Antonio Caballero, an outspoken editorialist for Colombiaâ€™s newsweekly Semana, began a recent column with a scary quote from Senator Carlos Moreno de Caro, the vice-chairman of the Colombian Senateâ€™s Peace Committee. (Sen. Moreno is known, among other things, for setting free two live scorpions on the floor of Colombiaâ€™s Senate in the midst of a debate last year.) According to Caballero, Sen. Moreno defended the idea of giving paramilitaries a lenient treatment in their current negotiations with the government, arguing that â€œthe thing is, half the country is theirs.â€
This is an exaggeration, but not a wild one. Even though Colombiaâ€™s paramilitaries are massacring fewer people lately and are negotiating â€œdemobilizationâ€ with the BogotÃ¡ government, their leaders have been steadily tightening their grip on local politics and patronage, the drug trade and other illegal activity, and even a chunk of the legal economy. They are maintaining this grip through the same means as always â€“ ruthless use of violence.
El Tiempoâ€™s Ãlvaro Sierra put it well last September.
Today the country is becoming aware that â€“ following an offensive that involved terrible crimes â€“ a substantial portion of national territory, of the daily lives of millions of people, of politics, of the economy and local-government budgets, and an unknown amount of power and influence at the level of central-government institutions like the Congress, is in paramilitary hands.
While this trend â€“ call it â€œparamilitarizationâ€ for want of a better word â€“ has been going on for a few years, only in the last few months has it begun to receive attention from mainstream information sources. Colombiaâ€™s principal media began paying attention on September 26 of last year, when by some odd coincidence both BogotÃ¡ Sunday papers (El Tiempo and El Espectador) and both newsweeklies (Semanaand Cambio) ran stories about some aspect of the paramilitariesâ€™ growing influence. Reports since then have been sporadic, but they make up most of the sources for what follows. There has been almost nothing about paramilitarization in the English-language media (though the New York Times and Houston Chronicle did publish pieces in November about paramilitary allies in Colombiaâ€™s Congress).
â€œAccording to a map drawn up by the Presidency of Colombia,â€ El Tiempo noted in its September 26 report, â€œ49 paramilitary fronts are present in 26 of the countryâ€™s 32 departments [provinces] and 382 of its 1,098 municipalities [counties]. This adds up to 13,500 men distributed across 35 percent of the national territory.â€
What is remarkable about this presence today is how little it resembles the paramilitary model of five or six years ago, with hundreds of heavily armed men wearing camouflage uniforms, living on encampments and carrying out bloody offensives to expand into new territory. While there still are plenty of these truly â€œparamilitaryâ€ paramilitaries â€“ especially in strategically (or narcotically) important rural zones â€“ they are becoming obsolete, a throwback to the Carlos CastaÃ±o era.
Instead, in the many regions of the country where their military control is uncontested (by the guerrillas or the military), the AUCâ€™s blocs are increasingly coming to resemble Italian-style mafias. â€œIn Colombia we may be entering an â€˜a la italianaâ€™ phase,â€ writes analyst Ãlvaro Camacho, â€œin which control and protection of illegal activity extends itself and accelerates, threatens free enterprise, overflows into politics and becomes a new form of organized crime that must be added to the already long list of threats to Colombian democracy.â€
Like Italyâ€™s mafias, the paramilitaries are getting involved in politics in order to drain money from public coffers. Particularly in the northern part of the country, the paramilitaries have managed to get â€œtheirâ€ candidates elected to governorships, mayorâ€™s offices and town councils in both big cities and small towns, university presidencies, and even Colombiaâ€™s Congress and Senate. This allows them to siphon off a lucrative cut of all government contracts and otherwise tap into municipal and departmental treasuries. While this is something that guerrillas have also done to fund themselves (such as the ELNâ€™s access to oil royalties in Arauca department), the paramilitaries are taking over politics not in remote, neglected zones but in some of Colombiaâ€™s principal population centers.
Unlike Italy, though, the paramilitaries also seem to be getting involved in politics for its own sake. Many blocs have developed a social discourse (if not an ideology) that â€“ while it stresses order and property â€“ includes so much advocacy for the poor, including calls for land reform, that it sounds a bit like the guerrillasâ€™ rhetoric. Paramilitary â€œfoundations,â€ meanwhile, are paying for road-building, health services and development projects in much of northern Colombia.
After the 2002 legislative elections, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso boasted that the AUC controlled at least 30 percent of the Colombian Congress. While not all of these legislators are willingly doing the paramilitariesâ€™ bidding, a few are enthusiastic backers. The most visible are RocÃo Arias and Eleonora Pineda, who represent paramilitary strongholds in northern Antioquia and southern CÃ³rdoba departments. Arias and Pineda were the driving force behind a controversial July 2004 address to the Congress by Mancuso and paramilitary leaders IvÃ¡n Duque and RamÃ³n Isaza.
Arias and Pineda belong to a new political party, â€œColombia Viva,â€ many of whose members express open support for the paramilitaries. The party includes thirteen members of the Congress, 27 mayors and 388 councilmembers. Many other paramilitary-backed (or paramilitary-controlled) politicians belong to Colombiaâ€™s traditional parties.
The mere fact that paramilitary supporters are participating in the democratic process is not necessarily bad news â€“ a measure of success working â€œwithin the systemâ€ could be an incentive for all armed groups to choose the ballot box over the rifle. The trouble is, just as guerrilla groups did in the past with disastrous results, the paramilitaries are choosing both. â€œThe paramilitaries are forging ties with the Colombian political class even here, in this Congress, while they kill people along the length and breadth of the country,â€ warned Rep. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrillas, in an October congressional debate. â€œWhat is being built in Colombian territory are death clubs that kill opponents.â€
The paramilitariesâ€™ â€œcombination of all forms of struggleâ€ goes well beyond electoral power and violence against political opponents. Like any proper mafia, the AUCâ€™s blocs have increased their control over much of Colombiaâ€™s illegal economy. Not just the drug trade (of which, according to U.S. Ambassador William Wood, they control about 40 percent), but a big share of contraband smuggling, counterfeiting, prostitution, and gang activity.
Extortion is a major illegal income source as well. A â€œhigh-level security-force sourceâ€ told El Tiempo about this phenomenon in the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta: â€œFrom the 1,000 pesos (40 cents) they charge each street vendor in Santa Marta to the 250,000 to 500,000 ($100 to $200) that every truck that enters the port must pay â€¦ and weâ€™re talking about ships that need 70 trucks to unload them.â€
Recently, the paramilitaries have begun to expand their income from Colombiaâ€™s legal economy. Part of that is their increasing share of local-government contracts, especially funds from the Subsidized Regimen Administration (ARS), a program of block grants from the central government to provide health care for the poorest. Colombian authorities are investigating as many as 63 cases of ARS funds being diverted to the paramilitaries.
Like drug cartels before them, paramilitary groups are setting up their own companies to provide services like private security and cable television in urban areas. Competitors are being run out of business â€“ and not by the paramilitary companiesâ€™ superior service or low prices.
What follows is a description of how â€œparamilitarizationâ€ is advancing in several departments of Colombia, including some of the countryâ€™s most populous. This rundown, culled mainly from recent Colombian press reports, likely indicates only the very tip of the iceberg.
The department of CÃ³rdoba, which hosts the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone where the Colombian government is negotiating with the AUC, is the most strongly held of all paramilitary strongholds in Colombia. The following is from El Tiempo:
The AUC and Salvatore Mancuso [whose hometown is MonterÃa, the departmentâ€™s capital] have absolute control over the departmentâ€™s south. The best reflection of this is that different sectors of society openly defend the self-defense groupsâ€™ discourse. The local newspaper, El Meridiano, has editorialized more than once in their favor. In Tierralta [the municipality that includes the Santa Fe de Ralito zone] there is a public hospital financed by the paramilitaries, where they attend to their combatants and anyone else who needs care.
CÃ³rdoba is the place of origin of Colombia Viva, the political movement whose members have expressed respect for the paramilitary cause. This group has two members of Congress from the department, Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda. The latter has been a political spokesperson for the self-defense groups in the current peace process.
Tierralta and Valencia can be considered the capitals of the AUC. There are no investigations or judicial accusations against either of these townsâ€™ mayors. In the first, the mayor, Humberto Santos from Colombia Viva, won the elections a day after all other candidates protested against the paramilitariesâ€™ pressures against them. In Valencia, Negus Correa won as the only candidate for mayor; the same happened in two previous elections.
It is acknowledged that the â€œparasâ€ have some influence over the University of CÃ³rdoba. In 2003 a Congressional proceeding revealed a meeting between the president, Claudio SÃ¡nchez Parra, and members of the Superior Council with Salvatore Mancuso. The official denies any ties, and while he admits having been in the meeting, he justifies it as a response to an offer that no Colombian is in any position to refuse. A relative of Mancuso occupies a high administrative position in the university.
In the 1990s Fidel CastaÃ±o [Carlosâ€™ brother, allegedly killed in the mid-1990s] created the CÃ³rdoba Peace Foundation (Funpazcor) through which he donated land, money and cattle to former EPL guerrillas to support development projects. Today, Funpazcor is on the â€œClinton Listâ€ [the U.S. Treasury Departmentâ€™s â€œSpecially Designated Nationalsâ€ (SDN) list].
The most aggressive pioneer of paramilitary political dominance and patronage is Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias â€œJorge 40,â€ the second-in-command of the AUCâ€™s powerful Northern Bloc. He has brought it to an advanced state in the department of Magdalena, the home province of Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez whose capital is the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta. Since 2002, â€œmuch of the business in Santa Marta takes place during hours set by the AUC,â€ notes El Tiempo. â€œTheir control over the department is almost total, with the exception of part of the Sierra Nevada [coastal mountain chain, which still has a strong guerrilla presence].â€
Magdalenaâ€™s governor, Trino Luna Correa, was elected in 2003 as the Colombia Viva candidate after running unopposed. The other candidates all quit, citing threats from paramilitaries. In the city of Santa Marta, where paramilitariesâ€™ control of politics is less firm than in rural areas, blank ballots filed in protest outnumbered votes for Governor Luna.
AUC pressures also led to overwhelming electoral margins for Magdalena Senators Dieb Maloof (a recent arrival from the city of Barranquilla in AtlÃ¡ntico department), SalomÃ³n Saade and Luis Vives, and Representatives JosÃ© Gamarra, Jorge Caballero and Alfonso Campo. A similar phenomenon occurred at the mayoral level; in Concordia municipality, candidate EfraÃn Escalante was murdered after ignoring paramilitary demands to abandon his run.
Earlier this month on the floor of the Colombian Congress, Rep. JosÃ© JoaquÃn Vives, claiming that â€œthe paramilitaries have 60 percent of Magdalenaâ€™s political class,â€ alleged that Sen. Saade had met with â€œJorge 40â€ in Ralito to plot his murder.
Paramilitaries, chiefly those under the command of â€œJorge 40,â€ are the principal power today in Cesar department, the birthplace of Colombiaâ€™s signature vallenato music. They dominate all but the mountainous parts of the department, where drug crops and guerilla groups are both present.
Like Magdalena, Cesar also had a single gubernatorial candidate in 2003. Hernando Molinaâ€™s two opponents quit, citing AUC threats. As in Magdalena, voters in the capital city, Valledupar, cast more blank ballots than votes for Molina. In 2004 Molinaâ€™s peace advisor, MarÃa Victoria Barreneche, was arrested for suspected paramilitary ties.
The mayor of La Guajiraâ€™s capital, RÃohacha, Wilder Antonio RÃos, was arrested in September, along with ten city officials. They were charged with channeling to the paramilitaries funds provided by the BogotÃ¡ government to provide healthcare to the poorest (the Subsidized Regimen Administration program, or ARS). The crime was first denounced by leaders of the WayÃºu indigenous group.
The officials diverted at least 148 million pesos in ARS funds (about US$60,000, a lot of money in underpopulated La Guajira) to the paramilitaries through a representative of Jorge 40 known as â€œLa TÃaâ€ (The Aunt).
â€œJorge 40â€ protested that the charges were overblown. â€œWe only received 5 million pesos from the ARS. The corrupt politicians kept the rest.â€
El Espectador notes that in Barranquilla, Colombiaâ€™s fourth-largest city, â€œthrough some ARS the paramilitaries control the destination of some public funds. There is mention of a woman known as â€˜La Gataâ€™ [The Cat], protected by the self-defense groups, who presumably through the distribution of lottery tickets in AtlÃ¡ntico, BolÃvar and Magdalena, manipulates the millions in public resources that come from state-run games of chance.â€
Norte de Santander
The Venezuelan border city of CÃºcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, was long known for the quality of the counterfeit dollars (and now Euros) that its citizens produced. Since a campaign of massacres in 1999, the city and the nearby coca-growing region of Catatumbo have been under very firm paramilitary control. CÃºcuta now has one of Colombiaâ€™s highest murder rates.
The frontrunner in the 2003 gubernatorial elections was Tirso VÃ©lez, a leftist poet who used to belong to the virtually extinguished Patriotic Union party. VÃ©lez was killed well before the elections, paving the way for Governor Miguel Morelli Navia. The Colombia Viva candidate, Ramiro SuÃ¡rez Corzo, was elected mayor of CÃºcuta.
Mayor SuÃ¡rez was arrested in June 2003, charged by the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office (FiscalÃa) with receiving paramilitary funds for his campaign and holding several meetings and telephone conversations with local paramilitary leaders. In June 2004, one of the mayorâ€™s police bodyguards was arrested for paramilitary links. Earlier this month, nearly two years after his arrest, Mayor SuÃ¡rez was suddenly released when a higher level of the FiscalÃa, citing â€œa reasonable doubt,â€ dropped all charges.
In CÃºcuta, the FiscalÃa itself has been heavily infiltrated by paramilitaries. The director of its CÃºcuta office, Ana MarÃa FlÃ³rez, has been a fugitive since 2003, when it was revealed that her office had been passing information to the local paramilitaries. Twelve CÃºcuta Fiscalia employees are in prison, among them FlÃ³rezâ€™s secretary, Magally Moreno, who was allegedly the girlfriend of a regional paramilitary commander known as â€œEl Gatoâ€ (The Cat â€“ a different feline than the one in Barranquilla). Three prosecutors and two police assigned to the investigation of the case have been killed or disappeared.
Much business in CÃºcuta is now a paramilitary affair. According to El Espectador, â€œMany young engineers have warned that one cannot get business from the mayorâ€™s offices or the governorâ€™s office, because the contracting process is controlled by paramilitarism.â€
Paramilitaries are also deeply involved in the private security business, sharing in security firmsâ€™ profits while using the guards themselves as information sources, as El Tiempo reports.
Investigators affirm that the â€œparasâ€ forced managers of these security firms or associations to resign, in order to insert trusted people in their positions.
According to these investigations, self-defense groupsâ€™ penetration of the private guard business is so great that â€œparaâ€ comandantes were able to call managers of unlicensed security cooperatives to meetings in Juan FrÃo, 30 minutes from CÃºcuta.
The objective of these meetings, affirms a police intelligence source, was to establish a series of weekly and monthly quotas that these firms must pay the AUC in order to be able to operate. Also, to define the mechanisms by which guards would provide information.
â€œThrough intimidation they broadened their information network. The private guards, before informing the police, first advised the â€˜parasâ€™ about guerrillas, robbers, lowlifes or car thieves, who took justice into their own hands,â€ said a police sergeant who coordinated the investigation.
The following account of widespread paramilitary extortion in Tolima comes from an October 2004 report by Inter-Press Service.
In each of the 36 municipalities in Tolima, the paramilitaries have lists of â€œ1,000 or 2,000 citizensâ€ whom they extort, said the parliamentarian [Tolima state legislator Hugo ZÃ¡rrate]. Rice growers in the department â€œhave to pay a very high tax by weight to the paramilitaries,â€ he said.
And for each of the 700,000 head of cattle in Tolima, stockbreeders pay 3.80 dollars in taxes to the paramilitaries, who take in around 3.28 million dollars a year in Tolima from stockbreeders and rice producers alone, said ZÃ¡rrate.
Although the security forces have a strong presence in Tolima (unlike in portions of the country dominated by the guerrillas), the paramilitaries control urban areas in the department, and from that base they extort â€œcasual laborers, butchers, supermarkets, landowners, transport drivers, etc.,â€ he said.
This kind of â€œparamilitary activity has increased and been strengthened since the second half of 2002,â€ said ZÃ¡rrate.
On March 18, a hitman murdered Colombian Congressman Ã“scar GonzÃ¡lez Grisales in the Liberal Party headquarters in Manizales, the capital of Caldas. GonzÃ¡lez represented the municipality of Aguadas, just over the border from Antioquia, which is the hometown of top paramilitary leader IvÃ¡n Roberto Duque (a.k.a. â€œErnesto BÃ¡ezâ€), the chief of the AUCâ€™s Central BolÃvar Bloc. In statements to the press, Duque placed the blame for the murder on the mayor of Aguadas, saying that were it not for the paramilitariesâ€™ declared cease-fire, â€œI would do justice myself.â€
The episode revealed, as a FiscalÃa investigator told El Espectador, â€œthat it seems every political movement in Aguadas is controlled by paramilitary spokesman Ernesto BÃ¡ez.â€ The municipality, hit hard by the 1990s plunge in coffee prices, saw much of its best lands bought up by narcotraffickers, chief among them Duque and a family, known as â€œLos Cocholos,â€ that is believed to be a large source of financing for the Central BolÃvar Bloc. Citing a university study released last year, El Tiempo states that â€œAguadas is the Caldas municipality in which the narcos have bought the most hectares of land.â€
According to an associate of the murdered congressman quoted in a Semana magazine article, â€œEvery politician who wants to do something in those two towns [Aguadas and the neighboring municipality of La Merced] first needs the approval of â€˜BÃ¡ezâ€™ and â€˜Los Cocholos.â€™â€
Paramilitary extortion has also been commonplace in Meta, where the AUCâ€™s Centaurs Bloc â€“ headed by drug figure Miguel Arroyave from about 2000 until his own men killed him last September â€“ manages to get a 5% cut of all government contracts. According to El Tiempo, â€œthe August murder of Carlos PÃ©rez GÃ³mez, a departmental government contractor, for refusing to pay his fee, made this custom evident. In addition, in Casibare, Puerto Lleras, the â€˜paraâ€™ chief maintained a â€˜tax collectionâ€™ center where cattlemen and merchants had to pay.â€
Last August, the mayors of El Dorado and El Castillo municipalities, the ex-mayor of LejanÃas, and Euser RondÃ³n â€“ who lost the 2003 gubernatorial election despite being Miguel Arroyaveâ€™s chosen candidate â€“ published an open letter in El Tiempo supporting the paramilitary presence in Meta and thanking the rightist fighters for their contributions. (RondÃ³n was killed in September 2004, shortly before Arroyaveâ€™s murder).
Valle del Cauca
If you want to sign up for satellite or cable television service in one of the towns around Cali, you will likely find yourself doing business with the AUC. According to El Tiempo, paramilitary figures known as â€œCarelataâ€ and â€œLombrÃsâ€ have been buying up small neighborhood television providers at astronomical prices, and forcing unwilling sellers out of the business. The paramilitaries have done away with the competition either by tempting away their subscribers with offers of several free months, or by destroying their antennas and cables. The owner of one of these competitors told El Tiempo that the mastermind of this big buyout is â€œa recognized paramilitary leader who has yet to demobilize,â€ in partnership with a local narcotrafficker â€œfor whom the United States is offering a sizable reward.â€
Though his 860-member â€œCacique Nutibara Blocâ€ (BCN) demobilized to much fanfare in November 2003, Diego Fernando Murillo (a.k.a. â€œDon Bernaâ€ a.k.a. â€œAdolfo Pazâ€) continues to dominate criminal activity and much else in MedellÃn. Many of those who demobilized (only some of which were actual paramilitaries, many were street criminals rounded up at the last minute) remain under Don Bernaâ€™s control, and the powerful AUC leader maintains another un-demobilized bloc, the â€œHeroes of Granada,â€ on the outskirts of the city.
Demobilized BCN members were quite successful in the 2004 election of local development advisory groups (Juntas de AcciÃ³n Comunal) in MedellÃnâ€™s poor barrios, winning posts in 30 of them. A very credible Colombian official recently explained to CIP that Don Berna maintains â€œofficesâ€ throughout the city where young men are recruited and paid to collect extortion money, gather intelligence, and run illegal moneymaking activities ranging from gambling to drugs to prostitution. This same source claims that the sharp drop in MedellÃnâ€™s murder rate since 2002 owes to a direct order from Don Berna to abstain from killing. (For that reason, our source adds, MedellÃn mayor Sergio Fajardo, a progressive who has invested much municipal resources in the BCN demobilization, â€œmust be praying every night that nothing happens to Don Berna.â€)
Paramilitaries are very much in the private security business throughout Antioquia, starting up unlicensed firms in several parts of the populous department. This is the case in UrabÃ¡, where many members of the â€œBloque Bananeroâ€ paramilitary group that demobilized in November have apparently begun new careers as guards.
Paramilitaries are also trying to take over satellite and cable television service in Antioquia, as evidenced by reports of a 2004 assassination attempt in MedellÃn against a satellite television provider who was being pressured to sell his business.
The paramilitarization phenomenon extends even to Colombiaâ€™s capital. Last September, El Espectador offered the following discussion of paramilitary activity in the neighborhoods of Los MÃ¡rtires and Santa Fe, which comprise much of BogotÃ¡â€™s old downtown.
In the last five years, the localities of Los MÃ¡rtires and Santa Fe have been experiencing a phenomenon of paramilitary factionsâ€™ control that has resulted in innumerable selective killings, kidnappings and extortions. Several years ago they took control of the zoneâ€™s prostitution centers, where they also supervise the movement and sale of drugs. Various leaders of the sector who have tried to denounce this have been victims of attempts on their lives. The latest was Los MÃ¡rtires Councilman Harvey Ayala, killed on August 31, 2004.
It is an open secret that the AUCâ€™s Capital Bloc [an offshoot of the late Miguel Arroyaveâ€™s Centauros Bloc] has taken control of the sectorâ€™s three sanandresitos [markets where people can buy imported goods duty-free, as well as pirated music and videos, counterfeit designer clothing, and similar contraband]. â€¦ â€œAnd they have managed to mix themselves in, controlling piracy of music and all of the cellular phone outlets. From the cellphones they can make as much as 100 pesos [about 4 cents] for every phone call,â€ said a leader of the [sanandresito] sector.
The same article alleges that in the past three years, several paramilitary fronts have taken control of Corabastos, BogotÃ¡â€™s main wholesale food market.
The vendors denounce that no less than 200 members of the Capital Bloc are constantly patrolling, supervising collections from the farmers who arrive and leave (taking 15 percent of what they earn), and that many of the nearly 6,000 displaced people in the vicinity of Corabastos work as informants. According to the authorities, their control is so structured that the paramilitaries store their weapons in locations near Corabastosâ€™ ten entrances. That way, they dominate the transit of drugs and arms through the facility.
The new model: mafia plus death squad plus political movement
All of this activity is taking place while the paramilitaries are negotiating a demobilization deal with the Colombian government, and getting serious about politics.
Semana magazine reported last month about a January 13 meeting between informal AUC advisors, demobilized paramilitaries, Rep. RocÃo Arias of Colombia Viva, â€œa well-known businessman who has deserted the ranks of Uribe supporters because he considers the President â€˜too soft,â€™â€ representatives of â€œJorge 40â€ and Salvatore Mancuso, and others. They produced an internal document setting an immediate objective of â€œidentifying the AUC as a political organizationâ€ and establishing a national political movement that, â€œin permanent contact with the AUC Negotiating General Staffâ€ in Ralito, would coordinate a regional election campaign strategy.
â€œThe revelation that an AUC political movement is in its infancy has caused a stir because the demobilizations have not concluded,â€ Semana notes. â€œIn the current context there is a very high risk of armed campaigningâ€ â€“ the practice of getting oneâ€™s party elected through threats and intimidation.
Much of rural Colombia is already represented by corrupt political bosses who govern through patronage and backroom, machine politics. If the AUCâ€™s new version of â€œcombination of all forms of struggleâ€ serves them well, this old guard may soon be replaced by a new class of corrupt political bosses.
These new congressmen, senators, governors and mayors would be quite different from the politiqueros of old. They would be part of a national political project: one that is vaguely right-wing, intimately tied to the drug trade and other criminal networks, represents the interests of a Paleolithic large-landholding class, and freely uses violence when the political process gets in the way of their agenda. If â€œarmed campaigningâ€ allows them to increase their share of control over government institutions â€“ if the â€œpara-stateâ€ is allowed to grow within the state â€“ Colombia will finally become the â€œnarco-democracyâ€ that U.S. drug warriors have worried about for so long.
One might expect that the Colombian government would be seeking to put an end to this now, early on, before it advances any further. The FiscalÃa, for instance, would be more aggressively investigating what lies below the tip of the iceberg, going after paramilitary-run criminal networks, paramilitary involvement in the legal economy, and elected officials who may owe their positions to paramilitariesâ€™ armed support.
The Uribe governmentâ€™s negotiators would be going beyond their immediate goal of demobilizing rank-and-file paramilitary fighters. They would push for steps necessary to dismantle the paramilitary-tied mafias and violence networks, including provisions in the â€œPeace and Justiceâ€ law, currently being debated in the Colombian Congress, that would require all demobilizing fighters to reveal what they know about their command and financial support structures. They would be encouraging demobilized paramilitaries to participate in politics after demobilizations are complete and, even then, taking all necessary measures to ensure that this participation is unarmed. As Sen. Rafael Pardo, a key proponent of such provisions, wrote in February: â€œTo demand less would be to subordinate democracy to armed groups, whether new ones or old ones. It would be to send society the message that crime does pay.â€
Unfortunately, this is not happening. Faced with the threat of paramilitarization, the Colombian government has been surprisingly inactive, even insisting that no such threat exists. Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe unconvincingly assured El Tiempo last September that â€œthe disease is being attacked with many medicines.â€
For its part, the U.S. governmentâ€™s position is less clear. While some officials are insisting that the paramilitary negotiation process must truly dismantle the paramilitaries, others are either eager to achieve the short-term goal of taking several thousand fighters out of the conflict, or are unwilling to challenge a major initiative of President Uribe, their closest ally in Latin America.
In recent conversations with U.S. officials, we have also heard an argument that we can paraphrase as, â€œIf they end up as mafias, that would still be a major improvement over the large armies they are today, and we can deal with them more easily later.â€
We believe that this is a grave misreading of the threat that â€œparamilitarizationâ€ presents. To ignore the problem now will create a much larger problem later. If their plan of combining crime, violence and political power succeeds, the AUC may insert itself into Colombiaâ€™s institutions to an extent well beyond what the drug cartels of the 1980s and 1990s could have hoped to achieve. They would enjoy near-total impunity, and the impossibility of opposing them politically would cause Colombiaâ€™s democracy to unravel dramatically. The effect on U.S.-Colombian relations â€“ and on the amount of drugs arriving on our shores â€“ would be devastating.
It makes much more sense to take the problem seriously and address paramilitarization now, not later.