Colombia's AUC: From Irregular Army to Mafia

(International Relations and Security Network, 05/09/2005)

With Michael Shoemaker in Bogota


The attorney general of Colombia on 2 August issued an arrest warrant for paramilitary chieftain Victor Mejia. He has been connected to the May 2004 massacre of 15 Colombian peasants in the Arauca department near the Venezuelan border, yet it is unlikely he will be brought to justice. Mejia is one of several paramilitary leaders heading current disarmament negotiations with the Colombian government. His participation in the process provides him protection from prosecution.


The temporary immunity granted to right-wing paramilitary bosses like Mejia was originally established as a condition for negotiations in July 2003, with the signing of the Santa Fe de Ralito Agreement. The rural area, which bears the pact's name, served up until late last month as a safe haven for paramilitary leaders and a site for talks between them and the government. The discussions have centered on two things: legal status and the numbers of paramilitaries to be disarmed.


Some 70 per cent of the country's right-wing paramilitaries are slated to be disarmed by year-end, their presence allegedly substituted by the Colombian military, while the rest, a core group of 30 per cent, will remain to ensure the survival of what has become a booming illicit business.


Given the political might paramilitary leaders have secured in both the Colombian Congress and large chunks of the countryside, and their increasing control of the cocaine trade, the process of reducing overhead and operating costs is not just a smart business move. It also highlights the third phase in the evolution of Colombia's paramilitaries: a transformation from a bulky, largely unwieldy network of armed troops to a series of smaller private security details, which allow their "para-mafia" bosses to continue holding sway over a region's political and economic life.


The ultimate transformation


The first phase in Colombian paramilitarism began in the mid-1980s when drug lord Pablo Escobar formed a group called Death to Kidnappers (MAS), after a family member of one of Escobar's lieutenants was kidnapped for ransom by members of the M-19 guerrilla group. The lieutenant, one of the Ochoa brothers who went on to form the Calí Cartel after Escobar's demise, was a member of the landed elite, a class of Colombian ranchers who felt threatened by revolutionary armies. Not trusting the central government's capacity to protect them, they took matters into their own hands and unwittingly created a model that would be mimicked throughout the country in years to come.


Phase two began in the mid-1990s as the paramilitaries took on a life of their own, spreading across the northern and western parts of Colombia. They became more and more involved in the drug trade, while tacitly claiming legitimacy through protecting the countryside from the Marxist "rebel scourge". Funds earned from the production and transportation of cocaine purchased arms, ammunition, supplies, and allowed for the feverish enlistment of new recruits. From 1998 to 2000 alone, paramilitary groups grew in size by 81 per cent, from roughly 4,500 to 8,150 men, according to the Colombian Defense Ministry. Their growth has been exponential ever since.


As the paramilitaries have ballooned, numerous units, called "blocks", have formed and begun to take shape as separate entities. In 1997, they came together to form a loose confederation known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Though each of these blocks has remained under the control of unique commanders, they communicate with a central AUC leader that claims representation of the organization on a national level. Carlos Castano - whose older brother was assassinated by the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - maintained this position until he went missing on 16 April 2004 after an assassination attempt. Since the early 1960s, the FARC has fought to overthrow the capitalist government in Bogota and replace it with a Marxist-socialist regime.


José Vicente Castano surfaced as the AUC's de facto leader on 6 June 2005, according to Colombian news magazine Semana. Castano released a statement the same month saying the AUC would agree to disarm some 19,000 soldiers by the end of the year. He also disclosed that the AUC would support the re-election of Colombia's current president Alvaro Uribe Velez, who has been struggling to pass legislation that will change the Colombian Constitution so that he may run for an unprecedented second term.


With these changes nearly secured, Uribe has turned his focus to pushing through the disarmament talks by passing legislation that gives a legal framework to the demobilization and reintegration of paramilitary soldiers - a fundamental step to delivering on his promise to make Colombia more secure.


The infamous new legislation, called the Peace and Justice Law, has been denounced as weak and compromised by human rights groups and other international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). It sets lenient prison terms for demobilized paramilitary bosses, does not punish them for failing to report crimes against humanity, and allots insufficient timetables for investigating and bringing to trial individual cases.


"[The Colombian Government's] official reason [for the law's current wording] is that the [paramilitaries] are well armed and strong, and when you negotiate you must concede something to them," Center for International Policy's Director of Programs, Adam Isacson, told ISN Security Watch. "The unofficial reason is that there is a mutual interest in sweeping this under the rug," he added.


But making these groups magically disappear is complicated. The Peace and Justice Law does not require those demobilized to reveal information regarding the structure or inner-workings of their former paramilitary blocks. Nor is the government, or the Organization of American States (OAS) mission that's accompanying the process, ensuring that demobilized paramilitaries stay disbanded.


"Considering that, with the exception of those that were carried out in Catatumbos and the department of Narino, all of the demobilizations have taken place in areas under paramilitary control," says former Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, Daniel García-Peña Jaramillo, "the hypothesis is that they are only partially demobilizing and that this process represents a transformation, not an end of the paramilitary phenomenon."


The Peace and Justice Law is a prime example of how AUC leaders have politically seized control of the disarmament, turning it into a tool with which they will shed extra military weight and slim down to a smoothly operated network of organizations, many observers say.


Colombia's new mafia


The Colombian weekly Semana published an article in March 2001 that brought to light paramilitary groups' mob-like attempts to consolidate their power in the regions. According to the account, paramilitaries were already present in 409 Colombian municipalities, or roughly 40 per cent of the country, where they were influencing politics, distributing justice, carrying out development projects, engaging in extortive activities, and controlling the traffic of drugs and other contraband.


To win over the local population and establish a legitimate social base in areas such as Cordoba, they began subsidizing medications, building schools, and dividing seized land among their supporters. And the election of paramilitary Congressional candidates from Cordoba and the Magdalena Medio region demonstrated their impact on national politics.


A lot has happened in four years. Just last June, AUC leader Castano announced that the AUC owned 35 per cent of the Colombian Congress, affirming the claim made by his counterpart, Salvatore Mancuso, two years earlier. At a regional level, virtually the entire area along the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts, the Magdalena Medio region, and parts of the Eastern Plains have become bastions of paramilitary control. Traditional elites have established alliances with paramilitary commanders who provide security for lands, businesses, and people, and commanders have consolidated power through manipulation of local politics, control of the drug trade in, and taxation of local businesses.


"In the Magdalena Medio, paramilitary control of local politics is seen through mayoral election campaigns that are run by one man with no opposition," explains one analyst in Bogota. Only one mayoral candidate appeared on the ticket in 14 of the department's 29 municipalities in 2000. The departments of Bolivar, Magdalena, Cordoba, Cesar, Sucre, and Guajira, all along the Caribbean Coast, have witnessed similar trends.


Paramilitary commanders from the northern coast, through contacts in the central government, have also secured the creation of new municipalities in areas they control. Law 687 of Colombia's 1991 Constitution decentralized government structures, allowing for the formation of new municipalities as long as they meet a list of specific requirements.


"We've seen a phenomenon on the Caribbean coast, in areas under paramilitary control, where pieces of existing municipalities that together meet the necessary criteria have been conglomerated to form new municipalities, which are then entitled to national funding," an analyst in Bogota, who asked to remain anonymous, told ISN Security Watch.


The department of Bolivar saw six new municipalities formed in 1994, two in 1995, two in 1996, and two in 1997. And Magdalena saw two new municipalities formed in 1996, four in 1999, and three in 2000. While it is difficult to draw an indisputable connection between the formation of these new municipalities and paramilitaries, it is also difficult to deny that they have a central role in their administration.


These new municipalities function by the whim of local paramilitary bosses. Only local politicians with the blessing of the paramilitaries are allowed to exercise power. Once in office they are required to pay a percentage of their salary to the "party". With city hall under control, funding coming from Bogota is sequestered and handed out in ways that favor the group's clientele networks.


Along the Caribbean Coast paramilitaries have also come to control Colombia's subsidized health care program. Controlling both city hall and the local health care provider, the illegal groups are able to control the flow of funds and decide who receives assistance. Often only those who vote for the paramilitary candidate are added to the SISBEN registry, which dictates eligibility for government social programs.


Operating a business or even transporting goods in these areas requires paying a tax as well. That is, of course, where businesses are not owned directly by the paramilitary groups, which is becoming the case with Colombia's lottery system, El Chance. The enterprise, traditionally riddled with shady activity, has been the victim of paramilitary infiltration all over the country. It is known to be an efficient way to launder money. In some cases, winners are even forced to pay a tax to the armed group.


Not even the major cities have been immune to the "mafiazation" of the paramilitary presence. Medellin is a case in point. As recently announced in an Amnesty International report, the demobilization of the Cacique Nutibara Block in Medellín has not ended paramilitary influence in that city. While the last few years have seen homicide rates cut in half several times over, this is more attributable to the achievements of paramilitary boss Don Berna than the success of the disarmament. Many residents have traded the term "governability" for "DonBernability".


While this power has been established via the use of violence, the consolidation of paramilitary control in these regions makes them maintainable without large armies. This is particularly true considering the impressive network of loyal, paid informants set up in many areas to monitor the movement of people, goods, and other items of interest in and out of the community. Some more ingenious groups have even created private security companies in controlled areas to employ demobilized combatants - not to mention the government's proposal that some of those demobilized be used to create "civic guards" in regions with scant military or police presence.


Once disarmament is complete, paramilitary control of these areas may well be legitimized. And with the Colombian government off their back, it will be a return to business as usual.


Lack of funding


Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs that involve thousands of former combatants cost millions. According to US Ambassador to Colombia William Wood, the current disarmament process will cost up to US$8,500 per soldier. If 20,000 soldiers are disarmed, it will cost close to US$170 million, or 52 times the USAID 2005 contribution of US$3.25 million (as part of the Andean Counterdrug Initiative). This amount does not include a promised monthly stipend of US$125 for each demobilized soldier. Less than one million of the 42 million Colombians that live in Colombia pay taxes. And the US has adamantly refused, repeatedly, to lend funding for the sake of what it considers a terrorist organization.


With such a lack of funding, paramilitary troops who disarm do so with a wink and a smile. They know that their job is intact as long as they trade their camouflage for jeans, turn in a few busted-up weapons, and promise they will never hurt anyone again. Many of the 70 per cent of demobilized combatants will be reabsorbed into the paramilitary mafia because they have no choice. The other 30 per cent will never disarm.


One of them is arguably Mejia. Like many of his colleagues, Mejia has taken on a name of peace for use during the disarmament negotiations. Now known as Pablo Arauca, Mejia has managed so far to escape extradition to the US and is currently protected from indictment in Colombia as long as he remains at the negotiating table. He is just one example of the many men who have remained loyal to the paramilitaries from the beginning.


They were once closely associated with the drug trade, then they grew small armies to secure military control of their area. Now, with political and economical control intact, the military bulk is not necessary. A smooth departure from the negotiation talks and a little legal shuffling is all that stands between these men and their future as mafia godfathers.