Colombia's road to peace: new militia threatens stability with bloodshed

A new generation of paramilitary groups has become the main source of human rights abuses just as the country is working on a peace deal with two leftist forces

All Lorenzo Upegui wanted to do was deliver the goods he was transporting from Medellín to Colombia’s northern coast. But the truck driver’s journey led him into the midst of a violent show of force by an armed drug-trafficking organisation known as the Usuga clan.

Gunmen on a motorcycle forced the 60-year-old to pull his 18-wheeler across the carriageway, blocking the road between the towns of Valdivia and Tarazá. Then they shot him in the head and left his body in the middle of the road.

Four policemen and an army captain were also killed and a handful of other trucks were torched during an “armed strike” imposed by the Usuga clan over the weekend, aimed at showing the extent of their influence and strength in north-eastern Colombia. Under threat from the group, shopkeepers kept their shutters down and schools and hospitals closed, and most people remained locked in their homes for two days.

The episode reflects one of the major challenges Colombia faces in trying to implement peace deals with the country’s two leftist guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, which are negotiating with the government.

The Usuga clan was born from a faulty demobilization – in this case an attempt in the mid-2000s to disarm a federation of rightwing militias known as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). While more than 30,000 fighters laid down their weapons, some units refused, regrouping as what are variously called “post-demobilization” groups, neo-paramilitaries or paramilitary successor groups.

The government of president Juan Manuel Santos considers the groups nothing more than “criminal bands”, or bacrim, dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal mining.

But that tells only part of the story. While they do control much of Colombia’s drug trafficking and illegal mining trades, they also have strong ties to local elites and politicians and often do their bidding, said Ariel Avila, a conflict analyst.

On Tuesday, police captured a congressional staffer in Bogota with the equivalent of nearly $205,000 in cash, believed to belong to one of the criminal bands.

And human rights groups have long warned that the new generation of paramilitary groups has become the main source of human rights abuses.

These groups “are still systematically violating human rights, affecting citizen security, the administration of justice and the construction of peace, and interfering with the restitution of (stolen) land,” UN human rights representative to Colombia Todd Howland said on presenting the agency’s annual report last week.

Led by Darío Antonio Usuga, who goes by the name “Otoniel”, the clan, which is also known as the Gaitanista Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC), is considered one of the most ambitious and ruthless of the groups.

The Historical Memory Centre says the new groups are present in one third of municipalities in the country, with the Usuga clan dominating in 119.

Once the Farc and ELN begin to demobilise, the Usugas and other neo-paramilitary groups are likely to move into areas once held by the guerrillas to take over the illegal economies there, including trafficking routes and extortion networks. “That could lead to significant bloodshed,” Avila said.

And while the groups do not appear to be ideologically motivated, regional power players who are opposed to a peace deal with guerrillas could hire them as private armies to oppose attempts to return stolen land to victims and oppose the future participation of demobilized rebels in politics.

That is one of the guerrillas’ most pressing concerns as the Farc negotiates the final points of a peace deal with the Colombian government in Havana, while the ELN prepares to begin separate peace talks with the government.

As part of an attempted peace process in the 1980s, the Farc created a small leftwing party called the Patriotic Union (UP). Rightwing paramilitaries linked to the armed forces killed more than 3,000 members of the party, including two presidential candidates, during the 1980s and 1990s.

A recent rash of selective murders of social activists around the country, together with the Usuga’s armed strike, has raised concerns of a repeat of history.

“The surge in paramilitary actions against the civilian population and political and social leaders casts a shadow over the substantial progress in the talks with the insurgencies and (over) the hopes for peace of all Colombians,” the Farc said in a statement over the weekend.

But the Usugas’ endgame may be more self-serving than challenging the guerrillas’ peace process.

They consider themselves the “third actor” in the country’s internal conflict and seek to negotiate their own exit strategy with the same benefits as will be granted to the guerrillas, such as avoidance of prison time.

Santos has flatly refused. “The Usuga clan is a criminal, drug-trafficking organization that under no circumstances will be given any political treatment,” he said, vowing to continue police and military operations to dismantle the group.

But in a 2013 communiqué, the clan warned that “as long as we are not part of the negotiation process, peace will continue to be a deferred aspiration in the collective imagination. We cannot be ignored.”


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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