prosecute members of the military who have allegedly assisted these groups have been stymied. Prosecutors reportedly are concerned that all cases involving military assistance to paramilitaries will be turned over to military courts, which have traditionally been far mom lenient on such matters. Tins action deprives civilian officials of an important deterrent in preventing security forces from becoming involved with paramilitaries.
jruporuntiy. we see scant indication that the military leadership is making an effort to directly confront the paramilitary groups or to devote men or resources to stop their activities in an amount commensurate with the dimensions of the problem.
Even as then Defense Minister Esguena wasew initiative against paramilitary groups last December. Bedoya said leftist guerrillas and narcotics traffickers would continue to be public-enemy number one, according to press reports.
Prospects Dim for Reining in Paramilitaries!
ignificant improvement in Bogota's capability to impose security in the Colombian countrysidc-which we believe is unlikely before the end of Samper's term inparamiIitary groups will continue to expand in membership, capability, and influence over economically important territory. Paramilitaries are,ong way from parity with the guerrillas in terms of unity of purpose, number of combatants, training, and equipment, and are unlikely to be able to match them for many years. But as paramilitaries become stronger, they are increasingly likely to engage in direct clashes with the guerrillas--as they do now in parts of northernto try to extend their operations into areas long controlled by the insurgents.
Efforts by key paramilitary leaders toormal, consolidated network arc likely to meet with only limited success. In view of longstanding personal rivalries, these groups are more likely to operateoose confederation, rathernified command element. Smaller paramilitary groups will continue to function as "guns forngaging in ever changing alliances of convenience. |
As the frequency and intensity of violent confrontations between the paramilitaries and guerrillas grow, civilians will increasingly be caught in the crossfire. Local politicians, particularly in remote areas, will be vulnerable to intimidation by both sides, further weakening the already tenuous government control in some areas. This trend is likely to result in particularly bloody elections for state and local offices, even by Colombian standards.
Concern about violence in the runup to elections could prompt Bogota to try to crack down on paramilitaries in coming months, and perhaps even arrest one of the high profile paramilitary leaders. As the new UN human rights office in Bogota becomes more active, it is likely to join with other domestic and international groups in pressing the government for action.
The military is likely to react coolly to added calls by civiliansrackdown on paramilitaries. The deficiencies in manpower, transport, and tactics that propels some
Implications for the United States
members of the security forces to work wiih paramilitaries is unlikelyhange over (he next year. The popular perception that the military is "losing the war" against the guerrillas is likely to continue to tempt some officers to pursue all avenues possible to strike back at the guerrillas.esult, informs no nil links and instances of active coordination between military and paramilitaries are likely to continue. I
Thus far. paramilitary groups have refrained from attacking US citizens and facilities. Nonetheless, Americans, particularly those working in remote areas in northern Colombia, are at risk of becoming unintended victims of paramilitary attacks. The paramilitaries' victimization of growing numbers of innocent civilians runs counter to US interests in preventing human rights abuses in Colombia.
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