Neo-paramilitary groups are the main generators of violence and threats against civilians in the northern Middle Magdalena region, according to a Colombian NGO.
According to the conflict-monitoring NGO Nuevo Arco Iris, death threats against civilians living in the northern Santander department have continued after the 2003-2006 demobilization of the paramilitary coalition AUC. The main generators of threats and violence against civilians are neo-paramilitary heirs of the AUC, known by the acronym “BACRIM,” or emergent criminal groups. Leon Valencia, director of the Nuevo Arco Iris, criticized the administration of former president Alvaro Uribe for declaring the death of paramilitarism after the demobilization of the AUC.
“This created a state of tranquility within the public force and the people which allowed many mid-level leaders to regroup … and they arrived in Middle Magdalena to stay, because this zone is very important as a route of access to the center and west of the country,” said Valencia.
Valencia’s claim about neo-paramilitary presence in the region was echoed by Todd Howland, the representative of the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia.
Howland said in an interview with newspaper Vanguardia that the paramilitaries never left Santander, instead “they converted into BACRIM [neo-paramilitaries] and are violating more the rights of the Colombians.”
Both the NGO and the UN stated their concerns that many of the high-ranking paramilitaries that demobilized from 2003–2006 with the Justice and Peace process will be freed from prison in 2013 and 2014. As part of the process, the law of Justice and Peace was ratified in order to provide procedural and judicial benefits, including a maximum prison sentence of eight years and exemption from extradition to the U.S., to AUC members in exchange for their demobilization, cooperation and testimony.
The region’s poor socio-economic conditions make it vulnerable to abuses from illegal armed groups.
“There are pamphlets which include many persons and many groups. In this region there are socio-economic violations … there are no guarantees of dignified work, nor dignified education,” said Howlett, also stating that the UN was “worried” because there was “very little protection” for human rights defenders in the region.
“There are very few sentences [in regard to] the threats against human rights defenders in Santander. For example, this year there has not been a single decision,” the UN representative continued.
According to the OHCHR, 37 humans rights defenders were murdered in the country in 2012.
The Middle Magdalena region was once dominated by left wing guerrillas like the FARC and ELN but according to Nuevo Arco Iris, the left-wing rebels no longer have a significant presence in the department after a state and paramilitary offensive pushed the rebels out towards border areas with Venezuela.
“That zone, which is very important for the ELN and the FARC, the two guerrillas lost [due to] the offensive by paramilitary blocs and the [security forces] in the last years,” said Valencia.
In a report on the human rights situation in the department in 2012, Colombia’s Unit of Attention to Victims reported FARC presence in eight municipalities in Santander, including the capital Bucaramanga.
The NGO director praised the work of the Colombian judiciary stating that it had performed well in investigating politicians with ties to the AUC’s Central Bolivar Bloc, which was active in Santander.
“We do not want that Middle Magdalena to return to the state of the ’90s,” said Santander Interior Secretary, Carlos Ibañez Muñoz, who added, “we are on top of the situation.”
The AUC demobilized between 2003 and 2006 under a peace accord, known as the Justice and Peace process, with the Colombian government. According to the Prosecutor General of Justice and Peace, ex-paramilitaries participating in the process had confessed to 1,046 massacres and over 25,000 homicides as of December 1, 2012.