Feb 16

The department of Córdoba in northwestern Colombia, home to President Álvaro Uribe’s large cattle ranch, spent most of the past 15 years strongly controlled by paramilitary leaders. It was here that Salvatore Mancuso and the Castaño brothers formed the United Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá, then later pioneered the AUC as a national paramilitary umbrella. With little of its territory in dispute, Córdoba under the warlords’ rule was relatively peaceful.

That is not so today. Violence is increasing in Córdoba, especially in the department’s southern half. The paramilitary groups’ heirs are fighting each other for control of territory, legal economic investment projects, and illegal drug trafficking routes. And the civilian population is caught in the the middle.

In October, three church-based humanitarian and conflict-resolution groups sent a delegation to Córdoba to evaluate the security situation. The Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz), Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL) have produced a 5-page report (PDF) describing what they learned. The Colombian government must view it as a call to action. The “new” paramilitary groups are becoming a major security threat, and the civilian population is being victimized and requires far more attention.

Here are excerpts from the three organizations’ report.

The Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (best known by the acronym AUC) were officially demobilized in 2003. Since this time, there has been a dramatic difference between government proclamations of peace and the reality suffered by local communities. In Cordoba, victims and social leaders testify to violent actions by the rearmed paramilitary groups (Águilas Negras, Autodefensas Gaitanistas, Los Paisas and Los Rastrojos). These “new” groups dispute territorial control and use the same military modus operandi that the supposedly demobilized paramilitary groups used. This includes collusion with public security forces and some governmental agencies.

The four groups are independent of one another, but documented cases and testimony from local communities evidence collaboration between the Águilas Negras and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas on one side, and pitted against the Paisas and Rastrojos on the other. …

Residents of Córdoba explain that before the demobilization, while violence reigned, they at least understood who was in control, knew who to negotiate with when given the opportunity and, to a certain degree, could even predict when violence would strike and why. … With the absence of leadership, and inadequate state programs aimed at apprehending and truly reintegrating paramilitaries, former mid-level paramilitary leaders and foot soldiers regrouped. The lines of command are unclear, resulting in uncertainty and chaos for local communities in southern Córdoba. That said, land disputes such as that of the Quindio land tract and community illustrate military operations at the behest of large landholders seeking to extend their control. …

Confrontation of paramilitarism comes with a cost. Entire church communities fall victim to assassinations, threats, and forced displacement. … Between January and October of 2009, alleged rearmed paramilitary groups assassinated six evangelical church leaders in southern Córdoba and caused the displacement of five communities, forcing at least 265 families or 1,230 people from their homes. For many this was a repeat offense. …

Regional and church analysts cite economic interests that “demand” unfettered access to land currently inhabited by campesinos and indigenous communities as a driver of violence displacing people from their lands. The most often cited culprit is drug-trafficking. At least as insidious, however, is big business development in the region such as the cultivation of African palm, mining of coal, gold, and nickel and the earlier development of hydroelectric dams. …

The Justapaz and the Cedecol Peace Commission documentation project registered complaints of families displaced by rearmed paramilitary groups who were refused reception by the Colombian Presidency’s Agency for Social Action (Acción Social). The agency reportedly denied them the right to be recognized as victims of displacement for declaring that the responsible parties were new paramilitary groups. According to community testimony, this is a recurrent practice.

Feb 15
Medellín’s gang-ridden Comuna 13 neighborhood.

Note as of February 16: we’ve added a podcast about this topic to the “Just the Facts” website.


Only two or three years ago, Medellín was a showcase for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. An 80-percent drop in homicides [PDF] brought new prosperity and confidence. A series of U.S. congressional delegations, organized by both governments to promote the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, toured the city to view the “Medellín Miracle.”

The progress owed in part to the Uribe government’s deployments of soldiers and police to the violent slums that surround the city, and in part to the municipal government’s heavy investments in basic services in those neighborhoods.

But another factor shared the credit: an unusually high degree of harmony between the drug-funded, paramilitary-linked gangs responsible for most of Medellín’s criminality. The members of this loose network of gangs, often known as the “Office of Envigado” — the name comes from the Medellín suburb where Pablo Escobar established a group of hitmen — feud as often as they cooperate, with very bloody results.


The unusual period of harmony owed to a monopoly. From 2003 until 2008, the barrios’ gangs were under the solid control of one man: Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a longtime drug-underworld figure who became head of the AUC paramilitaries’ “Cacique Nutibara Bloc.” Likely in cooperation with the Colombian Army, Don Berna pushed guerrilla militias out of the barrios. Then he pushed out, or coopted, all other paramilitary and narco-gangs in the city.

When the Nutibara Bloc “demobilized” in late 2003, the order went out from Don Berna: keep violent behavior to a minimum. The ensuing period of peace in Medellín has been called “DonBernabilidad,” a play on the Spanish word for “governability.”

“DonBernabilidad” ended with the paramilitary boss’s extradition to the United States in May 2008. With the leviathan gone, the fractured Office of Envigado gangs began fighting each other again. Crime rates began rising dramatically; in 2009 the number of murders in this city of 2.5 million reached 2,178, more than double the 2008 figure.

Seventy percent of those murders, by some estimates, owe to fighting between two main factions of the Office of Envigado: one headed by Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastián,” and one headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano.” Though imprisoned, both leaders continue to exercise very strong control over their factions, which together control about 80 percent of Medellín’s gangs.

The “Committee for Life”

For this reason, a committee of prominent Medellín citizens spent three months shuttling from jail to jail seeking to broker a non-agression pact between Sebastián and Valenciano. That pact was achieved on February 1, and the number of murders in Medellín is reportedly down since that date.

The non-governmental mediators, calling themselves the “Committee for Life” (Comisión por la Vida), were a diverse and influential group:

  • Jaime Jaramillo Panesso, one of ten members of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, who served as the Committee’s spokesman;
  • Francisco Galán, until recently a leader of the ELN guerrilla group;
  • Monsignor Alberto Giraldo, the archbishop of Medellín; and
  • Jorge Gaviria, former director of the Medellin government’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants. Gaviria is the brother of José Obdulio Gaviria, who until last year was one of President Álvaro Uribe’s closest advisors, and who is now an ultra-right-wing columnist in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, where he accuses all of Uribe’s detractors, from NGOs to members of the U.S. Congress, of being FARC supporters. Both Gaviria brothers are first cousins of Pablo Escobar.

Who authorized talks with narcotraffickers?

As it carried out its prison negotiations between the Medellín factions, the committee counted with the Uribe government’s authorization. In November, President Uribe authorized the Catholic Church and civil-society groupings to initiate dialogues with criminal groups (not guerrillas) operating in their territories, for a three-month period, with the goal of convincing them “to turn themselves in to justice.”

When news of the Medellín “pact” leaked, however, Colombia’s media was immediately abuzz with charges that the government had authorized a “pact with narcotraffickers.” The Uribe administration backed off: Frank Pearl, the presidency’s “high commissioner for peace,” told reporters, “The members of the civil society commission had very good intentions, but it is possible that at some moment they lost sight of their goal, which was nothing other than the [criminal groups'] submission to justice.” For his part, Medellín Mayor Alonso Salazar, who has rejected negotiations with criminal groups but whose beleaguered administration could benefit from a break in the violence, said he was aware of the work of the “Committee for Life” but was not participating.

What did the gang leaders get in return for agreeing to the pact?

Committee spokesman Panesso insists that the Office of Envigado factions’ top leaders got no privileges in exchange for calling a truce. “It is an action of good will between them, at our request,” he told reporters. “We found that they are tired of war, that there has been a bloodletting that is not in their interest. And if it’s not in their interest, much less in society’s interest. They told us that what they needed was someone to mediate and help them come to an understanding.”

However, the Committee proposed that, “in order to continue its work,” the criminal bosses should all be transferred to prisons near Medellín — a step that would put them in much greater control over their syndicates. And indeed, it appears that a few key members of the Office of Envigado were recently moved to the Itagüí prison on Medellín’s outskirts.

A model, or a mistake?

For years, the Uribe government has prohibited, or limited very strictly, so-called “regional dialogues” with guerrilla groups about issues like hostage releases or limiting landmine use. It seems odd, then, that the government would so readily authorize citizen dialogues with imprisoned organized-crime leaders. (Even if the talks seek only to discuss “submission to justice,” the implication is that something will be offered in return.)

This inconsistency doesn’t mean that the “Committee for Life” was a loose cannon whose work should never have been authorized. Brokering a pact with imprisoned criminal leaders would be acceptable if:

  1. It truly brings social peace, measured in an immediate drop in crime.
  2. It truly happens in exchange for nothing. The leaders should not get any benefits from the state, since they are still running criminal organizations.
  3. It happens amid a concerted effort to strengthen the rule of law — and especially to capture the imprisoned criminal bosses’ commanders “on the outside” and dismantle their networks. The communications between the jailed leaders and their underlings should be a rich source of intelligence.

These pacts are not acceptable, though, if all three of the above conditions are not in place. The third one in particular seems to be badly absent right now.

Feb 03

Human Rights Watch has just released its first major report on Colombia in more than a year, and it looks like required reading.

Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia” documents the rise of “emerging” paramilitary groups throughout the country, including zones that have been a heavy focus for U.S. military assistance. It is quite critical of the Colombian government’s “weak and ineffective” response to this rapidly growing phenomenon.

It’s 113 pages and they’ve been working on it for a long time. Very highly recommended.

Nov 18
Luis Jorge Garay. (Photo source and article text)

The Colombian newsweekly Semana published this interview Sunday, translated below, with outspoken Colombian economist Luis Jorge Garay. Working with the Fundación Método, Garay recently co-published a study about one of Colombia’s most severe challenges: the difficulty of eliminating organized crime’s influence over the state.

Colombia’s government has been repeatedly penetrated by criminal groups. Examples include Pablo Escobar’s domination of local politics in Medellín and his 1982 election (as an alternate legislator) to Colombia’s Congress; the Cali cartel’s donations to the 1994 presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper; and the ongoing “para-politics” scandal, in which several dozen legislators, governors, mayors and other officials have made common cause with drug-funded paramilitary groups.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who remains a very close parner of the U.S. government, has made gains against leftist guerrillas and cut a deal with paramilitary groups to demobilize their national structure. He has extradited several top paramilitary leaders, as well as most leaders of the North Valle cartel that dominated narcotrafficking in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

The power of Colombian organized crime, however, remains great. Narcotraffickers are estimated to control about 10 million acres of land, including about half of the most fertile and sought-after land in the country. Recent scandals have revealed their infiltration at the highest levels of institutions like the presidential intelligence service (DAS) and the Medellín branch of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). And Garay contends that, with the emergence of “new” paramilitary groups throughout the country, the mafia – and its penetration of the state – is evolving.

How is it evolving? Garay’s study performs a fascinating network analysis of narco-state ties. Though the study doesn’t discuss it in these terms, we can identify several characteristics of the “successful mafioso” in today’s Colombia.

  • Control of territory, using private militias.
  • Alliances forged with local politicians, usually cemented by support for campaigns and sharing in corruption.
  • Investments in legal enterprises, particularly productive projects like biofuels and palm oil, usually pooling resources with local economic elites.
  • Alliance with, or acquiescence of, local security forces – through ties of corruption rather than a common counter-insurgent cause.
  • A low profile, avoiding a protagonistic role in politics, and avoiding confrontation with the security forces.
  • Usually, benign treatment of the population, including financial support – with the exception of organized civil society, who are subject to threats and intimidation.

Though they are responsible for much of the illegal drugs coming from Colombia to the United States today, it has not been easy to convince policymakers, many focused on Colombia’s recent “success,” that this new generation of organized crime poses a threat, and that the United States must work more actively to limit its influence over a government that Washington continues to aid generously.

Here is the Semana interview with Luis Jorge Garay.

The economist and researcher Luis Jorge Garay coordinated for the Fundación Método a study about what, in boldly simple terms, could be labeled organized crime’s infiltration of the state. …

Gustavo Gómez, Semana: What does cooptation of the state consist of?

Luis Jorge Garay: It is the exercise through which a person or group, legal or illegal, taking advantage of its power of influence, intermediates before the state to favor its own interests. Within the law, a business association for example is coopting when, through the exercise of its power of influence, it gets the state to adopt sectoral policies that favor it, even against the collective interest. On the other hand, the case of illegality takes place with organized criminal groups, on occasion in alliance with legal sectors, who seek to reconfigure state institutions for their advantage, through the state itself.

GG: It is inevitable to think of Pablo Escobar and his election to Congress…

LJG: Since the time of [Escobar associate] Carlos Lehder the mafia understood that politics is an efficient means to infiltrate the state and society. Escobar managed to get a seat in Congress, but he ran up against the counterweight of Luis Carlos Galán [a Liberal Party leader assassinated in 1989], who got in the way of his political cooptation strategy.

GG: Did the mafia learn from that mistake when it penetrated Ernesto Samper’s campaign?

LJG: It learned much, so much that it realized that participating openly and visibly in politics implied risks of criminal and social exposure, and it decided to advance in the financing of parties and campaigns, and reached the point of trying to coopt the presidential agenda.

GG: Who was the counterweight then?

LJG: There was indignation in some sectors, but the determining reaction didn’t come from society, nor was there any definitive political leadership like in Galán’s case. The determining actor was foreign: the U.S. government.

GG: What advance did the paramilitaries make with regard to infiltration, compared to these previous experiences?

LJG: The scenario of an intensification of the fight against the guerrillas, to the point at which, with the active participation of legal sectors and with the intervention of illegal groups, illegal armies were established. They understood that a mafia without territorial dominion would not reach power, and that a mafia without a state has no reason to exist. These armies, to their very central nucleus, were penetrated by narcotrafficking in their attempt to coopt the state. This even took them to the Congress, so that it is possible to talk about the narco-para-political phenomenon.

GG: The objective as to re-found the state?

LJG: Their advance with regard to Lehder, Escobar and the Cali cartel was the consolidation of new, regionally based political movements, through alliances resulting from intimidation but, above all, of shared interests between criminals and politicians to use the legislature and advance in the coopted reconfiguration of the state.

GG: What role does the Supreme Court play in this panorama?

LJG: It is the counterweight power par excellence, first in the scenario of the conspiracy charges faced by the narco-para-politicians, and later, in proving that in participating in pacts to reconfigure the state, they abetted the use of force that cost the lives of 25,000 people. Recently the Court gave itself the power to judge them as the authors of crimes against humanity.

GG: It did so to avoid impunity?

LJG: The thing is, we are facing a paradoxical scenario in which the United States, which was the counterweight during the Samper period, now seeks to privilege its domestic interests by judging the paramilitary leaders for narcotrafficking, and subordinating to those interests much more serious crimes commmitted in Colombia. The risk of impunity for crimes against humanity has diminished with the Court’s current position which, in fact, is establishing new jurisprudence regarding extradition.

GG: Is the Court not exceeding its competence?

LJG: In the case of judging narco-para-politics, it acts absolutely within the law and there is no possibility of debating its right to make these judgments.

GG: The government insists that it strangled paramilitarism. Does this mean selling us the idea that we are living in a period of post-conflict?

LJG: We are not living that because, as I say, cooptation continues.

GG: Should we mistrust the successes of Democratic Security?

LJG: There are evident advances, like the weakening of the FARC, and effectiveness in the dismantling of the top narco-paramilitary leadership. But at the regional level, agreements with some sectors of the political class continue, and organized crime has regrouped as “emerging bands.” There are still armed groups that have created “a new social order” in some regions, to the advantage of some legal actors.

GG: Have the media been an effective counterweight?

LJG: We have analyzed the last 12 years and we find a permanent scrutiny of what has happened with respect to narco-paramilitarism. They informed, but they came up short in the task of building broad consensus in rejecting processes of this nature.

GG: What consequences might another reelection have?

LJG: If it happens, there will have to be a simultaneous, integral change to guarantee an adequate system of checks and balances under the constitution.

GG: What will the next cooptation scenario be?

LJG: If the currently germinating elements of the current stage of cooptation are not uprooted, there will be a transition to another with a similar basis but with more sophisticated processes and new actors seeking a change in the regime. THe actors are accidental, temporary and substitutable.

GG: Would you prefer to avoid optimism when you think of Colombia’s future?

LJG: I realistically view the deep problems we face in order to develop as a true democracy, but I’m optimistic that we, as a society, can react. Much is lacking, that is true, to arrive at true social justice and democracy.

Apr 15

Colombian police this morning captured Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers and highest-profile alleged sponsors of “new” paramilitary groups. (See our brief profile of Don Mario here.) The arrest occurred in Necoclí, a town in the northwestern Colombian region of Urabá that has been under heavy paramilitary influence for a decade.

Links to initial coverage: BBC, AFP, AP, El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana.

Mar 11

Here are excerpts from two recent articles about the same theme: the Colombian government’s security policies and the ongoing realignment of the country’s paramilitary groups and drug mafias. The first is a column in yesterday’s El Espectador newspaper by columnist, former peace negotiator and left political leader Daniel García-Peña. The second is a February editorial [PDF] by Alejandro Angulo, S.J., the director of the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education, CINEP.

(EDIT: Alejandro Angulo’s term as CINEP’s director ended last year. The new director is Mauricio García, S.J.)

Poorly named “emerging groups”
Daniel García-Peña

In recent days President Uribe launched an offensive against the “emerging groups,” the name being given to the same paramilitaries as always.

This is a new term in the dictionary that the illusionists in the “Palacio de Nari” are editing. ["Palacio de Nari" refers to the way that paramilitary leaders referred to the presidential palace, or "Palacio de Nariño," when a 2008 scandal revealed that they had paid a visit.] In Colombia, they say, there is no armed conflict, just a “war against terrorism;” the dispaced are “migrants;” national security is now “democratic security;” the neoliberal model is called “investor confidence;” anybody who thinks differently belongs to the “intellectual bloc” of terrorism.

This mania for not calling things by their names seeks not only to distort reality in order to make it fit in narrow mental schemes, but also above all to create new virtual “realities” based on lies. In this case, the fallacy is the supposed “end of paramilitarism.” According to the fable, thanks to the “peace process,” 32,000 men were demobilized, we all saw the photos and, abracadabra, paramilitarism now doesn’t exist. The hero of the story is the outgoing “High Commissioner for Peace,” now about to use his heavy magic to unite the pro-Uribe parties.

That is why it was important to have a new name for the extinct paramilitaries. “BACRIM” (criminal bands) is what appears on the wanted posters. Another genius had the idea of calling them “new generation organizations” (NGOs), in order to stigmatize still further the true NGOs.

Past governments have always had a hard time calling paramilitaries by their real name. Between 1965 and 1989, they existed legally as “self-defense groups.” The Barco government, which declared them illegal, spoke of “hitmen” and “private justice” groups. In the Samper government, [Defense Minister] Fernando Botero gave them the prettiest alias, “Convivir” ["to coexist"]. At first, Uribe always called them the “poorly named paramilitaries.”

The truth is that the mass demobilization did not mean the dismantlement of paramilitarism, but instead formed part of its consolidation. Such a large number of armed men was no longer needed. They had already killed the political and social leaders who had to be eliminated, and chopped up and displaced all the campesinos who had land that needed to be stolen. Mission accomplished. In addition, to maintain an army of mercenaries, at 500,000 pesos per month (about US$200) times 32,000 heads, requires a respectable amount of money. As a result, the business was an all-around success: the “reinserted” passed into the care of the public treasury and the paramilitary leaders remain with all the treasure they accumulated as a fruit of their terror, keeping only the strictly necessary number of armed men.

After years of complicit silence, the final report of the OAS [verification] mission warns that 7,000 of the 32,000 ex-”paras” are disconnected from the Reinsertion Program and that some “continue to commit crimes even as they remain in the Program.” By the way, what happened to [fugitive, presumed dead top AUC leader] Vicente Castaño and why does he not appear on the wanted posters?

While the same paramilitaries as always still exist, plus the rearmed and recently recruited ones, whatever you want to call them, will still be killing. And the victims will still be inhibited from denouncing the crimes and demanding their rights to truth, justice and reparations.

The Rearrangement [PDF]
By Alejandro Angulo S.J.

The true victory of Democratic Security [the Colombian government's security policy since 2002] is paramilitary consolidation. Whether it was sought or not is disputable. But that it has not been avoided is certain. Combat against paramilitaries is being carried out by other paramilitaries. The “negotiation” with paramilitaries put para-politics on the table, an old hidden vice in of our vulnerable democracy. But victory over para-politics is still uncertain, since its conjunction with narcotrafficking has made it invulnerable.

Instead, what has been achieved is to conserve and increase a model of political action and economic development that maintains discrimination against ethnic minorities much more effectively than it did during the conquest and colonialism. At the same time, it also manages to shut down any protest against that model of slave economy that privatizes the state and makes work contracts precarious. This protest, which has taken the form of popular demonstrations and has been brought to its violent extreme by guerrillas, has been defeated. That is the deepest meaning of the triumph of Democratic Security.

A dialogue of analysts held at CINEP on Monday, February 2 documented two pieces of news, one good and one bad, which also clarify much that underlies official versions and justifies the clamor of the victims: (a) Democratic Security won the war, and (b) Violence in Colombia has not decreased. Adding the two together yields a very worrisome piece of news: the battles have been won but the war has been lost. Which means that in Colombia, politics is still an accepted form of waging war. In other words: murder is still thought of the most effective strategy at the ballot box, and armed bands are more convincing than political campaigns. Continue reading »

Feb 20

The last year and a half has seen the extradition of fifteen of Colombia’s top paramilitary leaders to the United States. It has also witnessed the arrest, killing or extradition of nearly every major head of the North Valle cartel, which for most of the 2000s was Colombia’s principal drug-trafficking organization.

Yet the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia has barely changed. Violence in key production areas and trafficking corridors is as severe as ever.

Clearly, FARC and increasingly ELN fronts are involved in this trafficking and violence. But given the intensity of the Colombian military’s offensive against them, there is little reason to believe that the guerrillas’ market share is increasing.

This means that despite recent attacks, Colombia’s drug mafia is alive and well. And as before, it seems to overlap strongly with paramilitarism – or what are now known as “emerging criminal groups.”

According to Colombia’s “New Rainbow” think-tank, which has performed extensive research on Colombia’s new paramilitary generation, there are more than 100 new militias, many of whose members and leaders have past relations with old paramilitary groups. They use about 21 different names, are active in 246 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties), and have a combined membership estimated at about 10,000. They are cultivating ties with regional economic and political leaders. They often work with the guerrillas on the drug business. They also threaten and kill human-rights defenders, labor leaders, indigenous and afro-Colombian leaders, and independent journalists.

Today’s narco-paramilitaries, or “emerging criminal groups,” or new drug mafia – whatever one wishes to call them – have no visible heads, nobody playing the role that Carlos Castaño filled for the AUC paramilitary coalition a decade ago. However, when one asks who is “in charge” and paying these new militias, some names do come up frequently. Here, thanks to research help from CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer, are four of them.

Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario”

  • The brother of Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán,” the former head of the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc of the AUC active in the northwestern region of Urabá, who is now imprisoned in Colombia.
  • Participated in the “Justice and Peace” process, but escaped and is officially a fugitive.
  • His organization is present in Antioquia (including Medellín) northward into Córdoba and the Urabá region and Chocó, as well as Meta department to the south.
  • After the May 2008 extradition of paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), who dominated organized crime in Medellín, “Don Mario” has violently sought to fill the vacuum. His violent efforts to assert control have contributed to a one-third rise in murders in Medellín from 2007 to 2008.
  • In October, circulated pamphlets across northern Colombia announcing the formation of a new group called the “Colombian Gaitanist Auto-defense Forces.”
  • Guillermo Valencia Cossio, Medellín’s chief prosecutor and the brother of Interior Minister Fabio Valencia Cossio, was arrested in September 2008 on charges of colluding with “Don Mario.”
  • In mid-2008, Colombia’s police said that one-eighth of smuggled weapons they had interdicted were destined for his organization.
  • “Don Mario” has offered a reward of 2 million pesos (almost US$1,000) to anyone who kills a police officer in Antioquia and Córdoba.

Daniel “El Loco” Barrera

  • A narcotrafficker who first got into the business in Guaviare department, 200 miles southeast of Bogotá, in the early 1980s.
  • He did narco business with the FARC throughout the 1990s. In the early 2000s, he served as a link for narcotrafficking cooperation between the FARC and the paramilitaries.
  • His area of influence is principally Colombia’s eastern plains: Meta, Casanare, eastern Cundinamarca, Guaviare, and Vichada. He is heavily involved in the transshipment of cocaine through Venezuela. He has some influence in Putumayo as well.
  • Semana magazine reported in 2007: “Barrera’s main security force is made up of an army of hitmen with very good contacts with the authorities, who are in charge of making sure that nothing happens to him, warning him about operations being planned against him by national and foreign authorities, and in some cases, even carrying out revenge killings. When Barrera has to go to Bogotá or Villavicencia, he does so in official vehicles. Just for these kinds of ’services,’ Barrera sends 300 million pesos per month (roughly US$150,000) to the capital.”
  • In November, President Álvaro Uribe questioned the army’s lack of progress against Barrera in Meta department. “I ask is the army capable of capturing [him] or if it is protecting him.”

Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, “Cuchillo”

  • A member of narco and paramilitary organizations since the 1980s, he was a top lieutenant of Miguel Arroyave, head of the AUC’s Centauros Bloc, which dominated the eastern plains and even had a presence in Bogotá. “Cuchillo” (the name means “knife,” apparently the way he prefers to kill victims) participated in the plot that killed Arroyave in September 2004.
  • His “Heroes of Guaviare” front participated in a demobilization ceremony in April 2006, but he soon abandoned the process and became a fugitive.
  • His area of operations overlaps much of “Loco” Barrera’s. It includes Meta, Guaviare and Vichada.
  • The current governor of Guaviare department, Óscar de Jesús López, is under investigation for including Cuchillo as a business partner in a mining company in 2006.

“Oficina de Envigado”

  • Since the era of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, this name refers to the organized-crime structure that has controlled most of the narco business in Medellín and its environs. Envigado is a suburb to the south of Medellín.
  • It was controlled by paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”) until his May 2008 extradition. Since then, the “Oficina” has been in some disarray, with greatly increased infighting, but it remains powerful.
  • Infighting for control of the “Oficina,” which has also involved the “Don Mario” organization, has increased violence rates in Medellín, leading Colombian National Police Chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo to spend a week there at the end of January.
  • Aliases of current leaders include “Nito,” “Yiyo,” “Beto,” “Douglas,” “Valenciano,” and “Gancho.” Other demobilized members of Don Berna’s former paramilitary organization, particularly two nicknamed “Rogelio” and “Danielito,” are also believed to be part of the leadership.
  • The “Oficina” maintains a militia called the “Paisas.” It operates in Antioquia department and along major drug-trafficking corridors in the Pacific and Atlantic coastal regions.
Jan 09

Location of Atánquez, site of the New Year’s Eve attack. Map from Wikipedia.

Here is a translation of Cambio magazine’s coverage Thursday of what appears to have been a serious December 31 attack on an indigenous community in Atánquez, in the municpality of Valledupar, in the northeastern Colombian department of Cesar. There, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, a grenade explosion at a New Year celebration killed five members of the Kankuamo indigenous group, a community that had already been hit extremely hard by the conflict.

Increasingly likely that emerging criminal groups carried out the attack in Atánquez

On Monday, January 5, Erika Fuentes, an 18-year-old Kankuama indigenous woman, became the fifth fatal victim of the grenade explosion that, on New Year’s night, stained with blood the celebration of an “open house and yard,” which is the name that the community of Atánquez, in Cesar, gives to its popular dances that are open to outsiders. The attack left an additional 67 people wounded.

Amid the pain the act produced, the young girl’s relatives heard the ultimatum that the mayor of Valledupar, Rubén Carvajal, gave the authorities. “The municipal government gives a period of 40 days for the authorities to tell the Kankuamo people who were those responsible for the possible massacre that occurred in their territory.”

“40 days could be a century for us,” replied Jaime Arias, governor of the Kankuamo cabildo. And he announced that he will employ the autonomy that the Constitution recognizes for indigenous communities to carry out an “agile, independent and conclusive” investigation of their own. His urgent haste owes to the fear generated by the possibility that the December 31 tragedy could be a signal that violence has returned to the indigenous territory most battered by the paramilitaries during the time of [AUC Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias] “Jorge 40.”

And while Arias told Cambio that it is still premature to talk about a return of the massacres, and that it is fair to recognize that the AUC demobilization has so far had a positive effect, the fear has deep historial roots. “We don’t want a history of blood and pain to be revived,” he affirmed, and with statistics in hand he recalled that 300 Kankuamos have been murdered since 1986 by extremist groups, in some cases allied with the security forces. That violence, which he characterizes as “systematic,” reached its highest crest between 2000 and 2003, when 90 members of this ethnic group met with death.

The state’s apparent indifference about what happened in Atánquez, the center of one of the most important indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, led the Inter-American Human Rights Court to order the adoption of provisional protective measures because, in its judgment, the Kankuamo people were victims of an ethnocide. The decision came before the 2005 paramilitary demobilization, in the face of the government’s delay in implementing the precautionary measures the [Inter-American Human Rights] Commission had requested.

The year-end tragedy happened days after the government requested that said Court lift the precautionary measures.

According to the Cesar governor’s office and sources in the Army and Police, in the region are emerging criminal groups who are trying to occupy the spaces left behind by the demobilized, and during October and November 2008 pamphlets circulated in Valledupar from a group calling itself the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups of Colombia.” According to the intelligence services, this was a small group within the criminal organization of [fugitive narcotrafficker and backer of new paramilitary groups Daniel Rendón, alias] “Don Mario.”

Everything indicates that the emerging groups are seeking in Kankuamo territory the same thing as the paramiitaries who came before them: territorial control in a region where the central government expects to build the Besotes dam, in the Guatapurí River basin, and the promotion of development projects that especially favor growers of industrial oil palm.

Oct 15

We are saddened and angered by yesterday’s murder of Walberto Hoyos, a community leader in the Bajo Atrato region of Chocó department, in Colombia’s far northwest. Mr. Hoyos was a leader of the struggle of two afro-Colombian communities, Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, to recover communally held lands that paramilitary groups, employing the most brutal violence, stole from them and have since employed for large-scale agribusiness projects.

Mr. Hoyos, a survivor of a September 2007 assassination attempt, is one of many Bajo Atrato community leaders who are working in the face of ceaseless threats from the paramilitaries and related large landowners who dominate this region, which is considered highly strategic because of its natural resources and its frequent use as a drug-trafficking corridor.

These threats’ severity has guaranteed a significant amount of international accompaniment for the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities’ leaders, including special designations from the Inter-American human rights system and some protective measures from the Colombian government’s U.S.-funded human rights defenders’ program.

But in large part because of the impunity that those responsible for the threats, violence and theft continue to enjoy, these measures were not enough for Walberto Hoyos. His murder yesterday afternoon, in broad daylight before witnesses, was as brazen as it was announced.

This time, the murder must not go unpunished. This time, the network of criminals, greedy landowners, and corrupt officials – including security-force officials – that is violating these communities’ most basic rights must be definitively dismantled. If it is not, Colombia’s claims to have “turned the corner” on its dark past will not pass any reasonable test of credibility.

Here are translated excerpts from the announcement of Mr. Hoyos’s murder posted to the website of the Colombian non-governmental organization Justicia y Paz, which accompanies the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities.

Today, October 14, 2008, approximately between 3:30 and 4:00 PM, two paramilitaries murdered Curvaradó community leader WALBERTO HOYOS RIVAS. Walberto was within the Caño Manso Humanitarian Zone, located in the collectively owned territory of Curvaradó, participating in a meeting with the community. Two of three armed men entered the humanitarian place, after dialoguing with the administrator of the Villa Alejandra I hacienda, known as “Pablo Hoyos,” and with the administrator of other lands in El Guamo, which paramilitaries have also usurped illegally and violently from afro-descended communities since 1996.

In the humanitarian area the two paramilitaries, after locating Walberto, took his cellphone as well as the one the community uses to activate early warnings. Seconds later they grabbed Walberto, insulting him, calling him “son of a whore.” The paramilitaries lifted their shirts, he lunged at them trying to protect himself, but they forced him to turn around and shot him repeatedly.

The paramilitaries left the area, and returned five minutes later. They took Walberto’s lifeless body, turned him face upwards, and shot him again in the face and neck.

Later they left the humanitarian area, fleeing on the motorcycles on which they arrived, one a blue Honda and one a black Suzuki, both without license plates.

Thanks to the investigative and human rights defense work Walberto carried out, it has been possible to unmask the paramilitary strategy of usurping collective territories for agro-industrial projects in the Bajo Atrato region: the planting of oil palms, intensive deforestation and extensive cattle-raising, which have been hidden behind “Campesino Associations” like Asoprobeba and the development of the paramilitary economic strategy in the region.

Behind the crime of Walberto are the same armed paramilitary structures, operating with the consent of military and police, that protect and are beneficiaries of palm, cattle and timber enterprises. …

Walberto had protective measures from the Ministry of Interior and Justice, among them a DAS [presidential security service] bodyguard and car. At the moment of his murder these measures were not functioning, due to mechanical problems with the car.

Walberto served as a witness in the case of the police detention and subsequent forced disappearance of Curvaradó community leader ORLANDO VALENCIA on October 15, 2005. This afro-Colombian individual later appeared, murdered by paramilitary structures, on October 24 of that year.

For his testimony about this crime and his encouragement of the creation of Humanitarian Zones in Curvaradó, Walberto Hoyos was the victim of a September 17, 2007 attempt on his life, in which he was wounded together with his brother MIGUEL HOYOS RIVAS. Regarding this double attempted murder, as of today the Prosecutor-General’s Office has neither identified nor charged those who planned or carried it out; these individuals continue to operate as armed structures in the security forces’ midst in Curvaradó. …

Today, October 14, the First Penal Judge of the Specialized Circuit of Antioquia communicated in writing the decision to call WALBERTO HOYOS RIVAS to give three days of testimony in Bogotá in the trial against the paramilitaries JULIO CESAR SILVA BORJA – known as “El Indio” or “El Enano” – and PABLO JOSÉ MONTALVO CUITIVA – known as “Alpha 11″ – for the murder of Curvaradó community leader Orlando Valencia. These people are important within the structure of the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc [the paramilitary group that dominated the Bajo Atrato region].

Walberto was protected by Provisional Measures of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and within that framework he had a protection plan from the Ministry of Interior and Justice. …

The paramilitary strategy continues in the midst of the presence of the army’s 15th Brigade and the National Police. In the midst of this presence the palm plantings advance, along with large-scale cattle-raising. The crimes, like that of Walberto, continue. The only things that don’t advance are the investigations of crimes committed in Curvaradó, while the criminal and business structures continue operating illegally in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

Jun 24

The city of Barrancabermeja, in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region, is a strategic port, a center of oil refining, and for decades has been a center of labor and social-movement organizing. Barrancabermeja’s labor leaders and human rights defenders have long been in the sights of the powerful paramilitary groups who operate in the region.

The paramilitaries took de facto control of the city through a campaign of massacres and selective killings in late 2000 and early 2001. While there was a relative lull in paramilitary activity after the AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc demobilized in 2005-2006, the situation appears to be worsening.

Last November, Yolanda Becerra, head of the Barrancabermeja-based Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) had her home invaded by thugs who told her to leave town or die. Now, six labor unions have received threats on letterhead bearing the logo of the “Black Eagles,” the name being used by a growing number of rapidly re-arming paramilitary groups.

Here is a translation of a brief article about the new threats that was posted yesterday to the website of Colombia’s Semana magazine. Thanks to CIP Intern Stephanie DiBello for the translation.

The ‘Black Eagles’ Threaten Leaders of Social Organizations in Barrancabermeja

After two quiet years, new violence against non-governmental organizations raises alarm. In a pamphlet, the armed group Black Eagles lists six labor unions and human rights groups as “military targets.”


Terror has returned to Barrancabermeja (Santander) after several years of relative calm. Six labor unions and non-governmental organizations that have worked for several years in the Magdalena Medio were declared military targets by the emerging group known as the ‘Black Eagles’. They all received a printed notification, with letterhead in color, directly accusing them of supporting the guerrillas.

This pamphlet has worried the labor unions Asociación de Directivos Profesionales y Técnicos de Empresas de la Industria del Petróleo de Colombia, ADECO (Association of Professional and Technical Workers of Companies of the Petroleum Industry of Colombia); and Unión Sindical Obrera, USO (Workers’ Trade Union); and the NGOs Comité Regional por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS (Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights); Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra, ACVC (Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley); Asociación de Desplazados Asentados en el Municipio de Barrancabermeja, ASODESAMUBA (Association of Displaced Persons Settled in the Municipality of Barrancabermeja); and Organización Femenina Popular, OFP (Popular Womens’ Association); all human rights defenders.

The Black Eagles justify the threats by saying, “Once again we are being overrun with lowly guerrillas who, hidden behind crude and dirty deceptions, want to take control of the city in order to return to the old days when they only had extortions, assassinations, union workers, and NGOs at their disposition, to fulfill their revolutionary ends and look for ways to destabilize the State.”

They continued on to warn that, “The guerrillas and their supporters have dared to set foot again in our Barrancabermeja, and our organization is not willing to allow them to enter.”

They point out that the aforementioned organizations “are full of revolutionary union workers and guerrilla supporters who are instigating and financing the emergence and actions of these insurgent groups, which is why they are the declared enemies and military targets of this organization.”

Continue reading »