The Paramilitary Connection

September 25, 2007

In November 1981, the April 19th Movement (M-19) guerrilla group kidnapped and demanded ransom for Martha Nieves Ochoa, a member of the prominent Ochoa drug trafficking clan, who were members of the then-powerful Medellín Cartel.[1] The next month, with Martha still a hostage, her family called a meeting in Medellín to discuss the situation. As a result of the meeting, the cartel created a professional hit squad to target kidnappers. A few months later in Puerto Boyacá, an important transhipment point on the Magdalena River, another group, including several active-duty army officers, representatives from the Texas Petroleum Company, and Puerto Boyacá cattle ranchers and politicians created an armed organization to defend their interests and deter guerrilla attacks and extortions. The group would soon evolve into a full-fledged paramilitary organization—called Death to Kidnappers (MAS).[2]

Around the same time, another paramilitary organization, the Peasant Self-Defense Units of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) was emerging in northern Colombia. The ACCU was formed by two brothers named Fidel and Carlos Castaño, whose father had been kidnapped and killed the previous year by the country's largest guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The brothers had begun buying massive tracts of land in northern Colombia. They paid for it with the fortune they had amassed during the 1980s, mostly through drug trafficking and extorting "protection rent"—payoffs—from landowners. To avenge their father's death, the Castaño brothers established an armed group—again, with an explicit anti-guerrilla agenda—and offered its services, particularly in the area of intelligence, to the army's Bomboná battalion, which was operating in the areas where the brothers owned land.[3] In turn, the army helped link the Castaños with other paramilitaries, and proceded to launch a major counterinsurgency against the guerrillas.

The formation of MAS and the ACCU were defining moments in the emerging alliance among drug traffickers, large landowners, cattle ranchers, local political bosses and the military. This alliance implemented a counterinsurgency strategy against the guerrillas at exactly the same time that the incoming government of President Belisario Betancur was negotiating peace with the rebels. The new effort was emblematic of the extreme weakness and fragmentation of the Colombian state: As the executive branch was extending an olive branch to the guerrilla organizations—and making a serious attempt at institutional reform at many levels, including reigning in the power of the armed forces—the military was organizing paramilitary forces to defeat the insurgencies. The divorce between government policy and military actions contributed to the failure to hammer out an accord with the FARC and the country's second guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Belisario Betancur was a reform-minded politician who was elected president in 1982, promising to modernize and rationalize the state bureaucracy. He thought that in order to reform the state, it was imperative to incorporate the insurgent movements as a counterbalance to the reactionary sectors of the dominant classes, namely the landed oligarchy. This thinking was the driving force behind Betancur's doomed peace policy.

After years of civil conflict—several new guerrilla movements, including the M-19, the People's Liberation Army (EPL) and the indigenous armed movement, Quintin Lame, had emerged to join the insurgencies of the FARC and the ELN—Betancur initiated a broad-ranging peace process that sought to incorporate armed actors into the political process while curtailing the influence of the military. Though Colombia remained a civilian-led democracy throughout the period of conflict, the armed forces had gained inordinate power, particularly over internal security issues.

Betancur's efforts to reestablish constitutional control over "public order" and "security" were deeply resented by the military, which had come to see these arenas as its prerogative. Even as Betancur was negotiating peace with insurgent groups, the military decided that paramilitaries were the most effective way to circumvent any structural change in civil-military relations, and to keep the guerrillas from gaining "unmerited" concessions from the government.

In 1985, the military carried the day after the ill-fated assault on the Palace of Justice by the M-19, in which the justices of the Supreme Court were taken hostage. The M-19 Palace occupation and the large-scale military assault against the rebels ended with the killing of 11 of 24 justices, the M-19 commando unit, and dozens of civilians. In retrospect, this massacre helped derail the peace process and doomed Betancur's efforts at civil-military reform. In effect the military regained the political initiative in shaping the peace process—a situation that has not changed significantly to this day.[4]

The 1990s in Colombia saw a deepening of the civil war, and of unprecedented paramilitary violence against civilians, especially in areas controlled by guerrillas. Whole villages were decimated, and in 1999 alone, more than 1,865 people—mostly peasants—were slaughtered in 403 documented massacres. Thousands more were terrorized into fleeing their homes, leaving an estimated 1.8 displaced Colombians as refugees in their own country.

The paramilitary groups now operate at the national level under the leadership of Carlos Castaño. The national organization—known today as the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC)—is coordinated by a loose coalition of private armies whose shared class position and politics give them common interests in defending the existing socio-economic order, not only against the guerrillas, but also against legal leftist groups, human rights organizations and virtually all other forces of democratic change. All these groups are targets of the paramilitaries. It is estimated that the AUC has 4,000 to 5,000 active combatants, most of them former guerrillas, former soldiers, and small-time criminals drawn from the masses of unemployed and underemployed men in Colombia's medium-sized and large cities.[5]

Paramilitaries have three ways of getting money and resources. They tax small businesses and multinational corporations whose operations fall within their territorial control. They collect contributions from large land-owners and cattle ranchers. And they traffic in illegal drugs. In 1999, the government discovered one of the country's largest cocaine-processing complexes near Puerto Boyacá, a key paramilitary stronghold. Believed to be operated by the AUC, the facility sprawled over almost four square miles and could produce eight tons of cocaine per month. According to police estimates, the plant cost about $5 million to build, and before it was destroyed, employed more than 100 people.[6] It demonstrates a direct link between paramilitary activity and narcotrafficking.

The discovery confirms suspicions that the AUC is a narcotrafficking organization involved in processing, packaging and marketing cocaine and other drugs. More important, it shows that the AUC is filling the vacuum left by the death, in 1989, of the powerful narcotrafficker Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, who once led a powerful paramilitary group in the same area as well as in the central department of Meta. The AUC also controls the strategic corridor from the cocaine producing region of Santander up to Panama, which allows drugs and contraband to easily cross the Panamanian border. This is thought to be the mere tip of the iceberg of many other paramilitary-run complexes. In fact, Carlos Castaño revealed on television in February of this year that cocaine profits from Catatumbo in North Santander alone finance almost 80% of the men in his army.

The official origin of the paramilitaries dates from 1965 to 1968, when the Colombian government passed and then enacted legislation allowing the military to arm civilians in order to counter guerrilla warfare. This law was inspired by the National Security Doctrine, a Cold War policy developed by the U.S. government for use in training programs at the School of the Americas, a facility used to train many future leaders of the Colombian military. Since then, the Colombian military has actively encouraged the formation of "civilian" armed groups to assist in tasks such as intelligence gathering, logistical support, and the assassination of critics and activists seen as threats to the social order.

Legal recognition of paramilitary groups opened the door for private armies, and consequently became an integral part of the state's counterinsurgency strategy. These groups have assumed different incarnations in different regions of the country, with variations due largely to class differentiation in the municipalities and to subsequent emergence of social groups opposed politically and ideologically to the guerrillas, and harmed by guerrilla demands for protection money.[7] But the paramilitaries were built first and foremost to defend the interests of a core group of landed elites, emerald dealers and narcotraffickers.

One of the first paramilitary structures to emerge in Colombia was linked to the emerald mafias that fought for control over the lucrative mines in Boyacá, a department near Bogotá. In 1973, emerald mining was privatized in Boyacá, and with the withdrawal of the state came private armies or militias who staked out territory for their respective emerald mafia bosses. Given the lack of clearly defined property rights, and the extreme weakness of Colombia's judicial institutions in handling competing claims over mining rights, these private militias emerged to resolve problems by force.

Violence thus became the main mechanism through which emerald territory was divided and leadership over emerald production asserted.[8] This situation culminated in the "Green War" in 1988, in which rival clans fought each other using paramilitary forces to establish control over emerald-rich territories. An emerald merchant named Víctor Carranza was the principal victor in these wars; henceforth, he maintained a standing paramilitary force. By the 1990s, he would emerge as one of the country's wealthiest individuals, with vast lands in central and northern Colombia.

Meanwhile, members of Colombia's new narcobourgeoisie—who had trafficked first in marijuana, then in cocaine—were investing their riches in land, not just for its material value, but also because in Colombia, land is a potent status symbol among the elites. By the end of the 1980s, drug traffickers were the country's biggest landowners, and rural areas were covered with their "cattle ranches"—which raised hardly any cattle. As the traffickers bought more land, they created private armies to protect them from guerrilla kidnappings and demands for "revolutionary taxes." These armies also were used to displace local peasants, which opened up more land for purchase by the narcotraffickers, and also weakened the guerrillas' social base. Meanwhile, big cattle ranchers—who really do raise livestock—were also interested in displacing peasants to acquire their holdings or exploit their labor. These ranchers created their own paramilitaries.

Soon, the interests of the emerald mafias, the narcotraffickers, and the cattle ranchers began converging—along with their paramilitaries. In Boyacá in the early 1980s, for instance, the emerald lords of Barbour clashed with competitors in Coscuez, who blocked the Barbour miners' market routes. As a result, the Barbour emerald lords allied with area narcotrafficking magnates and with their paramilitaries, including groups financed by the infamous drug lords Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha.

Since the early 1990s and the deaths of Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha, the sociology and politics of the Puerto Boyacá paramilitaries have changed. Control has been transferred to large land-owners, including retired military officers, as well as to emerald baron Víctor Carranza, who is expanding his acquisitions with help from paramilitary groups that provide security and thus help raise his lands' value.[9] This has not altered the alliance's class structure or political character, but has simply added an older group with a new class position: retired military officers with land holdings. They are old because high-ranking military officials have been involved since the late 1970s with "self-defense" and paramilitary groups, providing training and logistical support while they were active-duty officers. Today, many retired military officers hold land titles and live in the conflict zones.[10] Thus, the military's ties are further cemented with the paramilitaries and the political economy of war.[11]

Land ownership has been further concentrated because of the enormous surpluses of the drug cartels. During the 1980s the cartels invested $4 billion in the country. Of this total, 45% went into land, especially cattle ranches; 20% into commerce; 15% into construction; 10% into the service sector; and 10% into recreation businesses. The total amount of land acquired by the drug traffickers is difficult to assess, but estimates range from 7.5 to 11 million acres—some 10% of Colombia's most fertile lands. [12]

The emergence of a narcobourgeoisie with vast landholdings and the economic resources to field an army of 5,000 well-armed men is a phenomenon to be reckoned with—particularly since any serious peace settlement could entail land reform that would adversely affect the narcotraffickers by transferring their properties to landless peasants and squatters. It therefore seems that the three groups who stand to lose most from successful peace negotiations are the narco-bourgeoisie, agribusinesses and cattle ranchers, and big landlords afraid of significant land reform.

The military also fears that a political settlement could affect its economic privileges and political power.[13] After all, a key guerrilla demand is that the military's role be limited to national defense, that police functions be separated from the army, that the Doctrine of National Security be banned, that military expenditures be reduced, and that guerrillas be integrated into the military. All these demands are vehemently opposed by the commanders. Some have an additional fear: that their role in numerous massacres will be subject to international investigation, human rights tribunals, and prosecution.

And now, with all these forces poised to resist the peace process, the United States is sending Colombia an $860 milllion aid package, mostly for military purposes. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the training and weapons funded by this package will strengthen the armed forces' right wing, as well as the landed class, the paramilitaries, and other conservative forces seeking to derail peace negotiations and exacerbate the civil war. Given all this, the war will get worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, the human drama continues.

Nazih Richani is a political scientist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is currently finishing a book on the political economy of violence in Colombia.

1. M-19 was established after Rojas Pinillas' failure to win the presidency in 1970 as a result of a rigged election. The M-19 surrendered its arms and accepted reincorporation into civilian life in 1990, forming a short-lived political party. Today the group has virtually ceased to exist as a political movement.
2. FARC document presented to the Pastrana government in 1999; in author's possession.
3. See William Ramirez Tobon, Los Inciertos Confines de Una Crisis, (Bogotá: Planeta, 1997).
4. For a more in-depth study of the development of the National Security Doctrine see Francisco Leal Buitrago, El Oficio de La Guerra: La Seguridad Nacional en Colombia (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores-IEPRI, 1994).
5. In a televised interview Carlos Castaño conceded that 70% of his group's financing comes from narcotraffickers; he also claimed to have a force of 11,000 men, which most experts believe is an inflated figure.
6. The paramilitary groups of Castaño and his allies operate cocaine processing plants thoughout the Middle Magdalena, according to Juvencel Duque, Director, Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio, in a talk he presented at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., May 3, 2000.
7. See Mauricio Romero, of the Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Magdalena Medio, who in his unpublished study of the Magdalena Medio noted four variables crucial for the formation of a political base for paramilitaries in several municipalities: the existence of military and police stations, a well formed political elite, and a differentiated class structure punctuated by guerrilla demands for protection money from the more affluent classes.
8. Maria Victoria Uribe Alarcón, Limpiar la Tierra: Guerra y Poder entre Esmeralderos (Bogotá: CINEP, 1992).
9. Alejandro Reyes, "Compras de tierras por narcotraficantes," in Drogas Ilícitas en Colombia: Su Impacto Económico, Político y Social (Bogotá: PNUD-DNE, Ariel Ciencia Política, 1997).
10. Author's interviews with an informant from the armed forces active in the region, and with informants from Barrancabermeja and Bucaramanga.
11. See Nazih Richani, "The Political Economy of Violence: The War System in Colombia," in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 39, No.2 (Summer 1997); and Richani, "The Political Economy of Colombia's Protracted Conflict: The Crisis of the War System," in Journal of Conflict Studies (forthcoming, Fall 2001).
12. Dario Betancourt and Martha Garcia, Contrabandistas, Marimberos, y Mafiosos (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo, 1994). Estimates of the amount of narcotrafficker money are largely speculative and vary greatly. Carlos Medina Gallego, in Autodefensas, Paramilitares, y Narcotráfico en Colombia: Origen, Desarrollo y Consolidación: El Caso Puerto Boyacá (Bogotá: Editorial Documentos Periodísticos, 1990), using a referrence in Semana, cited $5.5 billion invested in land in Córdoba, Sucre, Antioquia, Meta, and the Magdalena Medio. These areas also witnessed an increase in paramilitary violence perpetrated against the local peasants. Incora, the Colombian government's institute for land redistribution, reported in 1994 that about 7.5 million acres were purchased by narcotraffickers. But García and Betancourt reported 32.5 million acres.
13. For more on economic privileges obtained by the military during the civil war, see Richani, "The Political Economy of Violence: The War System in Colombia."

Tags: Colombia, paramilitaries, military, narcotraffickers, peace process

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