According to the Colombian government’s rhetoric, paramilitary death squads no longer exist; only “emergent criminal bands” are active. This claim is convenient for the government but at the expense of distorting reality and worsening the internal conflict.
In the early ‘80s the traditional power holders and/or landowners formed private armies in many regions of the country to defend against the growing influence of the guerrillas. At the beginning these private armies were independent but became organized in the late ‘90s under the umbrella of the paramilitary organization AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). Instead of confronting the guerrilla, these groups perfected the long tradition of public killings of suspected guerrilla supporters or any left leaning free thinker in town.
Alvaro Uribe’s government designed a flawed demobilization process that culminated on August 15, 2006. This was widely heralded as a cornerstone in the return of the monopoly of power to the state, although, there were other sectors more skeptical. For instance, Amnesty International claimed in 2005 that the Peace and Justice Law, which exchanges light jail terms for confessions, would only recycle paramilitary fighters. This also meant that the armed forces would be more involved in human rights violations since the “outsourcing” theoretically had ended.
Nevertheless, the government claimed a victory and hence the end of paramilitarism — the national media also played along by validating such fable. Therefore, in order to maintain the success of the peace process it was crucial to blame the continued violence by paramilitary-like groups on “emergent criminal bands”. According to Corporation Arco Iris (NGO) there are 82 such bands, numbering around 10,000 men (5,000 are “demobilized” paramilitaries), and with presence in over 273 municipalities (out of 1,100) .
The acts of violence by these bands resemble actions carried out by paramilitaries before 2006. Paula Gaviria, co-author of a report based on a survey, prepared in October 2008 by the Social Foundation (NGO), claimed emergent criminal bands “perpetuate the actions of former paramilitary groups: selective killings, forced displacement, land grabbing and drug-trafficking.” For instance, the emergent group Aguilas Negras (Black eagles) is responsible for threats against councilmen, professors, journalists and officials from the Ombudsman’s office. Moreover, according to the survey only one percent of the interviewees (77 percent were victims of violence) believes the paramilitaries ceased to exist. But as politicians would graciously say in the U.S., these criminal bands are like putting lipstick on a pig.
The term “emergent criminal bands” is a misleading euphemism in various fronts. First, it indicates that the paramilitary demobilization was a success. Second, it assumes that many of these groups are new, even though many are re-armed paramilitaries and never demobilized fighters. Third, the term presupposes that violence does not seek political rewards whatsoever for third parties or themselves. Thus, “acts of violence by emergent criminal bands that benefit the government” become “acts of violence by emergent criminal bands that are not linked to the government.”
Nevertheless, when lawmakers belonging to the government coalition (and government officials) have ties with the paramilitaries, the government’s rhetoric is imperative. This rhetoric has international and national implications that are valuable to the government. In the intentional arena support for the war against the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the FARC is fore-coming when the government can distant itself from such violence. This is clearly demonstrated by the U.S. military agreement with Colombia, despite despicable proof of the armed forces’ human rights abuses. — assuming of course that the U.S. objective with the deal is to fight drug-trafficking and the guerrilla.
The implications of the term “emergent criminal bands” in the national context are mainly two. First, the government would not have the same incentives to disarm them as it is the case with guerrillas. Second, their victims would be unable to demand compensation from the government. Being a victim of an “armed political group” is a crucial criterion for the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation that coordinates assistance to the victims of violence. The implications of the term “emergent criminal bands” are informative of its validity.
The word “paramilitaries” appears to be a registered trademark removed from the Colombia armed conflict lexicon to name groups currently starring in the continued wave of violence against thousands of innocent victims. As George Orwell wrote in his essay ‘Politics and the English language’: “Political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”