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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Colombia > Colombia's New Armed Groups

Colombia's New Armed Groups

Latin America Report N°20 10 May 2007


The disbanding of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006 is seen by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe as a vital step toward peace. While taking some 32,000 AUC members out of the conflict has certainly altered the landscape of violence, 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, and they require a more urgent and more comprehensive response from the government.

Since early 2006, the Organization of American States (OAS) Peace Support Mission in Colombia (MAPP/OEA), human rights groups and civil society organisations have insistently warned about the rearming of demobilised paramilitary units, the continued existence of groups that did not disband because they did not participate in the government-AUC negotiations and the merging of former paramilitary elements with powerful criminal organisations, often deeply involved with drug trafficking. Worse, there is evidence that some of the new groups and criminal organisations have established business relations over drugs with elements of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN). At the same time, the government’s plan for reintegrating demobilised paramilitaries has revealed itself to be deeply flawed.

These alerts have to be taken seriously since conditions now exist for the continuity or re-emergence either of old-style paramilitary groups or a federation of new groups and criminal organisations based on the drug trade. The military struggles with the FARC and the smaller ELN are ongoing, and drug trafficking continues unabated. Massive illegal funds from drug trafficking help fuel the decades-long conflict, undermine reintegration of former combatants into society and foment the formation and strengthening of new armed groups, as occurred with the AUC and the FARC more than a decade ago.

These new groups do not yet have the AUC’s organisation, reach and power. Their numbers are disputed but even the lowest count, from the police and the OAS mission, of some 3,000 is disturbing, and civil society groups estimate up to triple that figure. Some of these groups, such as the New Generation Organisation (Organización Nueva Generación, ONG) in Nariño have started to operate much like the old AUC bloc in the region, including counter-insurgency operations and efforts to control territory and population so as to dominate the drug trade. Others, such as the Black Eagles in Norte de Santander, are less visible and both compete and cooperate with established criminal networks on the Venezuelan border.

The government’s response to the threat has been insufficient, limited to treating it as a law enforcement matter, mainly the responsibility of the police, who have instituted a special plan and a special “search unit” to deal with what they generically label “criminal gangs” (bandas criminales). This has not stopped the groups from spreading across the country. In some regions the security forces do not cooperate with each other and show low commitment to fight the new groups. Justice institutions, in particular the attorney general’s office, often cannot carry out investigations because they lack resources and are not helped by the security forces but also because they are intimidated. The reintegration program for ex-combatants is being restructured to overcome serious shortcomings but time is working against it.

A new, comprehensive strategy is essential if the emerging groups and criminal organisations are to be defeated. It requires combining solid intelligence and more effective law enforcement with military measures, all with full respect for human rights and complemented by improvements in how demobilised fighters are reintegrated into society, including a major, national rural infrastructure and development program. This strategy needs to concentrate initially in the regions where paramilitary domination has ended but which are targets of both the new groups and the FARC. Sustaining security in those areas depends both on permanent, effective police and military presence as well as on providing tangible economic benefits and services for the local communities.


To the Government of Colombia:

1.  Adopt a comprehensive strategy to combat the emerging armed groups and criminal organisations, including:

a) improved intelligence work and law enforcement measures, such as additional special “search units” (bloques de búsqueda) and expanded police presence in all affected regions, especially along the borders;

b) immediate action to confront emerging groups once they are detected by the ombudsman’s office or the OAS peace support mission (MAPP/OEA);

c) stronger military action against the new armed groups when they operate in larger units that present visible targets;

d) strengthened capabilities in the justice institutions, in particular providing the attorney general’s office with more investigators, prosecutors and secure computer and telecommunication systems so as to investigate crimes committed by the new armed groups and criminal organisations; and

e) increased outreach to community and civil society groups, especially women’s groups, to gather information on their security concerns and priorities.

2.  Reduce the risk demobilised combatants will resume criminal activities or be recruited by the new illegal armed groups by:

a) concluding swiftly the restructuring of the program for their reintegration into society and improving the coordination of law enforcement agencies with the program; and

b) implementing, with participation of women, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other vulnerable groups and in areas previously dominated by the paramilitary, a rural governance and development strategy so as to reduce local poverty and provide strengthened law enforcement, economic infrastructure and community services.

3.  Implement more effective measures to protect witnesses and victims who testify against paramilitary leaders under the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) and investigate all allegations of sexual and gender-based crimes by paramilitaries applying for JPL protection, since sentences for those convicted of such crimes cannot be reduced under the JPL.

4.  Implement, within the interior and justice ministry’s plan to prevent irregularities in the October 2007 departmental and municipal elections, measures aimed at preventing interference by the new armed groups and other criminal organisations.

To the Police and the Armed Forces:

5.  Cooperate closely with the justice institutions, in particular the offices of the attorney general and the ombudsman, in investigations related to crimes committed by members of new armed groups and criminal organisations.

6.  Search intelligence archives and communications from military commands with respect to all 2,695 paramilitaries seeking reduced sentences under the JPL and give copies of all documents found to the attorney general and prosecutor general.

7.  Investigate allegations of ties between security personnel and the new armed groups and criminal organisations and immediately sever any such ties, suspend the officers involved and provide the information to the attorney general and prosecutor general.

8.  Increase the protection of civilians, including union organisers and women leaders, and avoid, in particular in operations against new armed groups and criminal organisations, forced displacement and the violation of ancestral territories of indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations.

To the Attorney General, Prosecutor General and Supreme Court:

9.  Request from the Congress additional staff and logistical resources and from the executive branch more cooperation so as to facilitate investigation, prosecution and convictions under the JPL, and prosecute any demobilised paramilitary who did not come forward under the JPL and is found to have committed atrocities.

10.  Coordinate with the National Penitentiary Institute (INPEC) to ensure that detained paramilitary leaders do not have uncontrolled access to cellphones and other communications that permit them to maintain control over their former troops or to establish contact with newly emerging groups.

To the OAS Peace Support Mission (MAPP/OEA):

11.  Continue verifying reintegration of demobilised combatants and issuing timely alerts about the rearming of demobilised paramilitary groups and the emergence of new armed groups.

To the European Union and the OAS:

12.  Prepare observation missions, in cooperation with the Colombian authorities and civil society, for the departmental and municipal elections in October 2007.

To the U.S. Government:

13.  Continue to make aid to Colombia’s police and armed forces dependent on severing relations with paramilitary organisations, extend those conditions to cover new illegal armed groups and communicate, when preparing certifications, with the independent Colombian judicial authorities as well as the executive.

14.  Adjust U.S. aid to a 50/50 balance between military/police assistance and economic, justice, rural development and humanitarian assistance for the displaced, including special attention to rural areas and the needs of women, indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups.

Bogotá/Brussels, 10 May 2007

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