Columbia's paramilitaries
January 2001

The following is an excerpt from an article in NACLA's Report on the Americas, about the origin and history of Columbia's paramilitaries, by Nazih Richani.

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 states 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. 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 Boyaca, a department near Bogota. In 1973, emerald mining was privatized in Boyaca, 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. 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 Victor 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 Boyaca 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 Rodriguez Gacha.

Since the early 1990s and the deaths of Escobar and Rodriguez Gacha, the sociology and politics of the Puerto Boyaca paramilitaries have changed. Control has been transferred to large landowners, including retired military officers, as well as to emerald baron Victor Carranza, who is expanding his acquisitions with help from paramilitary groups that provide security and thus help raise his lands value. This has not altered the alliances 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. Thus, the military's ties are further cemented with the paramilitaries and the political economy of war. 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 the 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 Colombias most fertile lands. 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 narcobourgeoisie, agribusiness 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. 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 million 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.

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