Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Once and Future Paramilitaries?

A Botero painting portrays a 1988 paramilitary massacre.
Leg bones from a massacre victim.
During the 1980s, '90s and the early 2000s, the Paramilitaries were the terror of Colombia, committing many of the conflict's worst atrocities: rapes, chain-saw massacres and the driving of campesinos from their homes and land.

But in 2005-6, they signed peace agreements, turned in their weapons and agreed to short prison terms in return to confessing their crimes.

Investigators recover bodies from a
paramilitary massacre site.
And, last week, Colombia's paramilitaries officially disappeared - at least according to the United States government. In a little-noticed act, the U.S. State Department removed the paramilitaries' umbrella organization, the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) from its list of terrorist organization.

Unfortunately, however, according to news reports and to many Colombians, the paramilitaries are still there.

Recent newspaper headlines mention paramilitaries.
Yes, the AUC was dissolved, and many of its leaders are doing time in Colombian and US prisons. But, in parts of Colombia where government control is weak and violent criminal groups remain strong, paramilitary groups continue operating as an  almost inevitable product of the circumstances.

What else would you expect? After all, if you were a farmer living in an area wracked by guerrillas and other criminal bands, which stole your livestock, threatened to kidnap you and your children and taxed your income, wouldn't you also embrace 'self-defense' forces to fight those groups?

After the AUC's disappearance, some of its ex-members simply transformed themselves the so-called BACRIMs - regular old criminal bands lacking ideology, but just as murderous.

I just saw this cheery profile piece on NPR about paramilitary forces in Mexico carrying out an heroic battle against narcotrafficking cartels. But Colombia's paramilitaries started the same way before evolving into the massacring, drug-trafficking death squads which left such a scar on Colombian history.

In fact, Colombian paramilitarism had several origins, including government-organized self-defense organizations and anti-kidnapping hit squads created in part by Pablo Escobar and other drug cartel kings.

If the main paramilitary groups have disappeared, their legacy continues, with frequent discoveries of massacre sites and court rulings requiring the Colombian government to pay huge indemnizations to victims of paramilitary massacres which the regular military could have prevented but did not. And ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe and his brother Santiago are fighting accusations linking them to paramilitary groups.

In the coming months, hundreds of one-time paramilitary fighters, including many who confessed to massacres and other atrocities, are expected to be released from prison after completing their eight-year terms.

Both victims and government officials worry that they will reconstitute their paramilitary bands or join other criminal groups.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: