Para-economics is a phenomenon in Colombia in which businesses use death squads to either evade labor laws, increase their assets or maximize profits. The practice was particularly common in the 1990s and 2000s but continues to this day.
While most prevalent during the existence of the AUC between 1997 and 2006, it did not begin or end with Colombia’s largest paramilitary group in history.
The scandal has implicated numerous national and international companies over the years, including multinationals like Coca-Cola, Chiquita Brands and Drummond, and major Colombian corporations like beverage giant Postobon and cement company Cementos Argos.
Para-economics in labor
Prior to 1990, Colombia had some of the strongest unions in Latin America with an affiliation rate exceeding 15%. However, in 2010 the International Trade Union Confederation estimated only 4% of the Colombian workforce still belonged to a union.
This was partially accomplished because businesses hired far-right paramilitary death squads to intimidate workers and kill labor rights leaders.
The paramilitary groups that carried out the murders were in their majority formed in the 1980s by far-right members of Colombia’s private sector, drug trafficking groups and civil society to protect their property and safety from extreme-left guerrilla groups.
In those days, the guerrillas were kidnapping hundreds of people a year, extorting businesses by the thousands and generally threatening to collapse the Colombian economy.
But, the anti-communist self-defense forces soon took to the offensive and began attacking guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN. At the same time, the paramilitary groups began targeting anyone suspected of being a guerrilla sympathizer or collaborator.
This anti-leftist extremism proved convenient for businesses that saw an opportunity to keep wages low and maximize profits by using the death squads not just to kill guerrillas and their alleged sympathizers, but also labor rights activists.
Between 2000 and 2010, 63.12% of the global murders of trade unionists occurred in Colombia, leaving more than 2,800 labor rights defenders dead.
The Labor Action Plan, passed alongside the free-trade agreement Colombia signed with the US, was meant to help address the issue of violence and intimidation of labor activists.
Yet even today, assassinations continue on a regular basis, with over 100 labor activists killed since the plan was enacted.
In 2016, major unions reported in a complaint to the AFL-CIO that the rate of impunity for assassinations was at 87%, while the rate for those making threats against activists was 99.8%.
While the paramilitaries had been used by companies and large landowners to protect them from attacks by leftist guerrillas since the 1980s, it was not until the 1990’s that they became prominently involved in the mass displacement of small farmers.
Between 6.5 and 10 million hectares (38,610 square miles) of land – up to 15% of Colombia’s national territory – has been abandoned or illegally acquired through violence and fraud mainly by right-wing paramilitary groups, according to the government.
The paramilitary groups used the threat of violence to force smallholders off their land, often for the purpose of consolidating it in the hands of ranchers and corporations, mainly active in the mining, agriculture and cement sectors.
Some of the land was kept by the paramilitaries themselves or used to facilitate their drug trafficking activities.
These economic displacements, more so than the conflict with the guerrillas, are the main cause of the nearly 7 million displaced in Colombia.
AUC commander Hebert Veloza García, a.k.a. HH, revealed many of the links between Colombia’s rural elites and the paramilitaries when testifying before court after his demobilization in 2004 and his arrest the year later.
According to HH, many people were first displaced by the paramilitaries and then offered to sell their land for a faction of its actual value.
“Imagine” he told the court, “these displaced peasants in San Pedro de Urabá are hungry and along comes ‘Monoleche’ with his guards and says ‘sell your land, we’ll give you 50 thousand pesos ($17).’ After that, the peasant had to sell. They were always afraid of the guns of the paramilitaries.”
But sometimes the implicit threat of violence was not enough and paramilitaries forcibly displaced farmers, after which corrupt officials at land registry agency INCODER made sure the abandoned territory was put up for sale.
Numerous Colombian and multinational corporations then were able to buy the land legally.
Many of these companies have since claimed in court that they acted in good faith and were not aware of the mass displacement that facilitated their land acquisition.
Some of the large landowners who benefited from the mass displacement have since taken legal action to prevent returning the land to the original owners.
Others have again teamed up with death squads who call themselves the Anti-Restitution Army who have threatened and killed those claiming the return of their stolen land.