Colombia+20, EL ESPECTADOR, June 30, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Truth Commission’s findings indicate that the paramilitaries were the principal assailants in the framework of the armed conflict and that they were actually a web of interests that extended into the whole society.

“If we generated terror and were able to create the same fear that we had of the guerrillas, then that community wouldn’t ‘copy’ the guerillas. That’s why they used beheadings and cutting people into pieces; it was a tactic directed by ‘Double Zero’.” That appalling testimony about paramilitary terror is contained in the Truth Commission’s Final Report in a section dedicated to understanding that phenomenon, its reach, and its implications.

First of all, the Commission offers a finding which, even though it has been supported by other sources, like the reports of the National Center for Historical Memory, is still revealing and stunning: The paramilitaries were by far the actors that created the most victims in the context of the armed conflict. “They are principally responsible for 47% of the victims killed and disappeared in the armed conflict in Colombia, constituting the most violent of the armed actors,” reads the Report, which confirms the idea that there was a systematic policy of terror, principally exercised against the civilian population in the areas of guerrilla influence, or against those movements, political leaders, or social sectors that were perceived as sympathetic or close to the insurgency.

In that sense, the Commission makes a conceptualization that overcomes the simplistic model that views the paramilitaries as just one more group that took part in the hostilities. It characterizes what it considers them to be, as a phenomenon that disrupted Colombian society: “the paramilitaries were not just an armed actor—understood as private armies with strategies of terror against the civilian population—but rather a network of interests and alliances that were also associated with economic, social, and political projects that managed to impose armed territorial controls by using terror and violence, and also were able to use mechanisms of legitimation and establishment of rules and regulations.”

For that very reason, the Commission states that part of what is left to dismantle are precisely the extensive lattice-work of those alliances,” referring to the long persistence of paramilitaries that are still occupying territories and generating violence in the country. “Another factor in the continuity of the paramilitaries has been the tendency to institutionalize groups that offer private security, in the service of sectors of the political and economic elite, both regional and local,” adds the Commission.

The paramilitary groups made the jump toward ending up completely coopted by the drug trafficking money at the end of the ‘70’s, when there was the first alliance between the narcos of the Medellín Cartel and the Self-Defense Forces of Magdalena Medio.

In a historic account, the Commission looks back at the line of continuity between the armed groups and the right that operated during the bipartisan violence of the decade of the ‘50’s; one of the first was known as “Los Pajaros” (“The Birds”).[1] From that they became the self-defense force groups that were legally created by the Colombian Army with the support of several decrees and statutes during the ‘70’s, with the backing of the “Plan Lazo” (“Plan to Bond”) with the United States for Latin America:[2] “The civilian self-defense forces were promoted and declared to be legal for 27 years, until 1989, when the administration of Virgilio Barco suspended the legality of the paramilitaries, and measures were planned to combat them,” states the Final Report.

The paramilitaries were mounted in a counter-insurgency initiative that “stipulated the creation of civilian self-defense force units that counted on the participation of active military, ex-military, police, and local powers, with the blessing of the Civic-Military Committee.[3] Groups were made up of civilian authorities and influential members of the population,” according to the Final Report. The Commission maintains that there was a “strong international interference coming from the counter-insurgency doctrine” in the context of the cold war.

From there, the paramilitary groups made the jump to ending up completely coopted by the drug trafficking money at the end of the ‘70’s, when there was the first alliance between the narcos of the Medellín Cartel and the Self-Defense Forces of Magdalena Medio. The story of the groups connected to the mafia, which at the same time were operating under the paramilitary system, is a long one: the Death to Kidnappers (MAS in Spanish), the Masetos,[4] the “Pepes”, “Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar”, (Pablo Escobar is After Us), the Tangueros, those last being related to the Castaño family that later founded the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (Accu).

But it’s the Self-Defense Forces of Magdalena Medio that deserve special attention, as they founded the paramilitary model that was later exported to Córdoba and Urabá, the eastern plains, and later still to the rest of the country. They were a “novel strategy”, according to the Commission, because there was an implied relationship with local elites. “The regional politicians were interested in eliminating the actors that threatened to deprive them of the power they possessed.” The narcos bought weapons and paid foreign mercenaries that enabled the first groups to enter the territory, and they later replicated the model in other regions. This interdependence meant the entrance of the drug traffic into the armed conflict, by way of the counter-insurgency policy,” according to the Commission.

Testimony by a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Justice that was collected in the Final Report explains very well how that dynamic operated: “The drug trafficking sector, that of ‘The Pepes’, triumphed when they killed Pablo Escobar in December of ’93, and almost immediately that sector that was allied with the government in the war on the common enemy, that very sector is the one that later on financed the congressional and presidential campaigns in March of 1994. That means, three or four months later, those partners are the ones that are financing political campaigns for the following year (. . .) The weapons of the Pepes were the gifts given by the Castaños in Urabá. The relationships established between that group of criminals with officials of the government are probably those that also serve in the future to continue those relationships, this working together, but now it’s not focused on the drug trafficking branch, but rather on the activities of the paramilitaries against the population.”

That explains the expansion of the paramilitaries during the ‘90’s, which also included alliances with economic actors and political parties to assure their territorial control, which is paradoxical, as “while the country was celebrating the triumph of the Constitutional Convention of 1991, the paramilitary groups were reconfiguring in processes of fusion, growth, and strengthening their alliances in their regions.”

With the unification at the end of the ‘90’s, led by the brothers Carlos and Vicente Castaño, along with Salvatore Mancuso and other bosses, into one single confederation of self-defense forces known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitaries achieved national status and even sought a political recognition that would allow them to negotiate with the government. Even though none of the paramilitaries admitted to being drug traffickers, according to the Commission, drug trafficking was the real “engine” of the paramilitary phenomenon. Without the mafia money, “they could not have reached the dimensions that they had.”

Their domination extended to entire regions, where the paramilitaries completely permeated the whole society, as can be learned from the testimony of a business owner who gave the Commission an interview: “Valencia, Tierra Alta, Canalete, and San Pedro. There, close to Montería, above Montería, that’s a paramilitary free trade zone. The government tolerated it; I’m not saying that any administration turned it over to them, but they did tolerate it, not just the administration of Andrés Pastrana, but also that of Samper. It’s that, I think, that was a remuneration for the services they got from The Pepes (. . .) You know a lot of things that are just understood, there doesn’t need to be a signed agreement or a pact or anything, just, ‘You won’t act tough and I won’t act tough; I’ll take care of this and you work on the other side,’ that kind of permissive behavior”.

Terror as a strategy

“The process of collective demobilization put forward between 2003 and 2006 between the national government and the AUC achieved a de-escalation of the paramilitary violence and also disarmed an important portion of their territorial control, including some social legitimization for the organization and its leaders. However, it was characterized by a lack of transparency and citizen participation by the victims,” stated the Final Report. The Report pointed out that even though it’s true that the levels of violence were reduced after those negotiations carried out by the administration of Álvaro Uribe, the paramilitary phenomenon was never over: “The paramilitaries are an unstable and changing dynamic which, in the last five decades, has adapted and reconfigured on multiple occasions where the phenomenon has re-emerged after it was thought to be neutralized.”

The Report adds that “the terms agreed upon in the Ralito Agreement were never really known in any formal manner beyond the 3-page document that was made public.” That generated a process that lacked transparency and did not accomplish the provision of truth, justice, and reparation for the victims.

Using the testimonies that the paramilitaries themselves furnished in the Justice and Peace hearings, where they cataloged the dismemberments, tortures, and massacres, the Truth Commission was emphatic in pointing out that the strategy of the self-defense groups was to implant terror and punish the communities where the guerrillas had been operating, so as to “take the water away from the fish”, and generate massive displacements that, on many occasions, also helped to consolidate the plunder of land. “All of those displacements were marked by massacres against communities and by the systematic use of horror,” states the Final Report.

In conclusion, the Commission is forceful in its analysis of the paramilitary phenomenon and its persistence: “Without a recognition of these events and the undertaking of institutional, economic, and political mechanisms to dismantle the groups, the paramilitaries will continue to be a fundamental factor in the violence that is constant at the present time.”

[1] “Los Pajaros” y La Violencia en Colombia, un Análisis Desde la Historia de la Literatura”, by Mateo Rodríguez Machado,  Department of Social and Humanitarian Sciences, University of Antioquia, Medellín, 2018.

[2] “Plan Lazo”, Evaluation and Execution, by Charles H. Briscoe, Ph.D., Office of the Command Historian.

[3] Decree 1381 of 1983 created the National Civic-Military Action Committee

[4] Los Masetos were a paramilitary group financed by drug traffickers. They borrowed the title MAS.

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