El Espectador, February 8, 2019

Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator

A study released by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) demonstrates that the version maintained by the government characterizing these armed groups as “Bacrim” (Criminal gangs) is far from reality and doesn’t recognize the real dimensions of the paramilitary phenomenon that is so deeply rooted in this country.

“There are no paramilitaries in Colombia. To say that there are is to grant political recognition to some bandits that are dedicated to common and organized crime,” said the then-Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas in January 2017. He said that after he heard complaints about the way that paramilitary groups were taking over the territories left behind by the Farc around Tumaco (Nariño Province). Nothing is further from reality than this view, according to an investigation carried out by the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) It demonstrates that the paramilitary phenomenon is far from extinct.

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Under the title “The Paramilitaries’ Successor Organizations,” the CCJ explored the lines of continuity that can be identified between the structures pre- and post-demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Although there is agreement that after submitting to the law, the paramilitary groups in 2005 continued their armed systems, different sectors have different views of the right way to conceive of those systems.

For the Colombian government, they are “Bacrim” (Criminal gangs) with a certain degree of organization whose goal is only to carry out criminal activities to obtain economic resources. On the other side are academic and research sectors such as the National Center for Historical Memory. They maintain the view that the armed structures of today are more like neoparamilitary organizations that are directly connected to the structures that existed before the demobilization.

For the CCJ it’s clear that the paramilitaries’ successor organizations have obvious connections to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and even their historical roots can be traced back to the decade of the 1960s. “Paramilitarism is more than a military manifestation. It is a political, economic, social, and cultural phenomenon that is deeply rooted in this country,” explains Silvia Becerra, author of the book. She adds that the order established by the paramilitaries in various territories continues in effect today.

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According to Becerra, the phenomenon has been reproduced in Colombia by a legal framework that leads to paramilitarism. It started with Decree 3398, issued in 1965, that authorized the military to furnish weapons to civilians, and led to Decree 356, issued in 1994, authorizing the “Convivir”. (Living together)

Along with that, paramilitarism in this country was established as a concept based on the idea of autodefensa (self-defense), and it was made legitimate by certain sectors of the population. In the territories where the paramilitaries had their heyday, such as Magdalena Medio, Urabá or the Province of Córdoba, the arrangements established by those groups continue nearly intact to this day.

A statement by a leader, included in the report, shows the real dimensions of the phenomenon: “Who isn’t involved in the Gaitanista Defense Forces of Colombia in this territory? They are the government. They have the social power and they control the land. They own the transportation systems, and the businesses. We all pay taxes to them.”

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The situation described by that leader could be because of what is happening in municipalities like Turbo, Mutatá, Carepa, in Antioquia Province; Barrancabermeja, in the heart of Magdalena Medio; or Morales, San Pablo, and Simití, in southern Bolívar.

That is why it’s clear to the CCJ that “paramilitarism, as a social phenomenon, never disappeared from Colombian society with the demobilization.”  There is a very large gap between demobilization and dismantling, as the study points out.

“It is necessary for the government to accept that paramilitarism was a part of its strategy in which, besides the Armed Forces, powerful local sectors of Colombian society benefited from the crimes committed by these groups. If we cannot begin there in characterizing the phenomenon, the objective of dismantling it will continue to be put off, because it creates confusion even inside the government, in considering how to confront it,” reads the document.

During the presentation of the book by the CCJ last February 6, the Deputy Public Defender, Jorge Enrique Calero, revealed statistics that jibe with the picture presented by the study. “In 2006, 22 illegal armed structures were identified in more than 15 provinces. Now we have 27 provinces in the country where there are post-demobilization illegal armed groups or successors of the paramilitaries, the official stated.

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According to Calero, the armed system with the greatest presence in the national territory is the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, (AGC) which exist in 19 provinces. After that group are Los Rastrojos, in ten provinces and Los Caparrapos, present in eight.

For the Public Defender, it’s crucial that the government admit that these structures are armed groups organized after the demobilization, and go beyond just calling them “bacrim”. This would guarantee that the strategies undertaken to confront them would correspond to the true dimensions of the phenomenon.

The call by the CCJ for the government to take over the territories where armed groups have consolidated social control was also supported by the Inspector General’s delegate for the Integrated System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and No Repetition, Mónica Cifuentes.

According to this official, in order to reduce impunity in those cases where government officials are responsible for paramilitary activities, “the Inspector General has declared that there will be no statute of limitations for disciplinary action in cases of crimes against humanity.”

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