The existence of neo-paramilitary groups are the direct consequence of the Colombian government’s failure to comply with a peace deal made with paramilitary organization AUC, imprisoned “Urabeños” founder “Don Mario” claimed.
The AUC formally demobilized its blocks under the leadership of then-leader Salvatore Mancuso between 2003 and 2006 after having given the guarantee they wouldn’t be extradited to the United States for drug trafficking and could count on reduced sentences in return for the compensation of their victims and their full collaboration with justice.
However, instead of ending the phenomenon of paramilitary forces aligned with the government, a new generation of groups emerged, commanded by the same people who previously commanded units of the AUC.
To publicly disassociate these groups from their predecessor and avoid admitting to a partially failed demobilization, the government introduced the term “BaCrim” and later even tried changing the name of “Los Urabeños” to “Clan Usuga.”
In an interview with Medellin newspaper El Colombiano — his first since his detention in 2009 — Don Mario said that “the organizations they call ‘BaCrim’ or ‘Clan Usuga’ don’t exist for us. What does exist is an armed self-defense organization that came from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) due to the lack of compliance by the government with the treated points in Santa Fe Ralito,” where the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe and the AUC negotiated the paramilitaries’ demobilization.
The formation of successor groups
One of the founders of the AUC, Vicente Castaño, ordered to maintain the military structure of the AUC in 2006 after Uribe approved the incarceration of the paramilitary leadership against verbal agreements made in Santa Fe de Ralito, said Don Mario.
While other paramilitary chiefs went to prison, Castaño went underground and Don Mario stockpiled arms, the former mid-level paramilitary commander said.
According to Don Mario, this was part of Castaño’s “Plan B” in case the AUC was deceived by the Uribe administration that had received financial and logistical paramilitary support during the 2002 campaign.
“When the government suddenly turned on us and authorized our arrest while we were enjoying valid exemptions, he [Castaño] felt betrayed. This was when he gave the order to us mid-level commanders” to rearm.
“I had been hiding the weapons,” Don Mario said.
Castaño disappeared and was presumably killed in 2007, just when groups like “Los Urabeños” and “Los Aguilas Negras” began publicly emerging.
After Castaño’s disappearance, the commanders of 16 former AUC units took the unanimous decision to put Don Mario in control of the paramilitary organization as senior commander. Under his leadership the group that later became known as the Urabeños, the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas” and “Clan Usuga,” continued to control the territories previously under AUC control, said the former paramilitary commander.
Around that time, other groups emerged, all under the control of former AUC members.
However, as the jailed leaders increasingly began revealing their ties with politicians, military commanders and even Uribe’s family, the then-president ordered their extradition to the United States, against the orders of the Supreme Court.
This move led to violent turf wars between some of the AUC successor groups in which thousands were killed, primarily in the northwest of Colombia where the AUC was originally founded.
The Urabeños after Don Mario
Following Don Mario’s arrest in 2009, the organization was taken over by Don Mario’s subordinate “Otoniel” and his brother who successfully re-established the paramilitaries’ position as the country’s most powerful and lucrative drug trafficking organization.
The former leader refuted claims that the Urabeños continued to operate due to the lucrative opportunities in drug trafficking, as opposed to a reaction to the hashed demobilization process of 2006.
In the old days of the AUC, financial aid from wealthy businessmen and landowners fearing insurgent activity shifted to a reliance on drug trafficking money due to a clash in interests weakening these relations.
It has been reported that 70% of the AUC money was cocaine-related, converting Carlos Castaño, Vicente’s brother, into a millionaire.
“Don Mario” claimed he was never a drug trafficker and that the drug trafficking business was hardly profitable. The former paramilitary commander insisted that the AUC and its successor groups were and are self-defense groups that seek to protect private property against attacks from leftist guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN together with the military.
Rather than depending entirely on drug trafficking, these paramilitary groups sought funding in taxes collected from those living in the regions where the paramilitaries operated, according to Don Mario.
“These organizations live from the economies of these regions,” the imprisoned paramilitary claimed.
The end of conflict
Claiming that there would exist no raison d’être for the neo-paramilitaries in the event of peace with the FARC and ELN, “Don Mario” proposed to amplify the peace talks and include neo-paramilitary groups like the one he founded.
“I would like the media and the government, instead of changing the names of these [paramilitary] organizations, would make an effort for a comprehensive process, so that all actors in the conflict, the collaborators including the politicians and neighborhood militias, and including those … who called our ‘cousins’: The security forces,” said Don Mario.
“What we did was defend the nation. Why not create an inclusive process? Now that the conditions are met, I call on the government and on all groups in arms to construct a national table for peace where all participate,” the former paramilitary commander said.