Created: 6/13/1997

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of Asian Pacific and Latin American Analysis


Colombia: Paramilitaries Gaining Strength

Sponsored by local powerbrokers and fueled by frustration over the military's inability to control the expansion of guerrilla activity, paramilitary groups art growing and are likely to continue to expand their membership, capability, and influence over economically important territory.

Although they are no match militarily for00 full time guerrillas who operate nationwide, paramilitary groupsorce to be reckoned with, particularly in northern Colombia. I

attitude of most military officers toward these groups appears to be shaped by their shared interest in fighting the guerrillas, and to this end officers probably view the paramilitariesaluable source of information about local conditions and insurgent activities.


Possible military links to these groups arc of particular concern because of ihc upsurge in human rights violauoos attributed to paramilitary groups in recent years.

Victims of paramilitary violence are most commonly unarmed civilians

who are murdered for suspected ties to the guerrillas.

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 taken place in recent years, and.


some outstanding arrest warrants have

Paramilitaries Growing. Expanding Activities

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 ley agricultural and cattle ranching areas, as wcli a* mineral extraction regions in the northern and centra! parts of the country. (See map)]

A former Human Rights Ombudsman claims that paramilitary activity has increased byercent over the past four years. Frustration over widespread insecurity caused by the military's inability to curtail the activities of (lie gucmlla groups-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Armyare fueling the upsurge in activity by these groups. |

The use of private security forces to compensate for shortcomings in the stale's ability to provide security, especially in the countryside, is notat in recent yean the seemingly unabated escalation in cases of kidnapping, extortion, theft, and murder by the guerrillas-who now number00 full time armed fighters, according to government estimates-has led growing numbers of local powerbrokcts to sponsor paramilitaries to strike back at guerrillas and their sympathizers. Sponsors have come to view the wcakiiess-or in some cases absence-of government authority in rural areas as an opportunity to use violence with impunity to consolidate ,ind expand their control over territory and licit and illicit economic activity. |

The civilian sponsors of paramilitary activity include business owners, such as cattle ranchers, coffee plantation owners, and emerald miners,ome areas narcoira/fickers. who. like other wealthy Colombians have been targets of guerrilla extortion and other crimes, have largely displaced legitimate landowners and are using paramilitaries lo inunudaie and eliminate guerrillas and others who interfere with traffickeraramilitaries sometimes do more for traffickers than

Landowner* hutiwuaea. and other weillby pauoci have laag jtHcd on private antsiiy tarwi lo prole" inetf livei anil ioimw. In. Ibr military, racing atod toopapBuMily oompartmenied fcnain with iiuflftquata manpower and IraotportMlon, created puiunlUUiy jtoupa lo utUt tbtm In cvn/ruolmg guerrilla activity in isolated putt of (be country,ihc Supreme Courthe Mamie legalniat perurtiltliuv

protect against guerrillas; Ihey arc used by traffickers to force owners and squatlent off land

^the presence of large landhokhngs, particularly thosemraffickerit, appears to be the strongest indicator of parainilitarism. Areas with vigorous economic activity, such as cattle ranching, emerald mining, or oil production are 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 guerrilli


Paramilitaries Seeking Unity

IP Mil


The paramilitaries may be coordwating plans to violently disrupt the coming state and local elections scheduled forctober. The AUC asserted in laic April that it will stop leftist politicians 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, Ihe FARC will allow poliQcans who are sympathetic to iheir cause to campaign.

ie largest service nd paramilitary Hi. but ihe nature

Murky Ties Between the Military and Paramilitaries

Historic links between the military-especially the Army, which is

paramilitaries we iheir lies to these groups,!

ome members have continued

military officers have been embarrassed by several high profile, rebel-inflicted setbacks over the past year, and some who are demoralized by thenability to make headway against the guerrillas may see tolerance or support for tbe paramilitaries as one avenue for striking back. These officers tend to blame the military's shortcomings on the government's failure to adequately support ihe armed forces. Such views have been indirectly, but unmistakably articulated by Military Forces Commander Harold Bedoya, who frequently bemoans Ihe military's manpower shortage and ihe judiciary's lax policies on prosecuting guerrillas*

Bedoya complained late last year that the country needs to triple its Army tooldiers to adequately counter the guerrilla threat. To compensate for the deficiency, in early April Bedoya proposedivilian miliua, but the idea has little political support


He has also publicly criticized judicial authorities for releasing thousands of guerrillas over the past several years whom the military had captured and turned over to the courts for prosecution. I


Ii is difficuliorrobontlc the sketchy informaiion available on the cooperation at the local level and die extent to which top military officers are aware of such tics and approve of them. In theory, government-sponsored rural security cooperatives known as "Convivirs" are the military's "eyes and ears" in remote parts of the country, but in practice some local commanders reportedly also rely on the paramilitaries for information on guerrilla activities.

| in October (hat at the local level, troop ften consult with paramilitaries to obtain information about guerrilla activity taking place inej of operations, ^pj^pjj

Nevertheless, gcr paramilitary groups gain

strength, somee leaders appear to want to distance themselves from the popular perception that they work closely with the military--at least in their publicn order to foster the image of powerful, independent actors.


As paramilitaries have grown and intensified their activities, so too 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 cany out selective assassinations, while in other areas, particularly in northern Colombia, paramilitaries are suspected of carrying out numerous massacres of suspected leftist sympathizers

redible, local nongovernmental organization

souices say that more than half of politically motivated extrajudicial killings were committed by paramilitariesore than triple the level attributed to them'

Colombian human rights prosecutors blame paramilitaries for the majority of massacres in areas such as Uraba, Cordoba. Magdrlcna Medio, and the Eastern plains!

In addition, paramilitary operations nave exacerbated the already serious problemdisplacement caused by the long ruunmgecentindicated that paramilitary attacks arc now the primary cause of theof internal refugees,study carried

two human rights groups,H

The study found that moreolombians were displaced by violencelamed paramilitary' groups forercent of the forced miemtion and mnrilliLCarercent of the displacement.

1 Theiko noted thai tbt nwnMjbuaaa ri*bt. woirtien* Unbilled to *lut Meant? turn* Ivu AtBmWmi sijnificvtiyt IheUna, violation* attributed to EUerrittn zt-jupt hive limn iWndtl y.

^Attwjlina lo Ou UN. tt* uuimifSliTdUpticedow


In April this problem gained international attention when several hundred refugees crossed the border into Panama to escape clashes involving

NOFORN OUCON, guerrillas, and the Colombian Army. Paramilftaries allegedly pursued the refugees, some of whom they apparently believed lo be guerrilla sympathizers, into Panama, where they killed five people, according to various press reports

Paramihuncs also add-albeitecovery small scale-to Colombia's ksdnapping statistics. In an effort to seek revenge and pressure the guerrillas to release the hostages they hold, paramilitary leaders periodically kidnap collaborators, sympathizers, and relatives of the guerrilla leadership.

Colombia suffers from the highest rate of kidnapping in the world; about half of theidnappings reported6 were perpetrated by guerrillas, and the other half were committed by common criminals. fmjmamma

HasIttle to Stem the Tide |


Amid growing turmoil, particularly in northern Colombia, President Samperop officials have uttered strong pronouncements in recent months claiming that the government was prepared to lake firm action against paramilitary groups. Thus far, however, the administration has not matched its words with deeds.

urprisingly candid admission, the government concededecent report that it has been slow to perceive the gravity of the paramilitary problem and in mobilizing resources to confront It UWWU

A team of prosecutors who specialize in investigating human rights abuses has been pursuing cases against numerous paramilitary leaders and activists, but the problem has grown so large that they are only able toraction of the many serious incident' that take place each day.1

Last year, the team addressedases involving

massacres, kidnappings, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by paramilitaries, guerrillas, members of ihe security forces, and others.

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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!

Onpril police arrested Luis Alfredo Rubio Rojas. who was charged with pararmHiarism and participationassacremong other crimes.

In January. Jose Anibal Rodriguezember of Castano's Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Corboda and Uraba, was sentenced toail for the kidnagpm^nd murderenator and the massacre ofeasants|

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 Tar mom lenient on such matters. This action deprives civilian officials of an important deterrent in preventing security forces from becoming involved with paramiliiaries.

A precedent may have been set last yearudicial council ruled that the case against Farouketired three star general charged with collabotating with paramilitary groups in the Magdalena Medic region duringnd "intellectual authorship" of two massacres-could only be triedilitary court.

a muttary court human nghu violations

unawareingle case in seemed andenior officer for

importandy, we see scant indication thai 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 or the problem.

Even as then Defense Minister Esguerra wasew initiative against paramilitary groups last December. Bedoya said leftist guerrillas and narcotics traffickers wouldcontinue to be public-enemy numbei one, according to press reports. I


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 inparamilitary 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

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 lomestic 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



members of me secuniy forces to work with paramilitaries is unlikely to change over the 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, informational links and instances of active coordination between military and paramilitaries are likely to continue. I

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.

Washington's pressure on the Sampet government could serve as an

impetusrackdown on the paramilitaries.

activities and other counternarcotics efforts.

pitmo ioi mi fas (


In addition, powerful paramilitary group leaders' involvement in or links with narcotics trafficking could pose an increasingly potent challenge to US antinarcotics interests. Just as paramilitaries have been directed against guerrillas who threaten trafficker interests, these groups could also be directed against US aided eradication



Convivirs: Civilian AwUnct for the Embattled Array]

The Colombian Government author-jed the formation of Convivirs in5 to aid the military in counteiinsurgency operations by empowering civilians to gather information about guerrilla activities in rural areas and pass it to local commanders. Estimates of the number of Convivirs in operation vary; press and US Embassy sources sayonvivirs have been formed as of

The in aj ori ty

Each group consist local Army comma government is free any equipment issu

perate in central and northern Colombia.

people,eader who is selected by the >nvivir iswo-year charter, but the license of the group and demand the return of

Instances of guerrilla violence directed against Convivir members suggests that the rebels perceive themhreat.

For example, four Convivir headquarters were attacked and at least two members killedccording to press reports.

The official name of tbeu group! it Rural (mperWlvee of Viglleoce end Security. CofivlvB (Macs 'Hvmg together* ill SpenMfc


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