Peace talks between Colombia’s government and FARC rebels are stuck because the government refuses to acknowledge the existence of far-right paramilitaries while the FARC demands their dismantling.
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.
However, hardly anyone in Colombia believes either Bogota or Washington DC, especially after the heirs of the AUC, “Los Urabeños,” shut down parts of the country over the weekend.
The FARC, who has been engaged in active combat with these groups for years, has called for the effective dismantling of the paramilitary structures once run by the AUC and now by the Urabeños.
However, according to Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, “it is irresponsible to qualify these groups as paramilitary” even though the years have made it crystal clear that the men currently running the Urabeños are the same people who once fought for the AUC and, like the paramilitaries, are violently opposing leftist political forces.
The Urabeños, who call themselves the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, want to be considered a paramilitary force “to have the political recognition we can’t give them, given the fact that their only purpose is making profits through criminal enterprises and terror,” Villegas told El Tiempo.
“In the country there are no paramilitaries,” said Villegas, whose government insists on calling the paramilitary successor groups “criminal bands” or simply BaCrim.
The remark infuriated FARC chief negotiator “Ivan Marquez,” whose guerrilla group has been demanding the dismantling of paramilitary groups for more than a year, apparently with little success.
Marquez took to Twitter to vent his fury, “If for Villegas, paramilitarism is a ghost, why are we beginning to see it expanding throughout Colombia: the fact is he does not see it,” he wrote on the social network.
He argued that “paramilitarism is not an excuse to delay anything; It is a lethal threat to peace and democracy.“
The recent actions of the Urabenos in bringing the north of the country to a standstill clearly illustrated the threat that they pose.
This is a source of much frustration for the leaders of the FARC as they broach the issue of “end of conflict” in the negotiations.
“The surge in paramilitary actions against the civilian population and political and social leaders casts a shadow over the substantial progress in the talks with the insurgencies and (over) the hopes for peace of all Colombians,” the FARC said in a statement.
As both the government and the FARC seek to agree a framework for the demobilization of the left wing rebels the threat of right-wing militants has prompted the FARC to seek a dismantling of the structures that allow these militant groups to exist.
“We must do away with all these regional and national structures that have been promoting war and who have made great efforts for peace cannot be waged in Colombia” , said guerrilla Pastor Alape, who answered questions from the press in Havana.
The guerrilla leader said that the problem of paramilitarism 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.”
“That means that we must deepen the very conception of national defense that has characterized the Colombian State , ” said Alape, who noted that collectively they must “dismantle the political structures that feed this problem.”
The threat of the paramilitaries has been recognized in many quarters and has contributed to the stalling of the talks in Havana.
President Juan Manuel Santos refuses to concede that they have become a major player on the political spectrum of the country.
According to him, the Urabeños “is a criminal drug-trafficking organization that under no circumstances will be given any political treatment,” he said, vowing to continue police and military operations to dismantle the group.
The governments failure to recognize the problem and the subsequent implications for a demobilized FARC threatens to restrain the final stages of the negotiating the end to a 52-year-long conflict.
According to conflict analyst Ariel Avila there is a danger of “”significant bloodshed”” if the FARC were to demobilize and the government fail to tackle these neo-paramilitary groups in the meantime.