Dominion of Evil
Colombia's paramilitary terror
by Steven Ambrus
Amnesty International magazine,
Colombia's paramilitary demobilization
is unearthing the staggering magnitude of paramilitary terror-and
the unholy alliance of political, military and business leaders
that sustained it.
In the early 1990s, a butcher named Rodrigo
Mercado got fed up with paying protection money to Colombia's
leftwing guerrillas. Unable to shake them off, he sought financing
from ranchers, politicians and businessmen and raised a 350-man
militia. Then he went on the rampage. People accused of leftist
sympathies in the state of Sucre were shot. Others were carved
to bits with chainsaws, buried in mass graves or fed to alligators.
Mercado delighted in the killing, survivors say. Moreover, it
provided benefits. As thousands of people fled, Mercado and his
men seized control of local governments and acquired vast tracts
of farmland and shoreline. Then they used their new possessions
to dispatch boats loaded with cocaine to foreign markets.
"They were merciless," said
Arnol Gómez, a community leader from the town of San Onofre.
"They had so much power that no one could do business or
run for office without their approval. Even the police supported
Today, after a decade of terror and destruction,
an edgy calm has settled over the rolling grasslands and tin-patch
towns where Mercado spent his fury. The warlord has been dead
for more than a year, a victim of bloodletting in his ranks. His
troops have fully demobilized through a 2003 peace deal between
the government and a paramilitary umbrella group known as the
United Self- Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Local farmers have
returned to their tiny plots of plantains and corn. But criminal
investigators are only now uncovering graves on Mercado's abandoned
farms. And with hundreds of people dead and hundreds more still
missing in Sucre, the painful process of uncovering the truth
about what happened there and in other areas of paramilitary control
is just getting underway. For the first time, Colombians are confronting
the immense dimensions of the paramilitary terror that has gripped
their country for four decades, and the unholy alliance of military,
business and political leaders that propelled it forward.
"Colombia is at a crossroads after
years in which the paramilitaries infiltrated the world of legitimate
business and the agencies of local and national government,"
said Iván Cepeda, the son of a left-wing senator who was
murdered in 1994 by an alliance of military and paramilitary operatives.
"Colombia will either become a nation of laws and democratic
institutions or sink further into violence, authoritarianism and
the denial of basic rights."
In 2005, Colombia's Congress passed the
"Justice and Peace" law governing the demobilization,
trial and reintegration of 31,000 AUC combatants, including commanders
accused of war crimes and drug trafficking. Harshly criticized
by human rights groups and the United Nations, the law allows
paramilitary leaders to serve reduced sentences of eight years
on special farms and contains loopholes likely to let top commanders
keep millions of hectares of stolen land.
The law does, however, give prosecutors
new incentives to unveil the truth. Because paramilitaries lose
sentence reductions for crimes they fail to confess, it has energized
a crusading prosecutor general and Colombia's supreme court to
unravel the paramilitaries' criminal activities and to discover
their connections with the highest spheres of money and power.
Critics say that witness intimidation and legal trickery will
prevent the paramilitaries from coming clean. But the dominoes
are beginning to fall.
In March 2006, police seized the computer
of Rodrigo Tovar, a former AUC commander. Tovar, a scion of the
coastal aristocracy, was an enchanting and cosmopolitan rancher
whose demobilization ceremony in March 2006 turned into fiesta
attended by two former governors, much of the local elite and
one of the nation's most famous musicians. But Colombians were
scandalized to learn from an October 2006 attorney general's report
that many of Tovar's "demobilized troops" were not paramilitaries
at all, but unemployed farmers paid to act the part. And they
were outraged when investigators discovered tape recordings and
documents on Tovar's computer detailing the murder of nearly 600
merchants, union members and suspected leftists, as well as paramilitary
alliances with the power brokers of five states on Colombia's
Atlantic coast. Tovar and his men had ruled the region. They bankrolled
the campaigns of congressmen and mayors. They organized electoral
fraud. They bribed dozens of policemen and military officers and
skimmed public contracts in social security, health and agriculture.
"This is further confirmation that
the paramilitaries control the state, the economy and the system
of justice in large chunks of Colombia," said Gustavo Duncan,
a security analyst and expert on the AUC. "With their private
armies and drug profits, they are more powerful than the Sicilian
Mafia in regions where they have become the very state itself."
In the wake of these revelations, the
political establishment is reeling. Nine congressmen-all of them
allies of President Álvaro Uribe-are being investigated
on charges ranging from helping create and finance paramilitary
groups to murder and corruption. Several mayors and former governors
are also under investigation, and the former head of the DAS,
Colombia's equivalent of the FBI, is on trial for erasing paramilitaries'
files and conspiring with them to commit electoral fraud in the
2002 presidential elections. With the pressure building on many
fronts to confess, ranchers and other powerful businessmen are
acknowledging for the first time that they supported the paramilitaries
"2006 will go down in history as
the year in which the country learned how far the tentacles of
paramilitarism reached," pronounced Semana, Colombia's leading
newsweekly, in an end-of-year editorial in which it made "paramilitarism"
its person of the year. "Though many Colombians knew that
the paramilitaries controlled various regions of the country ...
nobody imagined that this scourge had become a cancer that was
silently eating away the pillars of democracy."
The paramilitary groups' emergence into
public awareness began in the early 1980s when wealthy landowners
and drug traffickers hired mercenaries to help defend them against
guerrilla extortion and kidnapping in Colombia's 42-year-old civil
war. With the support of the military and police, the groups began
to purge their regions of leftist influence. Thousands of union
members, peasant leaders, and leftist politicians were killed.
Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes.
Stoked by profits from the drug trade, the paramilitaries became,
in much of Colombia's hinterland, a state within the state. They
became more powerful than their old allies in the cocaine cartels-in
the early 1990s, some paramilitaries allegedly assisted with U.S.-Colombian
efforts to destroy the Medellín cocaine cartel-and, in
some regions, more powerful than the military itself.
President Uribe has always had a complicated
relationship with the paramilitaries. When he was governor of
the state of Antioquia in the mid-1990s, the paramilitaries there
were in the midst of a brutal struggle with the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation's largest guerrilla
group. Uribe, whose father had been killed by the FARC during
a kidnapping attempt, was widely accused by human rights organizations
of sympathizing with, or at least turning a blind eye to, the
worst paramilitary abuses. And he was criticized for supporting
statesponsored civil defense groups, known as CONVIVIR, a number
of which had documented links to the paramilitaries and to the
murder and abuse of the civilian population. When he became president,
commentators even quipped that his paramilitary demobilization
pact was merely "an agreement among friends."
But Uribe's past has not distanced him
from the United States. On the contrary, Washington supports the
president because of his stated eagerness to collaborate against
the drug trade, his openness to private investment, and his opposition
to the spread of left-wing movements in Latin America. The United
States gives Colombia more than $700 million in anti-narcotics
and counter-insurgency assistance annually. But support for Uribe
is not unconditional. Despite the damning nature of the allegations
against then-Governor Uribe's tenure in Antioquia, U.S. officials
are encouraging the prosecutor's office to move the purging process
forward, to press the paramilitary investigations into the heart
of the government itself.
"From conversations I've had with
U.S. and Colombian officials, I'm convinced that the U.S. wants
these investigations to continue," said Daniel Garcia Peña,
a former top peace negotiator for the Colombian government. "Elements
inside the Justice Department want the paramilitaries and their
allies to be put in jail and for those involved in drug trafficking
to eventually be extradited."
The Uribe administration appears to understand
the magnitude of the crisis. "Allegations against political
allies are obviously uncomfortable for the government, but we
are willing to go all the way to prosecute the guilty, no matter
who they are," said Vice President Francisco Santos. "We
need to turn a page in our history, give voice to the victims
and thoroughly reform our institutions." The potential beneficiaries
are the victims themselves, who have felt excluded from the investigations
into their paramilitary persecutors, but who on occasion seem
bolstered by growing support from both the authorities in Bogotá
and the international community.
In November 2005, 2,000 survivors, encouraged
by the arrival of an honest military commander, gathered in a
small sports arena to testify to representatives of the Colombian
Senate, the United Nations and the Organization of American States
(OAS) about the political-paramilitary alliance that had wracked
their region. People who had not confided to anyone for a decade
poured out heartrending tales of torture, executions and the forced
disappearances of loved ones. They recalled how Rodrigo Mercado
and his men took over the municipal government through electoral
fraud and intimidation, then drained the county coffers dry, leaving
schools to crumble and hospitals bereft of supplies. They told
of a generalized decline into brutality in which neighbor denounced
neighbor and friend turned against friend-exploiting the paramilitaries'
presence to eliminate romantic and business rivals with false
Since then, townspeople have readily spoken
to reporters, eager that their tragedies not be forgotten. José
de la Concepción Huertas talked about how his son was "disappeared"
off the streets four years ago by a paramilitary thug infatuated
with his son's pregnant wife. A relative, Oberta Vaena, displayed
a faded photograph in a wooden frame of his two teenage brothers
and spoke of how the young boys were executed for accidentally
dropping and breaking mangoes belonging to a paramilitary ally.
"The paramilitaries wanted to sow terror and establish their
authority," said Vaena. Neither survivor had much patience
with the government's plan for reintegration. "The commanders
should get life sentences, and their troops and financiers should
be punished too," said de la Concepción. "There
was evil here."
Following demobilization, paramilitary
commanders spent much of their time awaiting legal proceedings
on farms supplied with first-class food, cocktails and female
companionship and were transferred to jails only in late 2006
after reports they might escape. Demobilized rank-and-file paramilitaries
have lived less luxuriously, but substantially better than their
victims. They receive subsidies of $163 per month, high school
education, psychological therapy and training in cooking and other
Survivors in San Onofre and other regions
say they resent the unequal treatment. They complain that while
they toil for less than $5 a day on meager plots, the government
pampers their oppressors. "The paramilitaries are generally
young people with a very low education level who have been in
the jungle for years and don't know the rules of society, don't
know right from wrong," said Reintegration Commissioner Frank
Pearl, explaining the investment in the former combatants. "We
want to train them for the job market, to change their values
The government has launched projects in
which paramilitaries and victims work side by side and communities
are compensated for their suffering through the building of schools
and bridges. Amnesty International vigorously opposes such projects
because of the trauma that victims naturally feel in the presence
of the paramilitaries. Nevertheless, the government believes they
are an important step toward reconciliation. "Our role as
a government institution is to show people how to forgive,"
Pearl said. But that is easier said than done. There are now more
than 3 million internal refugees in Colombia and 3.5 million hectares
(about 9 million acres) of land in the hands of paramilitary commanders
and their front men, according to CODHES, the nation's leading
nongovernmental refugee agency. The paramilitaries have not only
taken huge quantities of land, the agency says, they have taken
the best land. Centuries old Afro-Colombian, Indian and peasant
farmer communities have been dispersed, their plots stolen for
paramilitary drug crops as well as palm oil, cattle and logging
operations. As hundreds of thousands of victims of paramilitary
terror pack into the slums of the major cities and roam the streets
begging for bread, forgiveness has become about more than a question
of attitude. It is inextricably linked to reparation. "The
paramilitaries have used extremely intricate strategies for hiding
the origin of stolen land," said Jorge Rojas, director of
CODHES. "And unfortunately the government lacks a legal mechanism
for either identifying or returning it."
Indeed, instead of feeling repentant,
some paramilitaries seem eager to increase their wealth. At its
height, the AUC exported an estimated 40 percent of Colombian
cocaine, controlling coca fields and ports for shipping drugs
abroad, intelligence officials say. Some paramilitaries are still
trying to maximize their share of the trade. Last year, the OAS
drew attention to the emergence of dozens of tiny but deadly new
paramilitary gangs. Since then, those groups have waged horrific
campaigns of intimidation to protect cocaine laboratories, as
well as arms and drug shipments, along Colombia's borders with
Ecuador and Venezuela. Colombian authorities say they have captured
more than 200 former paramilitary combatants who had joined new
groups. But with former AUC members trying to hold onto their
land and perpetuate their power, human rights groups say they
still feel threatened because some paramilitary structures have
not only survived but have morphed into new, potentially more
Iván Cepeda is among the concerned.
He has been threatened innumerable times since the paramilitaries
officially demobilized. As head of the nongovernmental National
Committee of Victims of State Crimes and one of the most vocal
activists in demanding reparation for paramilitary victims, he
uses bulletproof windows at home, avoids political conversations
on the phone and travels only with unarmed protectors from the
human rights group Peace Brigades International. Cepeda points
out that members of his organization have narrowly escaped assassination
recently and that altogether more than 3,000 people have been
murdered since the paramilitaries officially ended hostilities.
He is convinced not only that many remain active but that they
continue to have the support of hard-line elements in the military
After decades of crippling paramilitary
violence and corruption, complicity by politicians and generals,
and the crushing influence of drugs, Colombia must determine how
to work its way out of a decades-long cycle of turmoil and misery.
"We are at a juncture where a part
of the truth about the paramilitaries is coming to light, and
where some journalists and state functionaries are trying to clean
up the system and achieve justice for victims," Cepeda said.
"But the future is uncertain. There are powerful elements
of paramilitarism still at large."