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Written by Thomas Power, international accompanier of FOR Peace Presence.
I currently live in a village called “La Unión” as an international accompanier and observer in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, located in the mountains of northwest Colombia. Normally, mornings consist of me making coffee while reading the paper and greeting campesinos (small scale farmers) on their way to work. On the morning of September 6th however, there was a tense apprehension behind the “buenos días”, as the community had received news that armed neo-paramilitaries had entered the neighboring village. The neo-paramilitaries were threatening the people living there, including Peace Community members, so the community was organizing volunteers to go verify the situation and make their presence felt.
San José de Apartadó, situated in the middle of a region known as Urabá, has a traumatic history of paramilitary activity. The since-demobilized Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) committed a series of massacres against the Peace Community, including the massacre of La Unión in 2000 and the massacre of Mulatos and La Resbalosa in 2005. Previous to these massacres, this illegal armed group displaced all the villages of San José de Apartadó in 1996, which led to the foundation of the Peace Community.
A community member told me about his experience with paramilitaries in an illegal checkpoint entering and exiting San José de Apartadó in the early 2000s. He recalled how masked men stopped their bus and had everyone get off and make lines. “They walked through us, among us, staring at us right like this,” he said, and gave me his best paramilitary gaze. Sowing fear was a powerful tool of the AUC.
The AUC entered Urabá, a strategic drug-trafficking region, in the late ’90s to take control away from the left-wing guerrilla FARC. During this period, they made connections and received financing from businesses in the zone, including large cattle owners as well as the US multinational “Chiquita Brands” (formerly United Fruit Company). Paramilitary ties to US multinationals aren’t unique to Urabá however, as there have been high profile cases of companies contracting paramilitaries throughout Colombia, cases including Drummond and Coca-Cola.
It isn’t just companies from the United States which helped foment the growth of the AUC. A series of policies toward Colombia from the US federal government contributed to the weakening of the Colombian state, especially the executive branch, during the presidency of Ernesto Samper of 1994-1998. This allowed for the space of illegal armed groups from both sides of the political spectrum to surge, including the right wing AUC. Amidst surging political violence in Colombia, the United States announced “Plan Colombia”, sold to the US congress as an anti-narcotics program.
Since 2000, the US has provided almost US$10 billion in foreign aid to Colombia, around US$7 billion of which went to military aid. The US and Colombian governments have claimed it to be an unequivocal success; various NGOs and academics remain skeptical. While security has improved in certain parts of the country, “in general the structural problems causing the armed conflict haven’t been resolved.”
The demobilization of the AUC started in 2005 . However, the process has been marred by the length and “laxitud” of the demobilization, few penalties for human rights violations, and a failure to pay reparations to victims. The principal authors of the aforementioned massacre in Mulatos and La Resbalosa in 2005 have yet to be brought to justice.
What’s worse, by 2009 the various armed actors had adapted to the military’s strategy, and right-wing successor groups to the AUC began to flourish, groups known as “criminal bands” or “neo-paramilitaries”. These groups are active in drug-trafficking and other areas of the illegal economy, and can be found from the Caribbean coast, to the Gulf of Urabá in the northwest, down to Buenavenura on the Pacific coast and beyond.
The most prominent neo-paramilitary group, the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), is present throughout San José de Apartadó and continues to grow in strength. With the expected withdrawal of the FARC of the area, they have been moving to consolidate military, economic, and social control of the region, forcing inhabitants to meet with them in the months of September and October of this year. They have been telling the civil population to collaborate with them, and that they “have come to stay.”
It was during this period I saw the AGC on two occasions, once on September 6th during the accompaniment to the neighboring village and again on October 11th. Camouflaged, masked, carrying AK-47s, they were an intimidating presence, but that didn’t stop the Peace Community from denouncing to their faces the indignation of 30 years of massacres, threats, and terror caused by paramilitaries and neo-paramilitaries. Today, the Peace Community has a strong tradition of historical memory, transforming nights of terror into a community spirit which has helped them stay on their land and keep their identity as “campesinxs”. My time in La Unión as an accompanier will be short, but they will never give up on their struggle to use their land how they see fit.
Dismantling these groups has become an important aspect of the peace negotiations with the FARC, which began in 2012. Section 3.4 of the accord has been dedicated to strategies for combating this phenomenon, and includes the creation of a special section of the Fiscalía (office of the Attorney General in the justice department) and police. There is even language that implies that these groups could enter into the transitional justice mechanism created through the peace agreement.
Paramilitaries are widely seen as the number one threat to lasting peace in Colombia. This should concern the international community, which has given the process a lot of support. The US, for example, sent a Special Envoy to accompany the process in Havana, and has pledged $450 million for a “Peace Colombia” aid package as a follow up to “Plan Colombia”.
An initial analysis by WOLA shows a continued high-level of military aid. $143 million will go to the police for counter narcotics operations, $43 million will be pure military aid, and $38.5 million will go to “foreign military finance”. In a country entering “post-conflict”, why is so much aid going to the military? Is the United States interested in a peace for all Colombians, or achieving a certain kind of security for investment by US companies?
One could pose a similar question to Colombian authorities. Despite the spike in movements by “neo-paramilitaries” (campesinos just call them “paracos”, making no distinction between paramilitaries and their successor groups), the Mayor’s Office of Apartadó and the Governor’s Office of Antioquia have publicly stated there was no evidence of the AGC in San José de Apartadó. Security forces, including the 17th Brigade, were their source of information.
Security forces were careful to phrase their reports, saying they weren’t able to detect movement by the AGC on their verification missions. While technically not denying the possibility that these groups exist, they consider the figures given by the AGC of 200 men present in the zone are most likely being exaggerated.
Neo-paramilitaries, paramilitaries, criminal bands, paracos- call them what you will, this phenomenon poses a grave threat to the people of San José de Apartadó and other human rights defenders throughout Colombia. In the face of this threat, the Peace Community will continue defending their principals and contribute to building a lasting peace in Colombia.