From Nariño to Bogota to Magdalena, armed death squads are once again imposing a brutal brand of justice with worrying tolerance from the authorities. Alvaro Uribe probably has no direct links to paramilitary groups, but his presidency has not decreased, deterred or discouraged paramilitary violence.
One defining characteristic of Colombian politics under Uribe is that the same old debates just never go away. Since he came to office, the President has been bombarded with accusations of ties to right wing, drug-funded paramilitary groups. Scandals have come and gone over the last seven years, but the deeper debate over the President’s relations with paramilitaries rages on.
This week, for example, former warlord Miguel Angel Mejia Munera a.k.a. “El Mellizo” (The Twin) alleged that paramilitary umbrella group AUC brought Uribe to power in 2002, echoing similar statements by other imprisoned paramilitaries. Meanwhile, the nation has recently been gripped by the Agro Ingreso Seguro scandal, in which a government program aimed at reducing rural inequality was found to channel state money to prominent landowning families, some of them with links to paramilitary groups.
Despite these scandals, and I say this as an opponent of Uribe, it is highly unlikely that any direct links will be found between the President himself and paramilitary groups anytime soon. Moreover, the excessive national focus on those polarizing and fruitless debates misses the point. An equally important and more urgent question – especially in an election season – is whether the Uribe presidency has effectively diminished the Colombian paramilitary phenomenon, independently of his past and present links to it.
Indeed, any policy named “Democratic Security” must surely be evaluated by its ability to curb the paramilitary phenomenon for two obvious reasons. First, no country can aspire to be a true democracy while drug-funded death squads are “cleansing” the streets of social undesirables and the political opposition. Second, regardless of their original aims, Colombia’s paramilitary groups have long been the country’s single largest security threat. By the time Uribe took office in 2002, the AUC was responsible for more violent deaths than the FARC and ELN combined, according to every international NGO and human rights organization
Paramilitarism in the Uribe years
So, leaving aside all questions about the justice of the demobilization process and ties between Uribistas and the AUC, what effect have seven years of Uribe had on the Colombian paramilitary phenomenon?
Paramilitarism certainly looks very different than it did in 2002 when Uribe took office. Seven years ago, uniformed soldiers with AUC armbands ruled much the country with an iron fist, from the poor hillside neighborhoods of Medellin to the country’s eastern plains. That is obviously no longer the case. True, former paramilitaries and their new recruits are once again battling for control of the narcotics trade, but, according to the government, they are little more than weakened and fragmented drug gangs.
The authorities assure us that political and social violence that the AUC inflicted on the country is a thing of the past.
Unfortunately, however, a growing body of evidence shows otherwise. Take, for example, the case of Bogota. Colombia’s capital is generally considered one of the country’s safest cities. Street crime and youth gangs are significant problems, but the same could be said of any large city in the world. While other Colombian cities have been overwhelmed by drug-related violence, Bogota has been an island of relative peace.
Nevertheless, recent reports indicate that paramilitary and social cleansing groups are thriving in the capital. Colombia’s most powerful neoparamilitary groups are funding Bogota’s social cleansing groups and taking over other illegal activities such as petty drug dealing and extortion. These include warlord Cuchillo’s gang ERPAC, the Black Eagles, former drug lord Martin Llanos’s Buitraguenos gang, and a little-known fourth group called Heroes of Castaño (as in AUC founder Carlos Castaño). In addition, just this week, new reports in El Tiempo suggested that the Medellin-based gang Office of Envigado had sent some of its highest-ranking assassins to reorganize paramilitary factions in Soacha and Ciudad Bolivar.
A report by Colombian news weekly Semana about crime in the capital indicates that in the Bosa district on the South side of Bogota, the “social cleansing” pamphlets distributed last year were not a mere hoax. In fact, contrary to what the authorities have suggested, groups of armed men and, in other cases, unarmed men collaborating with police officers have indeed murdered presumed thieves, drug addicts and homeless people. Even in middle and upper class districts such as Chapinero and La Candelaria, which enjoy a reliable and sizeable police presence, residents anonymously acknowledge that local vigilante groups have dramatically increased social cleansing operations in the past two years.
Other cities have also seen cases of paramilitary violence rise in recent months. Rival branches of the Office of Envigado are fighting a brutal war on the streets of Medellin. In Cali, homeless people and informal recyclers have been killed in vigilante violence. Throughout the country, leftist political leaders and union members continue to be murdered at some of the highest rates in the world.
Of course, paramilitary violence is also ravaging rural areas, primarily along Colombia’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts and its border with Venezuela. As in cities, these aren’t merely apolitical drug gangs, but new paramilitary structures with social and political visions that, in many cases, continue to collaborate with local politicians and landowners. For example, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific coast who resist the expansion of massive African palm plantations have repeatedly been threatened and even attacked by heavily armed thugs.
So, why has Uribe’s Democratic Security failed to sustainably reduce the paramilitary phenomenon? One factor beyond the control and responsibility of the Colombian president is the fact that many Colombians are themselves very tolerant of the paramilitary solution to local crime. Uribe helped demobilize the AUC, but it would be very difficult for any president to erode Colombia’s long-standing culture of paramilitarism. Still, the President has done very little to challenge this culture or to deter the re-emergence of paramilitary violence.
Under Uribe, the armed forces have rarely received orders to go after paramilitaries with the same intensity that they go after guerrilla groups, especially the FARC. True, the President has called on the armed forces pursue drug trafficking gangs, but, until recently, the government publicly denied and downplayed the scale of the neoparamilitary threat.
This rhetorical neglect has dangerous concrete consequences. Take, for example, the war-torn southwestern departments of Cauca and Nariño. According to journalists who have visited the area, the army has recently intensified military operations in that region in response to rising violence, but the Colombian armed forces target only the FARC guerrillas, while the narcoparamilitary Rastrojos gang moves freely in the jungle and continues to grow in size, wealth and firepower.
Further, independently of its capacity to achieve justice, the government’s demobilization program has failed to deter further paramilitary violence. Many mid-level warlords responsible for thousands of murders have never faced a credible criminal trial. They continue to live in their former areas of influence and are still protected by their allies in the political and business worlds, most of whom will never pay for their crimes. A process marked by such blatant impunity is simply useless as a deterrent, so it is only natural that new paramilitary groups are rapidly forming and growing in power.
Whatever their original intent, the death squads who operated under the AUC label quickly spiraled out of control. Today, the paramilitary phenomenon has returned, wreaking havoc from the streets of Bogota to the jungles of Nariño. Colombia can be neither fully democratic nor truly secure until it eradicates paramilitary violence. On that front, the Uribe presidency has been an utter failure.