Dominion of Evil

Colombia's paramilitary terror

by Steven Ambrus

Amnesty International magazine, Spring 2007

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 them."

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 for years.

"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 accusations.

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 trades.

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 and beliefs."

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 volatile groups.

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 and police.

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."

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