Created: 6/13/1997

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Intelligence Report

of Asian Pacific and Lalin American Analysis


Colombia: Paramilitaries Gaining Strength

Sponsored by local po* erbrokers 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 Iheir membership, capability, and Influence over economically important territory.

The climate of insecurity in vast areas of Colombia offers the

eady and lucrative market among wealthy businessmen, including drug traffickers.

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




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

Victims of paramilitary violence are most commonly unarmed civilians

who are murdered for suspected ties to the guenttlas.

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 taken place in recent years, and, I

some outstanding arrest warrantsmfmmmmmzml

see scant indications that the military is making an effort to directly confront the paramilitary groups or to devote additional men or resources against them in an amount equal to the dimensions of the problem. I

The growth of paramilitary violence is likely to complicate US interests in Colombia in the areas of human rights and counter narcotics. I

Pararmlifciries Growing, Expanding Activities J

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 mineral extraction regions in the nortliern and central pans of the country. (Scemap)l

A former Human Rights Ombudsman claims that paramilitary activity has increased byercent over the past four years. Frustration over widespread insecurity caused by the mititary's inability to curtail the activities of die guerrilla 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 notut 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 powerbrokcrs to sponsor paramilitaries to strike back at guerrillas and their sympathizers. Sponsors have come to view the wcaktiess-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 dvilian sponsors of paramilitary activity include business owners, such as cattle ranchers, coffee plantation owners, and emerald miners. In some areas narcotraJfickers. who. like other wealthy Colombians have been targets of guerrilla extortion and other crimes, have largely displaced legitimate lardownera and are using paramilitaries lo inumidaic and eliminate guerrillas and others who interfere with traffickeraramilitaries sometimes do more for traffickers than

l.uidciwnm huirx-ucvD. and otheipaUorx have lung rcUcd on private aecuUlv farcc* lo prolea uebrnil HaM In. Ibe military,an tod googiapBicaay oompartOMnted fcuain with jnaflequaw manpower and traoiporlatOn, created puiaintltiery groupa lo onist ihero in cvnfruaUnf. guerrilla activity in isolated putt of (be country,Ibe Supreme Court atroci down the Mamie legalizing paramlLitary

protect against guerrillas; Ihey arc used by irafflclcers to force owners and squallem off land

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

A 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 charge.ational conference in Uraba attended byctivists in mid-April, the largest paramilitary groups announced that they wereational, unified coordinating committee known as United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUQ. The leaders of these groups appear to be motivatedesire to position themselveslace at the tabic 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, that this new structure willignificant impact on the paramilitaries' day-to-day operations. The groups have admitted that their various regional commanders will retain independent responsibility for their respective military actions.


The paramilitaries may be coordinating plans to violently disrupt the coming state and local elections scheduled forctober. The AUC asserted in late April that it will stop leftist poliocians from campaigning in areas under theirhreat similar to that of FARC, which indicated thai it would stop campaigning in its areas of influence, according to press reports. Presumably, however, the FARC will allow politicians who arc sympathetic to their cause to campaign.

Murky Tics Between the Military and Paramilitaries

kni and the one groupsf the conte;

the largest serviceparamilitarybut the nature

paramilitaries were de their aes to these groups.

illegalome 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 the military's inability 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 theailure to adequately support the armed forces. Such views have been indirectly, but unmistakably articulated by Military* Forces Commander Harold Bedoya, who frequendy bemoans the military's manpower shortage and tbe Judiciary's lax policies on prosecuting guerrillas.

Bedoya complained late last year that Ihe country needs to triple its Army tooldiers to adequately counter the guerrilla threat. To compensate for the deficiency, in early April Bedoya proposedivilian tmliba. 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.4

he cooperation at are of such tics and cooperatives known he country, but in

It is difficultorroborate the sketchy informationbe local level and the extent lo which top military officerspprove of ihem In theory, government-sponsored rural sccuri as "Convivirs" are the military's "eyes and ears" in remote part practice some local commanders reportedly also rely on the paramilitaries for infoimauon on guerrilla activities.

Nevertheless,ihe larger paramilitary groups gain

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


paramilitaries have grown and intensified their activities, so too have the number of human rights abuses attributed to these groups. Victims of paramilitary violence arc mostly unarmed, noncombatanl civilians who ate 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. paramUiuuies are suspecbed of carrying out numerous massacres of suspected leftist sympathizers

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

In addition, paramilitaryof

internal displacement caused by the long runningecentindicated that paramilitary attacks arc now the primary cause of theof internal refugees,study carried

out by two human rights


The study found that moreolombians were displaced by violenceblamed paramilitary groups forercent of the jforercent of the displacement.

paramilitaries, guerrillas, and ihe Colombian Army. Paramilitaries allegedly pursued ihe refugees, some of whom they apparendy believed lo be guerrilla sympathizers, into Panama, where they killed five people, according to various press reports.

Paramilitaries also add-albeiielatively small scale-to Colombia's kidnapping statistics. In an effortedc revenge and pressure the guerrillas to release the hostages they hold, paramditary leaders periodically kidnap collaborators, sympathizers, and relatives of the guerrilla Jeadersliip.

suffers from ihe highest rate of kidnapping in the world; about half of Iheidnappings reported6 were pcrrjewiedbyguemllM, and the other half were committed by common criminal s. H

Bogota Has Done Little to Stem die Tide |

Amid growing turmoil, particularly in northern Colombia. President Samper and other top officials have uitered strongecent months claiming that the government was prepared to lake firm action againsi paramilitary groups. Thus far, however, ihe adminislration has noi matched its words with deeds.

a surprisingly candid sdmission. (he government concededecent report that it has been slow to perceive the gravity of the paramilitary problem and in mobilizing resources to confront it pj

A team of prosecutors who specialise in investigating human rights abuses has been pursuing cases against numerous paramilitary leaders and activists, but the problem has giown so large that they arc only able toraction of the many serious incidents that lake place each day.1

year, ihe team addressedases involving massacres, kidnappings, forced disappearances and ex unjudicial killings iy paramilitaries, guerrillas, members of tbe security forces, and others.

esult of these efforts and those of the police, several important paramilitary commanders and lower level members have been arrested, bul many other arrest warrants, some many years old. have not been enfor

lwealu tdtocilu ire likely to leoelveboonecently euabhEhed United Nedou Human Ruhti comnUnicn local office becomes Cully operational. TheofftceheedquarUred in Bo* >la butiuf* if eipeceed to Irani widely in CoJomtidJJIH

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

In January, Jose AnibaJ Rodriguezember of Castano's Peasant Self-Defcnse Groups of Corboda and Wraba, was sentenced toears in jail for the fcklpappmgand murderenator and the massacre ofeasantsp

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 more lenient on such matters. This action deprives civilian officials of an importantreventing security forces from becoming involved with paramiHiarics.

A precedent may have been set last yearudicial council ruled thai ihe case against Farouketired threegeneral charged with collaborating with paramilitary groups in the Mngdalena Medio region duringnd "uitelleclual authorship" of two massacres-could only be triedilitary court.

unawareingle case inryrourUiad osecutedapdenior officer for human nghrs violiiuuns I

More importantly, we see scant indication that the military leadership is malting an effort to direcdy confront the paramilitary groups or to devote men or resoorces to stop their activities in an amount commensurate with the dimensions of the problem.

as then Defense Minister Esguerra wasew initiative against paramilitary groups last December. Bedoya said leftist guerrillas and narcotics traffickers wouldcontmucto 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 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 arc 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 inio 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, particnlarly 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 paramihiaries 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, ii 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


Implications for the United States

members of Ihc security forces lo work with paramilitaries is unlikely to change over Ihc next year. The popular perception that the military is "losing the war" agaiost 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 paraoiilitaries 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.


Convivirs: Civilian Assistance for the Embattled Array]

The Colombian Government authonrcd the formaiioc of Convivirs in5 lo aid the military in counteTinsurgcncy operations by empowering civilians to gather information about gucmila activities in rural areas and pass it to local Estimates of the number of Convivirs in operation vary;onvivirs have been formed as of Ac

The majority

in central and norihcn Colombia.

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

Ttec.fficiatnoitwoforil( VipUecc xic Secniity. dmiis Dates 'biiog Ugetter' id Srumt

Operating Areas of Majoraramilitary Groups,7

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