Colombia’s neo-paramilitary groups are widely considered unpolitical. The truth is, however, that these crime organizations also serve political and economic interests.
While most of Colombia and much of the international community focuses on the peace process with the FARC, the country’s other armed actors are making their moves as well. The ELN has been carrying out inconsistent, large-scale attacks to pressure the government to open up a negotiating table with that guerrilla group. The country’s three main neo-paramilitary groups – the Urabeños, the Rastrojos and the Oficina de Envigado – in the meantime, have been threatening activists and leaders who are looking to get their land back, as well as other “less desirable” members of society, which, as will be shown here, indicates that these groups have a political side.
This argument goes directly against what is almost a consensus in both Colombian society and amongst countless analysts, which states that these groups only have economic motivations and nothing more. This consensus points out that these three armed groups are not counter-insurgent at all, and in fact, they often work with the guerrilla to improve their economic gains, which is actually true.
At the same time, the argument continues to say that the Urabeños, Rastrojos and the “Oficina” only have economic motivations and should be labeled BaCrim – short for criminal bands. But there are two problems with this “consensus.” First, it relies on an assumption that an armed actor cannot be economic and political at the same time, but must be just one of the two. Secondly, the political is not defined by a counter-insurgent position – not even close.
The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.
The strength of the definition provided here is that it describes the main goal of States when we get to the core of their function. Laws are in place to control people’s lives – for good or bad – and to indicate what is permitted and what is not, which can act as an indicator for who belongs where in society. The basis of law is that it should be followed and those who violate it will be punished, showing the coercive side of things. Any person who breaks it, is punished and then removed from society or relocated much father down on the social hierarchy, labeled a criminal, and often delegitimized – again, for good or bad. The question is, how do these three armed groups do all of this?
First off, it is important to point out that these armed groups, carry out these roles in the areas where State institutions are incredibly weak and simply incapable of controlling society. The example of the Urabeños in northern Colombia is quite telling.
Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. In fact, some large landholders have allied with this armed group in order to protect their land obtained during the ACCU and AUC years, which could be under threat from the Santos administration’s land restitution policy.
Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.
While the political side is clear, there is also an economic benefit for the group because they use stolen land to traffic arms and drugs, and to house rural troops.
The Rastrojos offer another good example of an armed group with economic and political sides. While this organization has been weakened and divided in the last year, they have threatened human rights activists, unionists and other social activists for denouncing the presence and actions of the armed group. Some analysts have argued that these threats are just a cover to appear to have a counter-insurgent ideology, like the AUC paramilitaries. This actually could be true and yet they would still have a political side, because, first, these threats are an indication of what is not permitted in the areas where the Rastrojos are present. These threats and attacks are one way of saying that independent of the group’s other interests, there are actions that are simply not allowed. In this case, their primordial law is that no one can denounce the actions and presence of the armed group.
Finally, social cleansing, as it is called in Colombia, is another example of very political violence carried out by all armed groups, including the neo-paramilitaries. It could, in fact, be the clearest example: killing other criminals, thieves, drug addicts, members of the LGBTI community, “rats” and anyone else terribly labeled “discardable” defines exactly not what is allowed in society but who as well. The Oficina de Envigado has used this strategy historically in Medellin in order to gain control of various parts of the city. In the end, social cleansing is essentially an arbitrary and violent system of justice through which armed actors look to gain territorial control and certain support from the rest of society.
Lastly, there are some points that must be made clear. This text does not argue that the Urabeños, Rastrojos and the Oficina de Envigado have a political project or a clear, coherent ideology. And neither does it look to deny the economic motivations these groups have, of which there is more than abundant evidence. It simply argues that the neo-paramilitaries have a political side as well, in that they in essence, have acted like a State by deriving power from the spaces left by weak government institutions. In these vacuums, these armed groups have imposed and enforced their own rules of the game, designed to protect their interests to the maximum.
As a member of society living in areas under their control, one knows what is permitted and not, and where one can end up in the social hierarchy for going against the rules imposed by these armed actors. This text is no way is legitimizing these groups at all, and in fact, is another denunciation and interpretation of their violent and illegal actions. The role of the State now is to fill the spaces where their institutions are incapable of controlling or influencing society, or to create and foment new social norms, which can counteract those utilized by armed organizations to gain political power. What the State needs is not just a military policy but also a political strategy as well to fight the neo-paramilitaries, who too have used the political to gain power.