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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