EL ESPECTADOR, June 29, 2019
By Cecilia Orozco Tascón
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The president of the Institute for the Study of Development and Peace (Indepaz in Spanish) analyzes the increasing climate of threats, attacks and the murders almost every day of people who are claiming their rights in the areas where the government ought to be arriving with its programs that would implement the Peace Agreement. He confirms the reappearance of narco-paramilitary groups that dominate local communities and, once again, the existence of alliances among them and the traditional political and economic power structure.
The threatening pamphlets that are sent to community leaders in the name of some so–called Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) or from some “Gaitanista Self–Defense Forces”, is there any certainty that those criminal organizations exist? Or are they just a screen to hide other phenomena?
The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC in Spanish), also called the Clan del Golfo (Gulf Clan), are not just a screen, but rather a powerful narco-paramilitary organization that sprang up in 2008 and in the last two years has been making incursions in 255 municipalities, aiming to control territories and populations by means of terror. They use those pamphlets to dominate and subjugate or displace everybody that opposes their extortionist interests and their security services that they sell to businesses and narco-politicians. Conversely, the Aguilas Negras are definitely a “firm” that is used by lower level people who are accustomed to the dirty war.
How can it be established, with certainty, that the Autodefensas Gaitanistas really exist as an organization?
The AGC even have a written constitution, statutes, a flag, and a hymn. The narco-paramilitary, alias Don Mario, whose name is Daniel Rendón, was the leader who started that gang in Urabá. Because of that, in the beginning they were known as the Urabeños.
That and other criminal organizations are the direct “heirs” of the ones from two or three decades ago?
The Aguilas Negras appeared around 2006, made up of paramilitaries from the Castaño family who didn’t demobilize, but they were absorbed into the AGC. They disappeared as a structure with a recognized command staff, and turned into a screen for criminal activities for a number of entities interested in business and political control. These AGC are also direct heirs of the paramilitaries and were created by commanders who did not demobilize, around 2005. They have had some changes in these 13 years; they have broken up and continue to have disputes with other illegal groups such as the Caparrapos (Caparrapí is a place in Colombia.), the heirs of the paramilitary Macaco, who are active in Bajo Cauca in Antioquia.
Does that mean that there is no unity of action and no joint command, as there used to be at the time of the Castaños?
The illegal armed groups have been reconfigured; they don’t make up one organization. Rather, they are a tangle of gangs: what they have in common is that they sell security services, including hired killers. Behind them are some businesses bent on illegal enrichment and some politicians and corrupt government officials. The largest groups, like the Clan del Golfo, the Caparrapos, and the Puntilleros (The bullfighter who kills the bull.) occasionally use the services of local gangs. They have collaborative relations with those gangs and they also have armed disputes because of business rivalries or control of routes or territories.
So then, are we seeing a new outbreak of paramilitaries?
There are a number of indications from different origins that paramilitaries are breaking out again: in entities like the government and the Armed Forces there are people who would like to go back to the old systems of security. They include thousands of low-level civilians such as intelligence agents. There have been alerts about the danger of deals with criminal groups to achieve neutralization of high value objectives. In some parts of the private sector, the large land owners are especially favorable to that. They pressure for a return to models of self-defense with authorization for the use of combat-type weapons or formation of units of private security with the capacity to carry out counter-insurgent operations or operations against armed groups.
Does that mean that the paramilitary demobilization produced by the negotiations with the government in the first term of the Uribe administration was a failure?
It was a partial demobilization that left mid-level commanders and structures in reserve. We cannot say that it was a total failure, because the largest bands did demobilize, which produced a diminution of the level of violence. But, afterwards the rear guard re-formed and regrouped using groups like the “Rastrojos” (“Stubble” in English).
Why do they appear in some geographical areas and not in others?
These groups have reproduced in areas where there is a mafia-type dynamic and easy money to be gained by corruption, such as drug trafficking, exploitation of gold, lumber, and monopolizing land. The strategic areas for their open operations are the internal “new frontiers” as are the ports, both legal and illegal. For their more undercover operations they extend to the cities where they have alliances or complicity with the authorities. One example is the gold networks and money laundering that stretch from Chocó and Bajo Cauca as far as Medellín, Cartagena or Panamá.
Can these gangs be described as simply drug traffickers and not as paramilitaries?
The illegal armed organizations that we call narco-paramilitaries or “re-armed” after the FARC laid down their arms are structures intended to make money; they are the parasites in drug trafficking and in other businesses. They are part of a macro-criminal complex with political and economic extensions. The ELN continue to be a group in rebellion, even though social leaders in Chocó and other regions indicate that some of their fronts are more and more involved in drug trafficking. And the dissidents of the FARC, joined with Front No. 1, led by Gentil Duarte, did not take part in the Peace Agreement. They seem to have one foot in drug trafficking and the other foot in the old guerrilla program.
Do those gangs have any kind of political ideology?
They claim they are protectors of the communities, but in reality they are a linked to big business and the mafias. And, at times they do use political discourse and provide security services to their allies in government positions or in the Armed Forces.
When you talk about government officials and the Armed Forces, are you referring to local officials—like mayors or secretaries of government in towns or cities and to uniformed military units at those places–, or are you referring to higher officials in the central government?
The connections are mostly at local and regional levels. But we have also found complicity by certain officials in higher spheres. However, as distinct from the prior period when there was a central plan, now it’s a phenomenon that has more of a scattered dynamic.
In the past there were important alliances between government officials and private business with the paramilitary gangs. Do we see a similar phenomenon today?
The narco-paramilitary groups that the Armed Forces and the government call GAO, do persist. They reproduce and mutate because they have multiple alliances with big business people who have the biggest slice of the money laundering business and of other businesses that are based on corruption and appropriation of public resources, through contracts. Without the complicity and connections with government officials, these groups would have no possibility of growing and reproducing.
There is an impression that the persecution and threats to the leaders of communities has been accentuated with the change in government, and that the ideological emphasis of the Duque administration and his party is contrary to the Peace Agreement with the FARC. Is there some kind of relation between the political power in opposition to the Peace Agreement and the increase in violence, without falling into exaggeration or untruth?
There is a correlation between the opposition and refusal to recognize the Peace Agreement, and the persistence of armed violence and attacks on communities and their leaders. For example, leaving between a rock and a hard place the more than 400,000 families in the areas of coca influence who want to join substitution agreements; radical discrediting of the Peace Agreement that was negotiated in Havana, and urging that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) constitutes impunity and that the ex-guerrilla fighters deserve nothing besides prison and to be called criminals, rapists, and that kind of thing propagates an environment that leads, in many sectors and territories to violent conduct and private justice. The emphasis on the stigmatization of the Agreement does come more from the government’s party that it comes from the government. But this is being pushed by ultra-right fanatics who want to halt or freeze the implementation of the Agreement and instead turn to greater stigmatization.
Would you say then, that the government really does have some political responsibility, along with the Democratic Center Party and those sectors of the ultra-right, for the recrudescence of social violence in the regions?
Yes, because the failure to implement the Agreements facilitates the activities of the mafias and the illegal groups, and the re-creation of violent groups. Besides that, the hate speech that has come from the highest levels of the government party has repercussions in all levels of society and reinforces the persistence of the culture of violence and of war.
The military directives that were criticized by The New York Times, requiring elevation of operational “results” by the government’s armed forces that could lead to new false positives, does that have a connection to the flaring up of paramilitary groups?
When there is pressure to furnish “results” that mean fatalities, you open the door to dealings with criminal groups, as took place in the past.
According to a statistic published recently, the victims of murders among the former FARC guerrillas have increased to over 100. According to the analysis by Indepaz, who are the killers and whom do they represent?
Since the Peace Agreement was signed, in November of 2016, and June of 2019, there have been 135 murders of former guerrillas and 35 killings of family members of former guerrillas. In the majority of those cases the killers have not been identified, but the most likely hypothesis is that most of those murders have been ordered by businessmen or politicians in the areas where the FARC had been operating and who now oppose the fact that the FARC party has leadership of some kind. There are also cases of revenge for war debts. Such a high number of murders of the members of the new party indicates that the government is not providing the guarantees that it ought to be providing.
The reintegration of the FARC into society and their laying down their arms was not worth anything?
There’s no need to exaggerate. The number of municipalities occupied by these groups known as “residuals” is only 35% of the space that the FARC controlled before the Agreement. Those that reorganized after the Agreement include something like one thousand repeaters, and between them and new recruits is might arrive at a total of 2,500 men. But they don’t make up a military-political organization; they don’t confront the government and it would be impossible for them to develop an insurgency project like the ones in the past decades.
The programs for land restitution for people who were evicted from their land seem to be one of the motives for the new regional wars. Does Indepaz have any kind of study that reflects that reality?
Indepaz has several studies that permit a general conclusion: the land disputes in Colombia are not just for the properties that are in the registry of reclaimants. The majority of the 7.5 million people displaced from their sites have never even had an opportunity or a means for returning and recovering their property. The more than 9 million hectares that were abandoned in the last four decades continue to be the scene of conflicts and violent disputes. There are many who are interested in ignoring the land rights of ethnic groups on the Pacific side, in Amazonia, in the Sierra Nevada, in La Guajira, Cauca, Nariño, and other regions, because there are those who want to develop mining, cut down forests or carry out megaprojects of different kinds.
Is there any occasion for the general and sad sensation that the country is going back to armed confrontation?
The reality is that there is no return to the past, in spite of the desires of some people to go back to the wars of the 20th Century.
But we are not experiencing a very good present. What is the future going to be like?
There are many indicators that point out that after the signing of the Agreements the intensity of the violence against the civilian population and against human rights has been reduced. I can give you some examples: The annual average of displacement in the last three years is less than half of the average in the previous period; there has been a drastic decline in the numbers of kidnappings, forced disappearances, cases of torture, and even of false positives. We are in the difficult transition stage. There is not a tendency to reinitiate a new cycle of wars. Neither will the danger of the confrontations such as those at the end of the last century be reappearing. I repeat, we are in the difficult stage of giving birth, especially because the elites in power have not been in agreement about the purposes of the peace. But the majority sentiment, particularly among the young people, is that there can be no repetition of our violent past.
THE MURDER OF MARÍA DEL PLAR WAS NOT THE FIRST
The murder, in Tierralta, Córdoba, of María del Pilar Hurtado, the mother of four children and an occupant along with another 200 people, of five lots that she owned, has moved Colombia in spite of the social anesthesia produced by the daily news of murders of community leaders all over the country. The national conscience was awakened by a video spread on social networks where you see one of her children who saw the attack crying out with pain. Once the journalists got to the site, they discovered that María del Pilar was not the first member of a group of “invaders” to be killed. Several days before, three neighbors in the same situation had been murdered in the same manner. But neither the authorities nor the media had figured out the serious situation, because of the isolation of the area, and because of the silence that is imperative in these Córdoba towns. Their inhabitants know that whoever makes a complaint had better flee or they will be killed. A little later they also found out that the Mayor of Tierralta is the son of the owner of one of the occupied lots and there’s a decision hanging over their heads, and some others, that annuls the “purchase” of lots from people evicted by the war. This scene, with all of its wrinkles, is the same scene as decades of paramilitary domination and the absence of the state in that region, forgotten by the central governments.
NEOPARAMILITARIES, TAKING OVER THE EMPTY SPACES
In the studies done recently by Indepaz, were you able to establish growth in numbers and an increase in armed control by these illegal organizations over the populations where they are present?
After the FARC’s demobilization and after they laid down their arms, groups such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces and the Caparrapos have clashed and have broadened their areas of activity to take over the vacant spaces. This has happened mainly in Chocó, Córdoba, and Bajo Cauca in Antioquia. The ELN have also broadened their areas of mobility in those provinces and, further, in Nariño, Magdalena Medio, Arauca and Catatumbo. The EPL or “Pelusos” (“Rookies”) dispute areas with the ELN in Catatumbo. And, besides that, there are groups called residuals of the FARC that are not connected with each other. These last groups have recruited new soldiers and they operate as gangs at the service of the drug traffickers and other businesses. All of this together, besides the FARC dissidents, add up to 8,000 armed soldiers to which we have to add their support networks that also use their weapons to take over the towns in nearly 300 municipalities in this country.