Colombia security is severely under threat at the hands of illegal paramilitary groups, according to a report published last week by conflict monitoring NGO Indepaz.
The report revealed that in the first quarter of 2016, there were 14 paramilitary groups in operation in 146 of 1,100 municipalities in 22 of 32 provinces in Colombia.
The Indepaz report confirms an Inspector General report released last week, which also claimed that paramilitary groups are alive and well, in spite the government denying their existence.
These groups are said to be involved in a variety of activities that are destabilizing the security situation in the South American country.
These illegal activities include drug-trafficking, smuggling, illegal mining, extortion, targeted assassinations and corruption involving public representatives.
“It is worrying that despite being so close to a peace process with the FARC, the presence of these paramilitary structures have invaded Colombian territory with effective threats perpetrated against human rights defenders, land claimants and communities in general,” said the coordinator of the Research Unit of Indepaz, Leonardo Gonzalez.
The scale of paramilitary activity revealed in this report is completely contrary to the view of the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, who has insisted paramilitary groups have ceased to exist with the demobilization of paramilitary umbrella organization AUC between 2003 and 2006.
The country’s largest neo-paramilitary group, “Los Urabeños,” or the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AGC) whom are led by dissident members of the AUC featured heavily in the Indepaz report.
In the first few months of the year they dramatically stepped up their offensives, challenging the authority of the state with a recent armed strike that brought parts of Northern Colombia to a virtual standstill.
The report highlights that the group referred to by the government as “Clan Usaga” occupy the same territory as the defunct AUC and operate in a similar fashion to the organization that was supposedly demobilized during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).
“Today the paramilitaries remain functional to the interests of private capital, usurp democracy with their agents in public institutions supported by so-called “parapoliticians” and sometimes the Armed Forces and Police,” says Gonzalez.
The Indepaz report outlined that these neo-paramilitary groups have managed to establish similar alliances with public officials to what was seen in the “parapolitics” scandal during which up to 10,000 public officials were implicated for colluding with paramilitaries
This alliance is reported to be deeply rooted so that these paramilitary groups can have their economic and political interests protected with the support of state officials, the same pattern as before.
For example the report specifies that there is practically no difference between the demobilized Central Bolivar Bloc (BCB) of the AUC and the Urabeños.
“It is evident that the only difference is that the BCB had many more members, but the essence is the same, since there is no clear distinction between [AUC commanders] ‘Don Berna‘ or ‘Macaco’ with Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias ‘Otoniel‘.” reads the report.
“Both the one and the other’s primary objective is drug trafficking, both were born from the mafia and to master their territories, they formed armies, allied themselves with business and landowners, benefited from local businesses (either by extortion or collaboration), profited from the state and its contracts with municipalities, governor offices, universities and the health sector, among others, ” states the report of the Analysis Unit.
As the Colombian government engages in the final stages of talks with the country’s largest left-wing rebel group the FARC, the existence of these groups is the governments inability to deal with them is has the potential to sabotage the deal.
According to both the Colombian and US governments, paramilitary groups ceased to exist in 2006 when the last unit of paramilitary organization AUC formally mobilized.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas recently said, “it is irresponsible to qualify these groups as paramilitary.”
This view by the government has sparked fury among representatives of the FARC who fear political extermination should they agree on the final issue on the peace talks agenda, demobilization.
Rebel leader Ivan Marquez took recently slammed the attitude of Villegas and the Santos administration regarding the existence of paramilitary groups.
“If paramilitarism is a ghost, why are we beginning to see it expanding throughout Colombia: the fact is he does not see it,” he said.
“Paramilitarism is not an excuse to delay anything; It is a lethal threat to peace and democracy,“ he added.
This view of the dangers of paramilitaries for Colombia was shared by guerrilla Pator Alape who recently stated that the problem is “very deep”, because of the “alliances” of these structures with political and economic sectors as well as the security forces of the State, whose vision for national defense was based for a long time “anticommunism and counterinsurgency.”
These ongoing ties between the state and neo-paramilitaries have become evident on numerous occasions.
The Indepaz report also highlights the significant threat that these 14 paramilitary groups pose to the implementation of a peace deal stating that the threat is also to “communities and populations where they are to launch implementation plans in the transition to peace,” a concern shared by the United Nations.
In order to allay the fears of the FARC and secure an environment where peace can prosper Gonzalez states that “the state owes the country a frontal fight against the main threat of Colombian society as are the paramilitary groups. The dismantling of paramilitarism militarily, economically and politically is a requirement for peace.”
Indepaz, at the same time stated that a negotiation may be a suitable means of dismantling paramilitary structures.
“We believe we should negotiate with them without giving them the political character, being organized structure of macro-criminality. What is negotiable is offering benefits dismantling criminal structures, ie, negotiate mechanisms submission to justice, “said Indepaz.
The Santos government has made significant efforts to date to end a more than 50 year conflict with left-wing rebels the FARC.
In May they will enter into formal talks with the country’s second left-wing group the ELN.
The Indepaz report clearly illustrates the growing influence of right-wing paramilitary groups and the dangers that they pose to securing a long-term peace deal.
Should Santos fail to solve the problem of the paramilitaries and curb their influence, it is likely to present a major stumbling block for both peace negotiations particularly in relation to demobilization.