VerdadAbierta, May 14, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Faced with the expansion of the FARC guerrillas at the end of the ‘80’s, César Gaviria announced in his inaugural address on August 7, 1990, that he would turn to every possible strategy to conquer the insurgent group, relying on two fundamental pillars: the Armed Forces and the citizens of the country.
The idea of citizen cooperation in areas of security and counter-insurgency control came from United States Operations Manuals produced at the beginning of the ‘70’s, including the ones highlighted in the Army Field Manual for the Advancement of Operations Against Irregular Forces, dated May of 1961 and catalogued as FM-31-15.
In Chapter 3, Paragraph 31, under the title ”Civilian forces and local private individuals”, it was recommended that “in order to minimize the necessity for military units, try to get the maximum assistance, and go to civilian police, paramilitary units, and local individuals who sympathize with the friendly cause. The use and control of those forces is based on local and national political agreements and on a selection adequate to satisfy security requirements.”
That United States Field Manual was translated and was adopted by the Colombian Armed Forces after September of 1962. Its conception was adopted in Counterguerrilla Combat Regulation EJC 3-10, as approved by Regulation 05, dated April 9, 1969.
In Section D, Titled, “Operations for the Organization of the Civilian Population”, it was stipulated that that kind of operation “should be carried out through a series of activities conducive to organizing the civilian population in a combat zone, so that they can defend themselves against the actions the guerrillas are carrying out against them, or to reduce the effects of the actions of common criminals, of natural disasters, or of the war.”
To achieve this objective, it recommended “organizing the civilian population in a military manner, so that they can protect themselves from the actions of the guerrillas and support themselves by the execution of combat operations”, and it proposed two methods of organization: jointly with the Self-Defense Forces, and as civil defense.
Regulation EJC 3-10 defines “jointly with the Self-Defense Forces” as “a military-type organization that is made up of civilian personnel selected from the combat zone, which is trained and equipped to develop actions against the guerrillas who threaten the area or to operate in coordination with troops in combat activities.”
With regard to civilian defense, it was conceived as “organizing the civilian population with the goal of protecting them against the activities of common criminals, and the effects of public calamities such as emergency situations, wars, catastrophes, natural disasters, and the like.”
For more than two decades, the manuals insisted on putting together tight relationships with Self-Defense Forces in different regions of the country. An example of that is the Manual for Combatting Bandoleros or Guerrilla fighters, approved by Regulation 00014, dated June 25, 1982, which states that, “one of the permanent objectives of the Armed Forces” is “organizing them, instructing them, and supporting them” where “the population is loyal and is shown to be aggressive and committed against the enemy”.
In 1987, when the Counter-guerrilla Combat Regulation EJC 3-10 was approved, it reiterated in different parts the involvement of the civilian population in counter-insurgency functions, and that it be organized “in a military manner (. . .) so that they could be protected from the actions of the guerrillas and support the execution of combat operations”. Nevertheless, compared to the previous Manuals, in this case they eliminated the concept of joining with the Self-Defense Forces and they established that the method of organization was civil defense, and maintenance of the definition and reach as suggested in 1969.
The path to the Convivir
The spirit of those Manuals was expressed in Order 200-05-91, issued in 1991 by the Defense Ministry. The document followed the recommendations made by a committee of consultants from the United States Armed Forces, and authorized the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force of Colombia to establish intelligence networks that would take orders from high officials and provide information that would help in the preparation of counter-insurgency operations and would identify the organization of the “enemy”.
To provide legal support for those recommendations, the Colombian government adopted Statute 61, dated August 12, 1993, which provided extraordinary authority “to issue regulations on weapons, munitions, and explosives, and to regulate vigilance and private security”.
Next, under the authority of that regulation, Decree 356 was issued on February 11, 1994, under which was promulgated the Statute for Vigilance and Private Security that, among other things, authorized the security services, assigned them some responsibilities, gave them several authorizations, including authorization to carry weapons for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces, and empowered Governors to bestow the status of legal entity to all of the associations that had been created under these regulations.
That Decree defined the Special Services for Vigilance and Private Security as those that “expressly, specifically, and temporarily could be authorized by the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security as legal entities under public or private law, with the exclusive object of providing its own security for the development of activities in areas of high risk or public interest that required a high level of security capacity.”
The regulation also specified that a service of Vigilance and Private Security is considered to be “special” “when it must employ firearms, the use of which is restricted, and must act with techniques and procedures that are different from those established for other services of vigilance and private security that are required to get the approval of the Weapons Committee in the Ministry of Defense.
In the same manner, it defined Community Services of Vigilance and Private Security as those organized by communities “cooperatively, by community action, or by a community company, with the object of providing vigilance and private security to those who cooperate or are members in the area where the community is situated.” In addition to that, it specified that “these can only operate by fixed vigilance and/or mobile vigilance, with or without weapons, and limited to the area where such operation is authorized for the service.”
When Ernesto Samper became President of Colombia (1994-1998) those special services became more relevant after the regulations under Decree 356 of 1994. Those were introduced by the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security (SVSP) through Resolution 368, dated April 27, 1995. This regulation established that such special services had to “be constituted with the primary purpose of contributing to the security and tranquility of the citizens” and “correspond to real and specific community necessities”.
Beginning with the issuance of this Resolution, the Special Services for Vigilance and Private Security authorized by SVSP adopted the name “Convivir” and it was decided that their licenses to act would be in effect for two years.
One of the methodological confusions that arose from the review of the statistics on the Convivir was that SVSP also included in its definition of Special Services for Vigilance and Private Security those whose exclusive objective was to provide security for a legal entity under public or private law, and also the Community Service for Vigilance and Private Security, which had the goal of providing vigilance and private security to members of a community or to an entire community.
Special Services and Community Services
Once the data were made available, it was established that, since April 27, 1995 and until November 7, 1997, 398 applications for Special Services for Vigilance and Private Security were authorized in 24 departments of the country. Divided by years, the figures show that 54 were established in 1995; 265 in 1996; and 79 in 1997.
One of the particularities observed in the two department with the highest numbers of Convivir authorized—Santander and Cundinamarca—is the quantity of community action boards, both urban and rural, that requested accreditation as Special Services for Vigilance. Of the 103 registered in Santander, 92 were issued to an equal number of community action boards; with respect to Cundinamarca, of the 83 registered, 61 were given to those local organizations, showing the confusion generated by SVSP in issuing those licenses for operation.
Another aspect to highlight is that nearly a third of the Special Services authorized were registered to the Chamber of Commerce in the cities where they operated. Of the data for the 398 Convivir that were reviewed, at least 120 had a mercantile number, permitting them to see key information about who made up the membership of the boards of directors, the amount of capital they had started out with, and the changes that were made during the years their company registration was in effect. None of them had any relation to the community action boards.
It’s also worth noticing the model of notarial instrument employed in different regions of the country to constitute the Special Services for Vigilance and Private Security as notarially recorded entities. It should be pointed out that not all of the 398 Convivir that were analyzed in this investigation used that protocol; many of them were created with private documents, which were approved by the departmental Governors and by the SVPS.
A review of the notarial instruments for at least 25 Convivir in the period analyzed (1995-1997) shows the same corporate purpose, composed of six activities that go far beyond the provision of local security services: (1) furtherance of social action on education, health, recreation, employment, and security through promotion and community participation; (2) elaborating diagnosis and characterization of systems of production; (3) Formulation of communication projects for technical assistance; (4) Formulation of action proposals for the conservation of microbasins, and reforestation; (5) Training in the use and administration of implements and equipment for agricultural and mining mechanization.
The capital reported at the time of constitution and registration in the notarial instruments is particularly low if you consider the actions included in the stated corporate purpose. The amounts vary from 200 thousand pesos (roughly USD $100 at the approximate exchange rate in the late ‘90’s) and 8 million pesos (roughly USD $4,000 at that same rate), with 500,000 pesos (roughly USD $250 at that same rate) being the value registered most often.
The information contained in these notarial instruments contrasts with that registered with the Chambers of Commerce in the registration applications docketed with the Chambers. In several of them, the mercantile activity does not correspond to the stated corporate purpose, nor to security work. One example of those inconsistencies is reflected in the documents of the Convivir Association El Batán in the Municipality of Quipama, in Boyacá Department, inscribed in the Tunja Chamber of Commerce. Its creators used the notarial instrument described here, but at the time of its application, it specified that its activities were “training centers”.
Another example of that inconsistency between the documents and the work of security is reflected in the registered Convivir Association Calcetero in Otanche, Boyacá Department, inscribed in the Tunja Chamber of Commerce. It also used the notarial instrument model described here, but in its application to the Chamber, it specified that its mercantile activities were focused on agricultural work, fishing, raising animals, and mining.
One of the Convivir Associations that is worth noting is called Acetatos, in Medellín, Antioquia in its notarial instrument and registers. It was constituted under the model of a notarial instrument, but in the mercantile registrations in the files of the Medellín Chamber of Commerce for Antioquia, the commercial activity it registered was “supervising quality control in construction.”
With respect to the Community Services for Vigilance and Private Security, the data furnished by the SVSP are not precise. In an initial analysis of information contained in SVSP’s database, it’s established that between April 27, 1995, and November 7, 1997, 63 Community Services were identified. To obtain more information, we used a Constitutional right of petition to obtain the name of the entity’s legal representative at the time of its authorization, the department in which it operated, and the date of issuance of its license to function.
What was unusual in the response is that of the 63 Convivir identified in our inquiry, the SVSP responded that it had registered only 23 Community Services for Private Security, a figure that they located “after carrying out an exhaustive review of information systems and consultation with the office of the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security by the Document Management Group and the Legal Adviser’s Office.”
Review of decisions issued by the courtrooms of the Peace and Justice Superior Tribunals in Bogotá and Medellín reveal different ways of articulating the Convivir Associations with the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (Accu). That articulation contributed to Accu’s expansion and consolidation while the Convivir were in effect.
The context elaborated in several decisions against former members of the Tolima Bloc permits the conclusion that Convivir Associations were used to cover up groups of campesino Self-Defense Forces that already existed, and to provide them with a mantle of legality. That’s what happened with several groups that were operating in southern Tolima Department. They had been formed at the beginning of the decade of the ‘90’s starting with family clans formed to confront the FARC guerrillas, especially in Caleño, Bermudez, Aguirre, Cercera, and Cárdenas.
“(. . .) There were families that took up arms but they didn’t recruit troops with the promise of salaries, or with the ideology of a rebirth for the country, but rather it was the owners of the ranches that incentivized the campesinos to take part in the war against the insurgents, using a mixture of friendship and companionship with material benefits such as food and shelter.”
But this antiguerrilla work was not supported by any law, and so it was important to legalize it with Decree 356 of February 11, 1994. Taking advantage of that regulation, they assembled four associations for vigilance and private security, three of them in the towns (veredas) of La Laguna, Alto Bonito, and San Isidro, in the municipality of Río Blanco, and one more in the town of Meseta, in the Municipality of Ibagué.
According to the Peace and Justice Branch in Bogotá, “this varnish of legality (with which they provisionally overcame the secrecy that characterized them during the first years of the ‘90’s), permitted them to deepen their connections with the Armed Forces, especially with the Rooke and Calcedo Battalions.
This drapery of legality permitted them to operate more openly and publicly, and with fewer limitations on the part of the Armed Forces. In addition, they were able to acquire weapons and establish communication networks, thus making possible a better strategy for defense in the regions where they were present. They also adopted systems of control and regulation of the daily lives of the campesinos, installing checkpoints on the roads, searching people, demanding identity documents to compare with supposed lists, and evicting people from their property arbitrarily.
“In spite of the fact that the Convivir were legal, their members dedicated themselves to terrorizing the citizens, who in many cases found it necessary to displace to other sectors; they also carried weapons, munitions, clothing intended for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces, they killed people, extorted and seized real and personal property and did every kind of outrage to produce terror in the rural population,” reads one of the decisions of the Peace and Justice Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá.
In the southern part of Cesar Department and the Province of Ocaña in Norte de Santander Department, you can also see previous Self-Defense Force counter-insurgency groups being transformed into Convivir. About that, it’s worth noting that the analysis done by the Justice and Peace Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá, citing reports by the judicial police, asserts that “those that joined together as founders, legal representatives, or managers of the Convivir were well-known paramilitaries that had been committing crimes in the same region where they were authorized to carry out the corporate purpose of their associations.”
In both regions, it was the function of the Convivir, besides assembling existing groups of Self-Defense Forces that had been in operation for some time, allowing them to have, under this mantle of legality, more relationships with the military authorities and the Police, and as well to deploy powerful social control and obtain resources by charging arbitrary contributions.
“(. . .) they demanded that cattle ranchers furnish funds to the Organization, a practice that later became more forcible, and they forced the owners of rural real estate that they were working with to pay a quota for security, especially when the Convivir Cooperatives were in effect. The collection of this quota was annual or biannual and was fixed in kind or money, depending on the size of the property, the economic activity being carried out, and the profitability,” as was reported in a court decision by the Peace and Justice Tribunals.
Another place where there was articulation between the Accu (Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Urabá) and the Convivir was in the southwest region of Antioquia. We see that in a decision by the Investigation Branch of Justice and Peace in the Superior Tribunal of Medellín: “(. . .) Added to the other factors generating the violence that existed in the subregion was the activity of those Cooperatives that, as this Branch has warned in previous decisions, were marking a decisive moment not only in terms of vigilance and social control, but also in the militarization of the society in the functioning of the counter-insurgency battle for security and domination.”
In that coffee-producing region in Antioquia, the Convivir Associations were able to count on the support of political and economic sectors in the municipalities where they had been set up, and according to the decision cited above, “they had turned into the legal right hand of the paramilitaries.”
Citing reports by the Attorney General of Colombia, the transitional justice tribunal asserted that when the southwestern Bloc came into the area, they started operating jointly with some members of the private vigilance cooperatives, using a kind of division of labor where “the members of the Convivir did the work of intelligence in the urban area—surveillance, looking for vice houses, “ollas”, locating militants or subversives, and turning the data over to the paramilitary commander.
Another characteristic of those Convivir Associations in the southwestern part of Antioquia was that there was a kind of a joint agreement between the Accu and the local and regional political class to strengthen the government’s counter-insurgency strategy. In that department, they could count on a strong stimulus from the Governor’s Office under the administration of Álvaro Uribe (from 1995 – 1997).
In the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta, especially in the territories that go from the City of Santa Marta to the border with the Department of La Guajira, following the highway known as the Coastal Trunk, the concept of the Convivir was also used to legalize a group of campesino counter-insurgency Self-Defense Forces known as “Los Chamizos” led by Hernán Giraldo.
That Convivir was set up in 1995 in the capital, Samaria, and it played four fundamental roles. It offered security services to different productive sectors of the city; it was set up as a kind of “collection office”, serving merchants who went there, using threats to collect “hard to collect” debts; it was connected to drug trafficking activities, especially in tasks of controlling drug processing laboratories and embarkation areas in rural Guachaca, Don Diego, Calabazo, Buritaca, and Palomino; and they served as a real estate agency, as according to testimony in the files of the Peace and Justice Unit, they were used to buy those properties that merchants felt obligated to sell because of pressure from “Los Chamizos”, the armed organization in the Tayrona Bloc.
Convivir also surged throughout the southeastern parts of the country. One of them was organized in the Municipality of Yopal in Casanare Department. The order to create it came from the bosses of campesino counter-insurgency Self-Defense Forces in the Centaurs Bloc. Its functions were tied to that paramilitary organization, including articulating everything related to the transportation of food products, provisions, vehicles, and communications. They also furnished information about guerrilla groups and common crime.
Stories told by former paramilitaries indicate that in this region in the southeastern part of the country, these vigilance associations were used to recruit “kids, people, adults, everybody (. . .) they used them to do things, not the supposedly legal things, but the way they were before, to recruit and do illegal things with the armed groups, the Martín Llános Self-Defense Forces.”
Another one of their jobs was focused on articulation with government intelligence agencies. The stories told by the former paramilitaries to the Justice and Peace Tribunals state that they used the Convivir to interlace with the National Anti-extortion and Kidnapping Unit. In addition, they furnished security to the cattle ranchers and their ranches in the region.
The Convivir model was strong in Córdoba Department, where they created 18 Associations for special services in vigilance and private security. A decision by the Justice and Peace Branch in Medellín took note of the regional press which highlighted the appreciation by the local authorities and cattle ranchers who not only considered that their use was a good security strategy, but also, by extension, they were appreciating the work of the Accu.
The decision stresses a publication in the newspaper El Heraldo, “The Cattle Ranchers Federation of Córdoba (Ganacor) itself also defended the work that Carlos Castaño’s Self-Defense Forces had carried out, and showed itself to be frankly opposed to the national government’s persecution against their leader. The newspaper thought that, without him, the future of the countryside was at risk, and it even stated that the government’s persecution of Castaño was lending a hand to the guerrillas.”
For its part, the El Meridiano newspaper in Córdoba also expressed favor and appreciation for the Convivir. “This new key between the Army, the Police, and the community has for eight months since they started to function in the department, permitted more tranquility and better understanding between the people that make up the organization and the authorities.”
Among the tasks of these associations was supporting Army and Police intelligence, but they also shared information with the Accu. That was verified by a former paramilitary. “The Convivir always were managed in parallel fashion, but they always focused on organization. The information they supplied was always passed to different parties, not just to the Army, or to us; they sometimes walked along with us, we sometimes camouflaged ourselves as Convivir and we could pass through any checkpoint, or in front of the people; if we didn’t want to look like Self-Defense Forces, we passed ourselves off as Convivir.”
Using their apparent legality, they knit together a network tied to the Accu, which contributed to their expansion. On that point, the court decision was specific, stating that “the expansion of the Convivir coincided with the same expansion of the paramilitaries. From then on, the paramilitaries were part of those Cooperatives, before or while they were part of the ranks of the paramilitaries.”
What the analysis by the courts shows about the Convivir, based on various testimonies by some of the former members, is that they mutated progressively toward fusion with the paramilitary organizations allied with the Accu, an alliance that permitted their consolidation and expansion.
For the Justice and Peace Branch in Medellín, “this phenomenon represents another emblematic and lamentable case in Córdoba Department. This means that in the decade of the ‘90’s the counter-insurgency battle made use of different mechanisms to achieve its objectives, and one of those mechanisms was the creation of the Convivir Associations.
Although Antioquia doesn’t head the list of Convivir that were put in place, it’s true that it was in that department where the promotion of those special and community services was the most active during the term of then-Governor Álvaro Uribe Vélez (1995-1997).
Under his directives, Antioquia’s Secretary of Government, Pedro Juan Moreno, promoted their creation by trade associations and communities. Uribe and Moreno, as well as Presidents Julio César Turbay (1978-1982), Belisario Betancur (1982-1986), Virgilio Barco (1986-1990), and César Gaviria (1990-1994) were enthusiastic about involving the citizens in their own protection.
On February 21, 1995, Moreno was summoned by the Departmental Assembly to explain his work plan as Secretary of Government. In his presentation, he suggested several of his ideas about the Convivir and about carrying weapons. “I think that disarming the decent people is no solution, I think that this could be done where there is a powerful government with the capacity to respond; we are not talking about honor, nor about property, because that honor can be lost, but the people are very forgetful, so that honor comes and goes, but your life. . . and I think that our government does not have the capacity to respond and to guarantee life for anybody, so if it doesn’t have the capacity, I think we ought to let the community defend itself.”
Six months later, in a debate in the Colombian Congress on the same subject, Governor Uribe insisted on defending the Convivir for the purpose of confronting the guerrillas. “We aren’t organized hooligans here that look like actors in a violent conflict which has roots of a political nature. Here we are allowing decent people to organize, not in an offensive manner, but defensively, to collaborate with the rescue of its own security.”
The promotion of those associations was compulsory in that Governor’s administration. A former judicial official who, because of his position, was required to participate in weekly meetings called by Governor Uribe, remembered, “At every meeting, the subject of creating one more Convivir came up. If a Mayor reported, for example, that armed men were passing through a mountainous part of his municipality, the response was, ‘Mayor, get together with Pedro Juan right away and organize a Convivir in your municipality.’”
Uribe’s and Moreno’s controversial point of view did not match the perception of national and international organizations that were starting to point out, with some concern, that the Convivir were taking arbitrary actions against the communities.
One of the first multilateral agencies to make a statement was the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In their report on what had gone on in this country in 1996, they scrutinized the Convivir. “The Commission wishes to express its concern about the fact that the activities and the structure of the Convivir cannot easily be distinguished from those of the illegal paramilitary groups, which have been responsible for numerous violations of human rights. The Ombudsman of Colombia has already indicated that his office is opposed to the Convivir program, and government officials have begun to receive complaints about the vigilante activities of the Convivir.”
That same year, the United States Department of State, in its report on Colombia, expressed the concern of various of its agencies about the proliferation of those Associations for Vigilance and Private Security. “(. . .) by the end of the year, government officials had already received complaints to the effect that some of the groups were joining with and acting with groups acting as “private justice”. Even though the Governor of Antioquia expressed his conviction that the Convivir groups could be controlled, some mayors and local officials disagreed.”
Besides that information, there was a report by the United States government, dated April 16, 1997, classified “secret” at that time. In the document there is an assessment of various situations existing that year with governments that are of interest to the United States such as Russia, Ukraine, Greece, Iran, Burundi, Zaire, and Colombia.
The references to Colombia are centered on what was happening with the Convivir, expressing a rather critical view of the strategy of alleged citizen protection. In the first place, it states that “apparently” high government officials “were using the program of rural security and intelligence to help the drug traffickers and possibly the illegal paramilitaries. The report is clear and points directly at the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security at that time—Herman Arias.
In the opinion of those who prepared the report, that official, who is responsible for issuing the approval resolutions for the special services and community vigilance and private security, “he used his position as administrator of the Convivir to issue licenses for Convivir and private security and permits for carrying weapons the use of which is restricted to give them to people with well-known connections to the drug traffic.”
And the observations went further when they called attention to two members of his family. On one side, his father, the politician from Santander, José Manuel Arias Carrizos, about whom they said that “he was involved in the formation of paramilitary groups”, and on the other side, his brother, whom they accused of being “owner of a security company with probable connections to drug trafficking”.
Three more things were emphasized in the diplomatic report on Arias: that an investigation by the Defense Ministry had revealed “serious irregularities in the SVSP (Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security) during his term. Nevertheless. . .” even though not all of the Convivir were dedicated to illegal activities, “the revelations of irregularities had damaged the credibility of the Convivir and could confirm the fears that the illegal paramilitaries had co-opted the Convivir”’ and, finally, that although the Colombian government had promised strict control of the Convivir, its expression of will was not credible because “it had not acted with the same commitment to taking measures against the illegal paramilitaries and, thus, their resolution to clean up the legal Convivir is doubtful.”
Criticisms also came from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OACNUDH). In his report on the events of 1997, presented to the Commission on Human Rights on March 9, 1998, he sketched a view that was very critical of the Convivir, of some outrageous activities of their members, and of the inefficient control by the authorities. For example, he stressed reports about “violations of the right to life that were attributed to members of the associations known as ‘Convivir’ committed against common criminals, street people, drug addicts, and prostitutes.”
The UN High Commissioner’s Office revealed that the people that were observing the human rights situation in Colombia had found it “very difficult to distinguish the actions of the paramilitary groups from the actions of some Convivir Associations, because in numerous cases they were doing the same things, were seen together, complemented each other, and filled in for each other.” And just as the report referred to that kind of articulation, they also reported receiving trustworthy information that demonstrated “the participation in Convivir Associations of well-known paramilitaries, some of whom had outstanding arrest warrants.”
Finally, the OACNUDH asserted that these Associations functioned “without effective control or supervision by the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security itself, the agency responsible for their supervision and control. It had admitted that it did not have the capacity to carry out this task effectively, and in many places had operated with the exclusive and irregular approval of the Governors of the departments or the military commanders.”
With respect to the subject of weapons for the exclusive use by the Armed Forces, the military potential that the Convivir had reached was notable, and the most worrisome factor was that the members of those Associations could count on receiving the permits necessary to carry those weapons, which gave them a façade of legality which was at the service of the Accu.
A report by the Judicial Police, based on a review of the files of the so-called Phichilín Massacre that took place on December 4, 1996, in the District (corregimiento) of Morroa in Sucre Department. It condensed in a document the extent of weaponry that the Convivir had accumulated in the Departments of Córdoba and Sucre.
The Accu took every advantage of those Associations and had fortified them regionally. But, how? We began to understand those alliances in their real dimensions when several former paramilitary bosses appeared before the Peace and Justice Tribunals and detailed, not only their participation in the war, but also the characteristics of their networks of support, including the Convivir.
One of the first explanations of that, showing the extent of the articulation, came from former paramilitary boss, Fredy Rendón Herrera: “If we put the Convivir on the map of Colombia, the areas where the Self-Defense Forces were present would show, strangely and coincidentally, that they were in the same places.”
Salvatore Mancuso also mentioned that point. In his first free testimony before the prosecutors’ unit in the Peace and Justice process, he stated that the Decrees that created and strengthened the Convivir stimulated the paramilitaries to reorganize. In fact, he himself organized one, the so-called Horizon Association, Ltd. And he registered it with the notarial instrument N. 2650 on November 16, 1995. before a notary in Montería.
In his testimony, Mancuso asserted that once the agreements with the Castaño brothers were completed, they linked up with the counter-insurgency project with the objective of replicating and strengthening the Convivir and, in a parallel manner, with the new Self-Defense Force model of the Accu, and they made it clear that they were one and the same: “The information that the cooperative network and the Convivir obtained was operationalized with the Casa Castaño Self-Defense Forces, which already existed in different regions of the country.”
Former paramilitary boss Hebert Veloza, who commanded organizations that were part of the Accu in the Antioquia part of Urabá and Valle del Cauca, also appeared before the Justice and Peace Tribunals. Among hundreds of hours of hearings before the prosecutors and judges, he highlighted his understandings of the connection they had with the Convivir. In one of his most detailed presentations on the subject, he asserted that “the Convivir were created legally and we used them for our illegal purposes.” And he added that one of his jobs was to keep open the channels with the authorities.
The Colombian Army became part of this. According to the testimony furnished by Alberto Osorio Mejía, a defender of the Convivir and a Director of one of them in Urabá, the support they received from Army Officers and noncoms stationed in the 17th Brigade, based in the Municipality of Carepa, “there was no limit to the coordination of activities or distribution of areas and roles in patrols and activities. There were cases in which Army personnel even invited armed groups to form cooperatives. That was the case with the campesino cooperative constituted on November 26, 1996, in the Municipality of Turbo.
The comparison of information that rests in different data bases, complemented with legal documents, some of them coming from files amassed by the Justice and Peace Tribunals, reveals that members of the Accu, having different ranks and levels of importance, such as some of their financers, including some drug traffickers and emerald dealers, put together Convivir Associations in different parts of the country, thus permitting a stronger articulation with economic, political, and government sectors, for the purpose of giving them an appearance of legality which, to all intents and purposes, was a projection of the paramilitaries, promoted from the Antioquia part of Urabá.
The articulation was so strong that Mauricio García Fernández, alias “Doblecero” (“Double Zero”) one of the creators of the Accu, operated all over the country and transported weapons for the paramilitary organizations, wearing an ID that accredited him as a member of the “El Condor” Convivir Association, created in northeastern Antioquia.
A review centered on the legal representatives of the Convivir shows the articulation between legality and illegality which has led to so much criticism of those special and community services of private vigilance since the moment of their conception.
The hand of the Constitutional Court
The internal and external criticisms generated a profound public debate about the Convivir. The arguments fluctuated between the right to legitimate defense and citizen cooperation, concepts promoted since the ‘60’s by the Armed Forces and their counter-insurgency manuals and updated by civilian authorities; and those that warned of the negative impacts that this kind of organization could have on vulnerable communities that were arbitrarily accused of collaborating with insurgent groups, and those that emphasized the fact that those Associations were the legal face of the Accu’s expansion in the country.
The argument reached the Constitutional Court by way of a complaint filed by several citizens alleging the unconstitutionality of 16 articles in Decree 356 of February 11, 1994.
Wishing to hear qualified opinions on the issue, the High Court scheduled a public hearing, which took place on August 26, 1997. At the hearing, speakers for both sides appraised the Convivir and the actions of their members in different regions of the country. Different productive sectors also took part in the public debate.
Jorge Visbar Martelo, then-President of the Cattle Ranchers Federation (Fedegan) made one of the statements in favor of the Convivir. “The Convivir should not be made to disappear just to please the guerrillas. But if that were to happen, their spirit of legitimate defense and collaboration with the forces of order would not disappear, and this fundamental right would require our society to search for escapes that might result in methods outside the law.”
After rigorous study, the Court issued Decision C-572, dated December 7, 1997. The Decision found 15 of the challenged articles to be constitutional, and held unconstitutional the single paragraph in Article 39, which permitted the members of the Convivir to carry weapons that were for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces. After that decision, the national government required the Convivir to divulge the names of their members and to define the borders of their operations.
Such decisions led to the disappearance of some of them and finally to their dismantling in the middle of 1998. Many of the boards of directors and associates of those associations moved to clandestine activity, just as Visbal Martelo had warned, increasing the ranks of the paramilitaries.
After extensive review and analysis of the issue, the Justice and Peace Branch of the Superior Tribunals in Bogotá concluded, 16 years after the Constitutional Court’s decision, that although the Convivir “were promoting the national order legally, (. . .) they were extremely lax in their regulation, so much so that in their implementation they generated deviations that were clearly and openly of paramilitary character, and toward structures that the paramilitary ideology would later take advantage of in their project of expansion.” Therefore, the Court called this a “new era” of paramilitarism, from 1994 to 1998, “Self-Defense Forces and privatized security of paramilitary character, legalized in a context of a high level of regional support and accelerated growth.”
Editor’s Note: This article, edited with the permission of the author, is an extract from the text “Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá; their expansion, transformation, consolidation, and financing, 1994-1998”, which is part of the Truth Commission’s legacy of documents.