In an exclusive interview with leading Colombian news magazine Semana, the current leader of neo-paramilitary group ERPAC, Jose Elberto Lopez, alias “Caracho,” stated that he was looking for a way for his armed group to turn themselves in to Colombian justice, even under the current laws which would exclude them from any political or judicial benefits. He blamed the slain ERPAC founder “Cuchillo” for the large majority of the crimes of which the group is accused.
Also significant was his claim that this neo-paramilitary group, which is active in the eastern plains of Colombia, does not finance itself through drug trafficking, but only through a tax on traffickers and producers. The interview with Caracho is the first he has ever given, and the first time the country has seen his face in photos. It presents an opportunity to reflect on the trajectory of ERPAC and to analyze their possible demobilization.
The roots of ERPAC go back to even before the demobilization of the Heroes de Guaviare Bloc of the AUC, whose leader at the time was Cuchillo. In March of 2006 – a month before his demobilization ceremony – Cuchillo bought about 200 guns, which would be given to a group of combatants hidden in southern Meta. This group of combatants was hidden on a farm in the village of La Cooperativa, located in the western part of the municipality of Mapiripan. In the region, which has become synonymous with paramilitary violence in Colombia, La Cooperativa had already become somewhat of a paramilitary base of operations and refuge.
At the same time when the Heroes de Guaviare Bloc was about to demobilize, something very curious happened in La Cooperativa. Right before the demobilization ceremony, about 150 families fled the countryside in Mapiripan, afraid of possible violent retaliations by the FARC who would label them as paramilitary collaborators. This group of displaced families arrived to La Cooperativa, staying in the small “urban” area of the village, where they received mattresses and tents from “Pirata,” another paramilitary commander who was going to demobilize at the same time as Cuchillo.
Because of the fear of the displaced communities, the army went to the countryside in Mapiripan to control the zones that had been under control of Cuchillo but would be left empty by the demobilization. With the mobilization of state forces, some of the displaced people returned to their homes with the soldiers to protect them. The result was to leave La Cooperative with few to no soldiers, eliminating the chance that they would find out about the hidden combatants. Whether this episode was planned by the paramilitaries is unknown, but it definitely facilitated the creation of ERPAC.
Concentrating a large group of hidden combatants on a farm is one thing, but creating an illegal army as large as ERPAC is another. Cuchillo needed to increase the power of his armed group, which he did, unfortunately, quite intelligently.
In September of 2006, ERPAC – then known as the “Heroes de los Llanos” – carried out its first armed attack on a farm in Guamal, Meta, where they were apparently looking for former paramilitary boss, “H.H.,” who was supposedly working with “Don Mario” to gain territory in the plains. The message was clear. At the same time, demobilized members of other paramilitary blocks from the region began to join ERPAC, thus increasing its numbers. With these new combatants Cuchillo was able to start an all-out war with another armed group in the region, “Los Macacos,” former combatants of the Central Bolivar Bloc who had regrouped and were led by paramilitary boss “Macaco.”
For this war, Cuchillo was able to ally his group with the Colombian Army in the region, which carried out its part of the deal by heavily attacking Los Macacos, and providing information to Cuchillo so that he could avoid being captured. This collaboration helped ERPAC win the war against Los Macacos towards the end of 2007, although the latter would be officially registered as dismantled in the first half of 2008.
Interestingly enough, the only operation they were able to carry out in 2008 – about which there is information – was an attempt to traffic about 100 guns in Puerto Gaitan, Meta, which were intercepted by the Army. Although Macaco had bribed the Army, Cuchillo found out about the guns, called the Army and offered another bribe so they guns would not make it to Los Macacos, a typical example of the agreement between the Army and ERPAC.
With the Army on his side, the only group left to worry about was the FARC, who were already under a lot of pressure from the Colombian Army in Meta. The two groups apparently were able to see a mutual benefit in coming to an agreement, which would be defined by a non-aggression pact in which the FARC would control Guaviate and ERPAC southern Meta. The agreement did not work out completely, as the two groups clashed in the municipalities of Puerto Rico and Vistahermosa, killing various community leaders whom they accused of supporting the opposing group, but in Puerto Concordia, Mapiripan, Puerto Gaitan and Cumaribo (in Vichada) the agreement was effectively respected.
These connections with other armed groups lead us examine the links between drug trafficking and ERPAC, which has a heavy hand in cocaine shipments in the plains and has been partially funded by perhaps the largest drug trafficker in Colombia, Daniel “El Loco” Barrera. ERPAC controls numerous cocaine-producing labs in Meta and Vichada, and also controls the majority of drug trafficking routes in these two departments, as well as in Guaviare, and according to some reports, in Arauca and Guainia too. Despite this heavy involvement in the drug trade, it would be naive to think that this is a group whose actions are completely motivated by economic gain.
ERPAC has been, and continues to be, a guarantor of social order in many small, rural municipalities that exist between the plains and the jungle, where the presence of the state is non-existent. The episode previously discussed, of the displaced families in La Cooperativa, shows the importance of the paramilitaries in the protection of at least a part of the population who found themselves faced with a strong and real guerrilla threat.
For the population there is a difficult calculation to make, which, lucky for us, can be expressed relatively easily: flee their homes due to the fear of a guerrilla incursion or tolerate the presence of ERPAC to protect them, given that they could not count on the state. Also, the population knew Cuchillo and how he operated, which is a less bad option considering that the FARC’s reaction would be violent, or at best uncertain. Add to the mix the violence that ERPAC could carry out when necessary, and resisting the presence of Cuchillo’s men was no real option.
Maybe some are asking themselves, did ERPAC truly protect the civilian population from the FARC when it had an agreement to divide territory with them? The answer is a clear ‘yes’ when we think about the result of this alliance from the perspective of the local population. First, without this alliance, the FARC could enter relatively easily, given the military and political weakness of the state in the area. Secondly, the most important thing is that the FARC effectively do not act military in the area – why is not really important at the end of the day. And lastly, with the agreement ERPAC could guarantee that the levels of violence would remain lower than if there were an all-out war with the FARC.
But protection is not the only thing that matters. In many of the small towns and villages that litter the Colombian plains, the population is economically dependent on coca and the drug trafficking economy. It is not uncommon to find places in which so little cash circulates that a sub-economy based on the interchange of coca paste for goods and services appears. But this type of economic interaction is only possible if there is someone there to buy the coca paste. In other words, this economy depends on the presence of an illegal actor who can guarantee that the coca paste will be bought with cash, a role that ERPAC has played consistently.
It is no secret as well that Cuchillo had gigantic extensions of land in the areas under his control, especially in Mapiripan, many of which had been stolen from or sold under threats by local peasants. Given the enormous coercive power of ERPAC, the peasants had no other option but to sell their lands. And because of these threats, I use the word “tolerate” when talking about the locals’ view of the presence of ERPAC.
Making things more complicated is the fact that the only armed actors who could protect the civilian population from the violent power of ERPAC were the FARC – who clearly were not a preferred option – and the state. The Colombian Army simply could not do that, and with the alliance mentioned before had no interest in doing so. It could be argued to a certain extent that the state itself on the local level did not want to act either.
In summary, the dependence of the population on ERPAC to guarantee their personal security as well as, in large part, their economic wellbeing, combined with the coercive power of Cuchillo’s men meant that there was for some no reason, and for others no way, to expel the neo-paramilitary group from the region. The presence of ERPAC in the region means that there have been – and are – inevitable threats with which the whole local population has had to learn to live.
Given this analysis, what would happen if ERPAC were to demobilize? Well, the men now under control of Caracho would not just leave a military vacuum in many areas in the Colombian plains, but would also leave an enormous vacuum of social power, which can only be partially filled by the State and Army. And actually, the State could represent a threat for some sectors of the local population, while the FARC would also be one for the majority of the population.
So who would fill to role of guarantor of the coca economy without representing a threat so large for civilians in the area that they would have to flee from their homes? The FARC actually could do it, but would probably find many farms without peasants due to the fear the guerrillas can instill, even unintentionally.
Press reports from this year have registered the presence of Los Urabeños in southern Meta, which is new but not too surprising. Given that Los Urabeños were previously led by ‘Don Mario,’ who was a paramilitary leader in the plains, many of the commanders of this neo-paramilitary group used to operate and are even from the plains. It is quite probable that they still have dormant contacts and networks in the region, which they can take advantage of in order to be present and act there. In reality, these press reports require more work to be confirmed, but if true, there exists a strong possibility that los Urabeños will not want to miss the opportunity to fill the power vacuum left by ERPAC’s eventual demobilization.
So where can we go from here? Caracho mentioned various times that the areas under his control would be handed over to the State, although we have seen that things are not so easy. There are roles that the State can play, but only if it has the necessary capacity, which unfortunately does not seem to be the case at the moment in this part of Colombia. Even more complicated are the roles that the state cannot play, especially in the societies that depend on drug trafficking rents for their wellbeing. With that given, we should not only worry about another fake demobilization but also the arrival of other illegal armed groups to the region.
Therefore, the State, before coming to an agreement about the demobilization of ERPAC, must understand the roles that it will have to play, and have various strategies to avoid the arrival and effective settling of other armed groups in the area. Providing plausible, legal options for coca growers should be a part of that strategy. The literature about demobilization processes emphasizes the importance of planning beforehand as a requisite to guarantee the success of what process of handing in guns and combatants.
And lastly, we should not think of the State as having abandoned these people, because the word “abandon” implies that at one time, the State was there for them. That is simply not the case – the State has never truly been there for these communities. Also, I want to make it very clear that in no way, through the analysis in this article, do I want to even imply that certain populations are guerrillas, paramilitaries and much less criminals. These communities have been the victims of armed groups for decades and would obviously prefer to live in peace, and to make an honest, good living, one without having to worry about which armed group will show up one day and steal their land, or worse, kill them. The world is rarely black and white, and it never is in the rural, forgotten areas of Colombia.