The Metamorphosis Of Colombia's Paramilitary Groups

Murderous paramilitary organizations that formed in the 1980s were supposedly dismantled. Elements, however, continue to live on through what the government now calls Organized Armed Groups, or GAO.

The paramilitary phenomenon remains a threat in Colombia
The paramilitary phenomenon remains a threat in Colombia
Reinaldo Spitaletta


BOGOTÁ — Is paramilitarism finished in Colombia? Or did it simply change shape and morph into the so-called bandas criminals (criminal gangs) — BACRIM for short — which are known to involve old-guard paramilitary fighters and are responsible for a new wave of crime and terror?

These are just some of the questions being posed in light of recent reports about the forced displacement of civilians in the department of Chocó, in western Colombia, where clashes have been reported between guerrillas with the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and members of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Groups, a criminal offshoot of the now defunct United Self Defense Forces of Colombia paramilitary organization.

The paramilitary phenomenon, that horrific project of the 1980s created in a backward country dominated by landowners, remains a threat, especially now that Colombia's largest guerilla army — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC — has agreed to dismantle. This is especially true is rural areas.

In 1983, when the lands of the Magdalena Medio region in north-central Colombia were soaked in blood and vultures picked at bloated corpses floating in the Magdalena River, novelist Gabriel García Márquez described the new terror in a newspaper column. "The violence is so intense and savage in that nightmarish paradise that it may be considered a little El Salvador," he wrote that August.

People might be tempted to think that "old-fashioned" paramilitarism is a thing of the past.

In reality, as García Márquez noted, the central Magdalena region is more than twice the size of El Salvador. But in terms of violence, El Salvador loomed large at that time in the public consciousness. And like in El Salvador, the area around the Magdalena River bore witness to horrific atrocities.

Such was the case in the village of Santo Domingo, where all the male residents were killed and "their widows and children spend the nights in nearby mountains where terror keeps them awake," the One Hundred Years of Solitude author pointed out. In another hamlet, Los Mangos, "they killed 13 peasants, merely for having attended a vigil for their murdered companions," he wrote.

Paramilitarism as it exists in Colombia was cruel and bloodthirsty from the outset. The pretext for its creation was to fight the guerrillas. But beyond that, it was a political project designed to seize control of the country's best lands. It used terror as a key mechanism of expropriation and, as it metastasized, resulted in wholesale massacres. Little by little, paramilitary groups formed alliances with state forces and politicians of the traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives.

In his 1983 column, entitled "Which country are we dying in?," García Márquez argued that the only point of clarity with regards to the violence was that "the material authors are gangs of mercenary gunmen who kill in broad daylight, sometimes with their faces uncovered and at other times painted, and whom everybody knows but nobody dares report." The public prosecutor in the district of Aguachica, he added, "bluntly declares that the gangs are paid by big landowners to steal the lands of poor peasants."

The novelist's article described the first manifestations of paramilitarism and proved, subsequently, to be prophetic. The criminal enterprise would expand across the country, always with the pretext of fighting guerrillas but aiming above all to grab lands while inflicting pain and death on people in the countryside.

Years later (though not many), people might be tempted to think that "old-fashioned" paramilitarism is a thing of the past. Recent events suggest otherwise. It now seems like the paramilitaries — or BACRIM, as they came to be known — are moving into areas abandoned by the FARC. The recent displacement of 913 families of the Alto Baudó district in Chocó is a case in point, an example of the redistribution of illegal forces.

The Chocó department is the setting of a fight between the ELN and what the army now calls Organized Armed Groups, or gao. The sides compete not only for control of drug routes, but also illegal mining operations. The website Kienyke published a recent report suggesting that army operations against the ELN may have inadvertently strengthened the other gao in Chocó.

This should serve as a wakeup call. As the forced displacement of residents indicate, the state needs to make its presence felt in Chocó and other areas being abandoned by the demobilized FARC. It also needs to address the basic needs of residents there, and crack down the illegal industries driving the gao. If not, paramilitaries — or BACRIM, or gao or whatever we choose to call them— will continue to rule the roost.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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