Neo-Paramilitary Gangs Ratchet Up Their Threat to Colombian Civil Society and the Long Term Survival of Civic Rectitude in the Public Arena

  • The Colombian government enacted Decree 128 and the Justice and Peace Law to launch and subsequently monitor the demobilization process, which failed under the Uribe administration, and led to the emergence of neo-paramilitary drug gangs known as the Bacrims. (Las Bandas Criminales)
  • The Bacrims are still carrying out their atrocities with a modus operandi similar to that of their AUC paramilitary predecessors. This has resulted in human rights violations and stepped-up drug trafficking.
  • The Bacrims continue to maintain a strong presence in municipalities where Uribe-backed candidates claimed victory in the October 30, 2011 elections, and their long-term success would unquestionably threaten the prospects for peace in Colombia.

Executive Summary
Colombia’s first paramilitaries were known as ‘self-defense groups’, after they began to emerge in the 1960’s. Most of their funding came sub-rosa from the Colombian military, and they committed continuous acts of sharpening violence against rural civilian bands perceived as supporters or sympathizers of the guerrillas. In 1997, a new paramilitary group commonly known as the United Self- Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) stepped into the spotlight. From that point on, human rights abuses dramatically increased until reversed by the demobilization process, which began in 2003. Overall, the demobilizing process proved to be ineffective, despite the Colombian government’s efforts to eradicate both leftist and rightist armed groups. The former paramilitary groups have evolved into criminal bands known as the Bacrims. Today, the groups are heavily involved in operations ominously similar to those of their AUC predecessors, and also distinctly influenced the recent October 30, 2011 elections. Although the majority of the candidates supported by President Santos won the recent local elections, the Bacrims continue to maintain a lingering presence particularly in municipalities where Uribe-backed candidates were not able to hold on to their elected positions. The unsettling influence of this neo-paramilitary group will continue to challenge the prospects for peace in Colombia.

The history of paramilitary groups is rife with acts of violence and forced displacement, sizeable numbers of civilian casualties, and a strong military presence dispersed throughout the country. The evolution of former paramilitary forces into neo-paramilitary Bacrims is due to the woefully ineffective demobilization process and the government’s inability to monitor its success. Violence directly attributable to neo-paramilitary groups has dramatically increased in Colombia. The Colombian government must be more proactive in combating the Bacrims, beginning with an investigation into the alleged or historical ties between the neo-paramilitary drug gangs and the winners of recent, national, and regional elections.

Historical Emergence of Paramilitaries
Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries originally evolved from the protracted and brutal political conflict in Colombia between the late 1940s and early 1950s, known as La Violencia, waged between the Liberals and Conservatives. Therefore, in 1965, right-wing Colombian security forces initiated new military tactics aimed at diminishing the pervasive military capacity of powerful leftist guerrilla forces, mainly based in rural parts of the country. Decree 3398, which became permanent with the introduction of Law 48 in 1968, allowed the military to “create groups of armed civilians to carry out joint counter-insurgency operations.”#1 In the years following, Law 48 would lead to the creation of thousands of ‘self-defense’ paramilitary groups, which would later become responsible for the displacement of 3.6 million people#2, along with “tens of thousands of other civilian[s] … victims of torture, kidnapping, and disappear[ances].”#3 Labor unionists, small landowners, and rural farmers were often targeted because they were viewed by the paramilitaries as guerrilla sympathizers. “Paramilitaries were also used by local politicians to eliminate political opponents and to control social protest by targeting activist and peasant leaders.”#4 This interconnectedness between paramilitaries, economic elites, political leaders, and the military contributed to numerous acts of notorious human rights abuses.

The AUC Rises to Power
Despite major human rights atrocities committed by these “self-defense groups,” an even larger and more violent paramilitary group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) emerged into the spotlight. Two brothers, Carlos and Vicente Castaño, founded this murderous body in 1997. The AUC proved to be extremely effective in its unqualified brutal methods, mobilizing several smaller independent paramilitary groups under one command, while actively promoting their overall goal, including the elimination of FARC leftist guerrillas and their supporters. The AUC’s tactical decision to combine multiple paramilitary groups and pool resources greatly increased their influence in the region and consolidated territorial control. In addition, the accumulated power and influence of the AUC was greatly augmented by the abundance of funding the faction received from the thriving drug trade in the late 1990s. Carlos Castaño claimed that “seventy percent of AUC revenue came from such trafficking.”#5 With funding from the drug trade and the military, the AUC prospered as a paramilitary organization, carrying out massive human rights atrocities, including random killings carried out until the early 2000s.

Directly after his inauguration in August 2002, right-leaning President Álvaro Uribe began talks with the paramilitaries to move towards demobilization. Although “the AUC viewed Uribe as a president they could do business with, they then declared a permanent ceasefire on December 1, 2002…”, largely because their brutal methods were embarrassing to Bogotá.#6 This ceasefire provided a sense of relief not only for Uribe, but also for the many other victims of paramilitary violence. However, Juan Forero in the New York Times article argued that paramilitaries’ motivations for demobilizing were merely to fulfill their own “desire to obtain a deal that [would]… allow them to avoid extradition to the U.S while serving as little time in prison for their crimes as possible.”#7 It became apparent that tAAAhe ultimate fate of both the paramilitary groups and of their helpless victims were not destined to be determined within the Colombian justice system.

Decree 128
The majority of paramilitaries demobilized because of Decree 128, which was enacted on January 22, 2003. The most important section of this decree, Article 13, stipulated certain legal and economic benefits to be derived by members of these armed groups who were not under investigation for crimes involving “atrocious acts of ferocity or barbarism, terrorism, kidnapping, genocide, and murder committed outside combat.”#8 Although most of the paramilitary groups routinely had committed such types of violations, if there was no pending investigation into su