Bush Administration Fails to Acknowledge Existence of New Paramilitary Groups in Colombia
The US State Department released its annual human rights report last week and one of its implications with regard to Colombia is particularly startling: There are no new paramilitary groups in Colombia! The politicization of the latest edition of the report is most apparent in its de-politicization of Colombia’s new armed groups by denying that they are actually “paramilitary groups.” This is a political strategy on the part of the Bush administration that allows it to blame virtually all of Colombia’s political violence on the guerrillas and makes it easier to refute allegations of links between the Colombian military and paramilitaries—after all, there can be no such links if the paramilitaries do not exist.
The US State Department’s annual human rights report does not refer to Colombia’s new paramilitary groups as “paramilitaries,” but rather as “illegal” or “criminal” groups. The report states that the last United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) bloc demobilized in August 2006 and suggests that the only remaining paramilitaries in Colombia are those individual members of the AUC that refused to demobilize. This strategy seeks to legitimize the Colombian government’s demobilization process by implying that, besides a handful of AUC holdouts, there are no longer any paramilitaries in Colombia.
In reality, there is a wealth of evidence showing that there are dozens of new paramilitary groups waging a dirty war in Colombia. Numerous human rights groups have shown that new paramilitary groups operating under names such as the New Generation or the Black Eagles do indeed exist and that they are responsible for a significant percentage of the country’s political violence. In 2006, the Colombian NGO Indepaz reported that 43 new paramilitary groups totaling almost 4,000 fighters had been formed in 23 of the country’s 32 departments. Last year, the OAS estimated that there were 20 new paramilitary groups with 3,000 fighters operating in Colombia. According to Alirio Uribe, a leading Colombian human rights lawyer with the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective:
|There are forty-three new paramilitary groups but, according to the Ministry of Defense, these new paramilitary groups have nothing to do with the old ones. But the truth is, they are the same. Before they were the AUC, now they are called the New Generation AUC. They have the same collusion with the army and the police. It is a farce.|
The Belgium-based International Crisis Group (ICG) claims “there is growing evidence that new armed groups are emerging that are more than the simple ‘criminal gangs’ that the government describes. Some of them are increasingly acting as the next generation of paramilitaries.” The ICG goes on to note, “Some of these groups, such as the New Generation Organization (Organización Nueva Generación, ONG) in Nariño have started to operate much like the old AUC bloc in the region, including counter-insurgency operations.” Even the title of an article published last week by Colombia’s leading daily, El Tiempo, called the new groups “paramilitaries.” The headline declared: “The New Generation of Paramilitaries Already Exists in at Least Eight Departments of the Country.”
Despite all this evidence showing that the new armed groups are indeed paramilitaries, the State Department insists—as does the Colombian government—on referring to them as “illegal” or “criminal” groups. The Uribe administration illustrated its attitude towards the new paramilitary groups last week after they killed six organizers of the March 6 protests against State and paramilitary violence. Ivan Cepeda, director of the human rights organization called Movement of Victims of State Crimes, recently reported that the Black Eagles paramilitary group had emailed a death threat to those organizations involved in planning the protest. However, Colombia’s Interior Minister Carlos Holguin publicly dismissed the political nature of the threat, claiming that the Black Eagles are a “criminal organization.”
The State Department’s annual human rights offerring makes clear that the Bush administration is using the same playbook as the Colombian government. In the report, the term “illegal groups” appears 35 times to describe the new organizations and the State Department never once refers to them as paramilitaries. The report claims that the new armed groups are not focused on fighting Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, stating, “The new illegal groups, which the government also described as new criminal groups, … focused primarily on narcotics trafficking and extortion rather than fighting the FARC or ELN. In these circumstances, it was often difficult to determine responsibility for abuses committed.”
This description of the new groups suggests in no uncertain terms that, from the perspective of the State Department, they are primarily engaged in criminal, rather than political, activities. Therefore, by implication, they could not be waging a dirty war against suspected guerrilla sympathizers nor could they be engaged in the country’s armed conflict. Furthermore, the last sentence in the quote seeks to mask the human rights abuses perpetrated by the new paramilitary groups. However, by referring to the new “illegal groups” 35 times in its human rights report—often in reference to their having committed killings, forced displacement and numerous other atrocities—the State Department makes evident that these groups are responsible for a significant portion of the country’s human rights violations.
Because the new armed groups are in fact involved in Colombia’s civil conflict, the report is inevitably riddled with contradictions. On the one hand it seeks to portray the new groups as nothing more than criminal organizations, and yet it states that the “country’s 43-year-long internal armed conflict, involving government forces, two terrorist groups (FARC and ELN), and new illegal groups, continued.” Thus, the State Department contradicts its overall portrayal of the new groups by acknowledging that they are indeed fighting the FARC and ELN. The report also admits that the new armed groups are waging a dirty war against the civilian population by noting that “new illegal groups killed journalists, local politicians, human rights activists, indigenous leaders, labor leaders, and others who threatened to interfere with their criminal activities, showed leftist sympathies, or were suspected of collaboration with the FARC.”
The report goes on to point out, “New illegal groups also prevented or limited the delivery of food and medicines to towns and regions considered sympathetic to guerrillas, straining local economies and increasing forced displacement.” Consequently, the State Department’s report clearly illustrates that the new groups are ideologically-motivated and engaged in the armed conflict in the same manner that the paramilitaries of the AUC were in the past.
The report also points out that the new groups collaborate with the Colombian military, whose primary mission is to fight the guerrillas. According to the report, “Some members of government security forces, including enlisted personnel, noncommissioned officers, and senior officials … collaborated with or tolerated the activities of new illegal groups or paramilitary members who refused to demobilize. Such collaboration often facilitated unlawful killings and may have involved direct participation in paramilitary atrocities.”
This quote also illustrates the manner in which the report repeatedly refers to “paramilitaries who refused to demobilize” and the “new illegal groups” as separate entities, thereby suggesting that the new groups are not paramilitaries. For example, by deliberately using the word “or” when referring to both (i.e. “tolerated the activities of new illegal groups or paramilitary members who refused to demobilize”), the State Department is clearly differentiating between the two armed actors even though they are engaged in exactly the same military activities. And despite the fact that the State Department admits that the new “illegal groups” are collaborating with the Colombian military and are waging a dirty war against those Colombians with “leftist sympathies,” it mysteriously refuses to refer to them as “paramilitaries.”
Undoubtedly, the State Department’s decision not to label the new groups as “paramilitaries” is politically-motivated. It allows the Bush administration to portray the Colombian government’s human rights performance in a more favorable light by dismissing the violence perpetrated by the new groups as common crimes rather than political violence conducted in defense of the State. It also makes it easier to blame the guerrillas for a majority of the conflict-related human rights abuses since, according to the State Department, there are no new paramilitaries to work hand-in-glove the Colombian military. And, finally, the mislabeling of the new groups implies that paramilitary violence is a thing of the past and helps cover up the fact that the Uribe government’s demobilization process represented more of a restructuring than a disbandment of the right-wing militias.