In the neglected, largely rural zones where Colombiaâ€™s conflict is most fiercely
fought, government representatives â€“ including soldiers â€“ are much scarcer than
guerrillas and paramilitaries. Colombians living in these conditions (there
are millions) will tell you that if they have to live without a government,
they prefer to live under one illegal groupâ€™s solid control. To live in a contested
area â€“ where combat is frequent and all are under suspicion of serving the other
side â€“ is to begin each day with no guarantee of seeing its end.
In paramilitary-dominated zones, residents know that there is a more frightening
alternative to the reasonably predictable tyranny of the warlords. A return
of the FARC or ELN to their communities would bring a territorial struggle with
the AUC, with pitched battles, massacres, and a dirty war against residents
who, in the guerrillasâ€™ eyes, formed the paramilitariesâ€™ support system.
As the AUC prepares to demobilize 3,000 fighters by 2005 and all 20,000 of
its members by 2006, it is understandable, then, that many residents of paramilitary-dominated
areas are terrified by what might happen next. As Human Rights Ombudsman Volmar
PÃ©rez puts it, â€œpeople are afraid that the guerrillas will come and destroy
them because they had to live among the paramilitaries.â€
UrabÃ¡ and Catatumbo
One such zone is UrabÃ¡, a banana-growing region encompassing parts of Antioquia
and ChocÃ³ departments near the Panamanian border. The AUC wrested UrabÃ¡ from
guerrilla control with a very bloody campaign of massacres and displacements
during the mid-1990s (a period that included Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s term as governor
of Antioquia). One of the three paramilitary groups active in UrabÃ¡, the Bananero
Bloc commanded by HernÃ¡n HernÃ¡ndez, made headlines on Thursday with a demobilization
ceremony. The blocâ€™s 450 members turned in a smaller number of weapons, making
them the first of 3,000 paramilitaries expected to do the same by the end of
Colombian journalists have detected a palpable fear that the Bananero Blocâ€™s
disappearance will encourage the FARC, which continues to dominate the nearby
SerranÃa de Abibe region, to return in force. â€œWe havenâ€™t had police here for
ten years,â€ Fernando Callejas, a councilman from Turbo municipality, told MedellÃnâ€™s
El Colombiano. â€œFirst we were under the FARCâ€™s control, and now the AUC
is nearby, blocking the guerrillasâ€™ way. We hope the security forces stay in
the zone and donâ€™t abandon us.â€ The director of UrabÃ¡â€™s largest private-security
firm told El Tiempo that her business is picking up. â€œCattle ranchers,
merchants and even individuals are requesting our services. It all owes to the
Another zone likely to see an imminent paramilitary demobilization is the Catatumbo
region of Norte de Santander department, a coca-growing zone near the Venezuelan
border. Catatumbo was an ELN stronghold until 1999, when the paramilitaries
poured into the area, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. (The commander
of the Colombian Armyâ€™s 5th Brigade at the time, Gen. Alberto Bravo,
was fired for allowing the paramilitaries to advance unhindered.)
Sometime in December, the AUCâ€™s Catatumbo Bloc, commanded by Salvatore Mancuso,
is to disband its 1,400 members â€“ the largest single bloc expected to dissolve
in 2004. The guerrillasâ€™ return to this zone is a very real possibility: according
to El Tiempo, 500 FARC and ELN fighters continue to dominate the sparsely
populated left bank of the Catatumbo river, while the paramilitaries reign on
the right bank, where most of the population lives. We may have seen a preview
of what might happen if the guerrillas cross the river for good: in June, the
FARC massacred 34 coca-pickers in the paramilitary-dominated La Gabarra district
of TibÃº municipality.
The Colombian press has noted a slow but steady exodus from Catatumbo since
word of the Catatumbo Blocâ€™s demobilization began to spread. Anticipating a
rise in violence and a disruption to the coca economy, locals have been leaving
by the busload. A campesino who has lived in the zone for twenty years told
Caliâ€™s El PaÃs that his bags are packed â€œbecause we are going to be unprotected
and abandoned. What people are saying is that if the â€˜parasâ€™ leave, the guerrillas
will enter, and we donâ€™t know how they will act nor what their intentions will
be, because they will consider those of us who live here to be collaborators.â€
A greater military and police presence, he added, wonâ€™t make much difference.
â€œItâ€™s not enough, because theyâ€™re not going to put a policeman or soldier on
every corner. And if they do, what will happen to the people who live in the
countryside? Before, when the guerrillas ran things and the security forces
were also present, the guerrillas killed at any time of day or night, anywhere
they pleased, and we donâ€™t want to see that situation repeated.â€
Filling the vacuum
The Colombian government has announced its intention to fill the vacuum left
by demobilizing paramilitaries, deploying new troops and police to the zones
the AUC claims to be vacating. In the short term, the Defense Ministry expects
to send personnel from elite mobile brigades, which may require a drawdown from
other anti-guerrilla operations elsewhere in the country, particularly â€œPlan
Patriota.â€ By next year, the armed forces are href="http://www.presidencia.gov.co/sne/2004/noviembre/04/04042004.htm"
target="_blank">promising an additional 4,000 troops in the demobilization
zones, a gap that they expect to fill in part by â€œredirectingâ€ some peasant
soldiers â€“ participants in a program originally designed to station soldiers
in their hometowns.
â€œThe important thing is that they come to stay. Our hope is that we can finally
have a state here,â€ a druggist in El Tarra, Catatumbo told El Tiempo. Unfortunately,
it is far from clear that the Colombian military will be able to maintain a
long-term presence of that size in these zones, when the conflict continues
to be fought on so many other battlegrounds throughout the country.
â€œAt its innermost circles, the government seems to fear the same thing,â€
target="_blank">writes security analyst Alfredo Rangel, who directs the BogotÃ¡-based
Security and Democracy Foundation. â€œIt knows that it is still unable to stop
the guerrillasâ€™ return to many places where paramilitary groups will be demobilized.
â€¦ Where will it find these additional troops? Clearly, by pulling them out of
Plan Patriota in the south, because the government does not have enough military
power to demobilize the paramilitaries and to try to defeat the guerrillas at
the same time.â€
Of course, truly filling the vacuum and securing these zones would require
more than just military force; Human Rights Ombudsman Volmar PÃ©rez has proposed
a more integral â€œ href="http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/NEGOCIACION/negociacion/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1903841.html"
target="_blank">humanitarian cordonâ€ in the demobilization zones, with agencies
from the civilian government, governors and mayors, the international community
and civil society carrying out an ambitious strategy â€œto rebuild the social
fabric and allow the population to live in peace.â€ Of course this is absolutely
what needs to be done. Like any workable solution in Colombia, though, it would
be expensive â€“ and the Colombian government lacks even the budget to deploy
soldiers, much less carry out such an ambitious program.
A grim outlook
If the demobilizations embolden the guerrillas and the Colombian government
cannot mount an effective deterrent, what will happen? The likely outcomes are
The first possibility is a guerrilla takeover of key paramilitary demobilization
zones. The guerrilla fronts that were pushed out of these areas (especially the FARC fronts) remain largely intact and are generally
present in remote nearby zones, poised to return. If they do, the result could be quite bloody, as has been the case in the few areas where
the FARC has made inroads into paramilitary dominance (such as lower Putumayo
and the Atrato River region in ChocÃ³).
A guerrilla resurgence in these zones would also deal a death blow to the Colombian
governmentâ€™s talks with the AUC. If their gesture is met with a guerrilla scorched-earth
campaign, it is hard to imagine the paramilitaries agreeing to demobilize any
more of their blocs.
In fact, the guerrilla-takeover scenario is rather unlikely. The paramilitaries
are near their peak military strength and well positioned at the negotiating
table; for them to cede control over strategic zones at this point defies all
logic. They probably have something else in mind. It is more likely that the AUC leadershipâ€™s control will simply assume
a different form.
In the short term, AUC control may be preserved through
duplication of blocs. Most, if not all, of the paramilitary blocs slated to
turn in their weapons between now and January 1 operate alongside other AUC
groups in the same regions. In UrabÃ¡, two more AUC blocs continue to operate:
the Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas bloc commanded by â€œAlemÃ¡nâ€ (and not participating in peace
talks), and the HÃ©roes de TolovÃ¡ bloc commanded by â€œDon Berna.â€ The Catatumbo
bloc is part of a larger AUC structure in Norte de Santander department; Salvatore
Mancusoâ€™s paramilitaries around the nearby city of CÃºcuta, for instance, are
not going anywhere.
We witnessed a similar phenomenon after the much-heralded November 2003 demobilization
of Don Bernaâ€™s Cacique Nutibara bloc in MedellÃn. It later emerged that Don
Berna had begun another MedellÃn-based group, the â€œHÃ©roes de Granada,â€ which
continues his dominance over the cityâ€™s crime-ridden slums and in fact absorbed
several former Nutibara bloc members.
If the AUC is truly to demobilize, however, these parallel blocs
will have to disappear eventually. To solidify control over territories after â€œdemobilizing,â€
the paramilitaries would have to pursue a less formal solution.
Taking off the camouflage fatigues and the armbands, turning in some weapons
and serving some light jail sentences will certainly do away with the AUC as
Colombians know it. But this alone will not undo the command structures, the
criminal financial networks, the support from large landowners, drug kingpins,
military officers and local officials, and large payrolls of killers-for-hire. In other words, demobilization alone will not undo AUC dominance over its territories.
While it may no longer operate within a â€œparamilitaryâ€ structure of uniformed
fighters living with military discipline in encampments, a post-negotiation
AUC may still be a lethal force with broad dominion over territory and control
over much of the drug economy. In some areas, it could exert control as a network
of shadowy death squads; in others, it could be a private system of vigilantes
carrying out private â€œjusticeâ€; in still others, it may be nothing more than
a mafia controlling illicit behavior. Or it could be all three at the same time.
The paramilitary peace talks could end up as a nationwide repeat of what Alfredo
Rangel calls â€œâ€˜the Cacique Nutibara modelâ€™: demobilization without demobilization,
disarmament without disarmament, reinsertion without reinsertion, and a veiled
toleration of territorial control by paramilitaries who impede the guerrillasâ€™
If this reconfigured paramilitary control is to be the result, the current
negotiations are clearly not worth the effort.
Some tough questions
The Uribe government and the AUC leadership would of course object strongly
to this analysis, insisting that the main point of the negotiations is to restore
government control to the zones the paramilitaries are to vacate. Filling the
security vacuum, they will argue, is a challenge, but Colombiaâ€™s security forces
and other institutions are ready.
Would-be donor governments should not just take the negotiatorsâ€™
word for it. They must ask tough questions about the Colombian governmentâ€™s
plans to keep the guerrillas or re-configured paramilitaries from filling the
- What troop strength is needed to secure the population of the demobilization
- Will this presence guarantee security in rural areas, or just town centers?
- For how long must that troop strength be maintained?
- Do the Colombian military and police have the manpower to maintain that
sort of presence for that long a period, or is it likely that they will be
called away early for more urgent missions?
- When, and to what extent, will civilian government institutions, especially
the judiciary, enter the zone â€“ and is the ombudsmanâ€™s proposal for a â€œhumanitarian
cordonâ€ being taken seriously?
- How much would all of this â€“ the military and civilian components â€“ cost?
Does the Colombian governmentâ€™s budget anticipate covering that cost? Where
will the money come from?
- What is being done about parallel paramilitary blocs in the same zones?
- Will the OAS or some other credible mechanism be in place to verify that
(a) former paramilitary leaders are not carrying out illegal activities in
the zones they previously dominated, and (b) the security forces are working
diligently to dismantle any illegal networks involving former AUC leaders?
Until the Colombian government can offer satisfactory answers to these questions
â€“ and clear responses have not been forthcoming â€“ the â€œsecurity
vacuumâ€ question will continue to be an urgent concern.
If the talks go ahead without good answers to these questions, the unlucky
residents of paramilitary-controlled zones will not be any better off after
the AUC demobilizes. If the state fails to fill the vacuum, either they will
find themselves living under the same brutal leadership under a different name,
or â€“ perhaps worse â€“ they will be caught in the crossfire, living in a territory
disputed by guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries. The likelihood of either outcome
poses an important obstacle to international support for the paramilitary peace
Coming soon: (5) Justice, victims’ rights and accountability