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 companies like beverage firm Postobon and cement giant Argos.

Para-economics in labor

It is time to clean up the country. Death to all unionists, fucking guerrillas who don’t want to remain still.

Aguilas Negras death threat

(Image: Analisis Urbano)

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 drop was partly due to the assassination of thousands of unionists in those two decades.

The first paramilitary groups to carry out these murders were formed with the help of the military in the 1980s by Colombia’s private sector, multinationals and drug traffickers to protect their property and personal safety from leftist guerrilla groups.

The Middle Magdalena river town of Puerto Boyaca became the epicenter of paramilitarism in Colombia, when, in 1982, the town’s mayor, the Texas Petroleum Company [, now known as Texaco], cattle ranchers, drug traffickers, foreign mercenaries, and members of the armed forces financed and supported the creation of a paramilitary group to join the military’s fight against guerrillas.

Blood and fire – Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor

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.

In three months there were so many kidnappings that 600 million were asked in ransom, so the owner of a farm would say: “If I have to pay 20 million per kidnapping, then I pay one million to defend myself and save 19 million”; and if one hundred gentlemen make this decision, they will have 100 million to defend themselves.

Father Fredy Galindo

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%.

Rural para-economics

Sell me your land or I’ll buy it off your widow.

Colombian proverb

(Image: PAX)

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 during the army conflict, according to the government. At least 3 million of these hectares were subsequently dispossessed.

Most of this land was dispossessed after 1997 when the “paramilitary project” of the AUC, in collusion with the military and the private sector, took off in the Antioquia province and soon spread across Colombia.

Registered land dispossession in Colombia

Source: National Victims Unit

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.

Displacement because of death threats, rather than armed conflict, is the main cause of the nearly 8.5 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 Uraba 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.”

Other paramilitary commanders have confirmed their ties to businesses.

I gave the prosecution lists with 270 banana growers, 400 cattle ranchers and possibly thousands of business owners. The prosecution does not have the capacity to investigate what happened in Uraba, but there is no political will either. They would wipe out one fifth of the national economy.

Former paramilitary chief and banana plantation owner Raul Hasbun

Sometimes the 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 that call themselves the Anti-Restitution Army or the Aguilas Negras that have threatened and killed dozens of victims claiming the return of their stolen land.

An end to para-economics

Colombia’s prosecution did not really take action until after a peace deal was made with the FARC in 2016. As part of this peace deal, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos agreed to dismantle the paramilitary structures made up of businessmen and illegal armed groups.

A special investigate unit announced in 2019, almost 40 years after the birth of para-economics, that it sought criminal charges against 2,311 civilian suspects, mainly businessmen linked to “different economic activities, particularly from the cattle, agriculture and hydrocarbon sectors.”

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