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COVID-19, Inequality and Protests in Colombia
COVID-19, Inequality and Protests in Colombia

Colombia’s New Armed Groups

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.

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Executive Summary

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.

Bogotá/Brussels, 10 May 2007

COVID-19, Inequality and Protests in Colombia

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group experts Renata Segura and Beth Dickinson about protests across Colombia, the inequality and police violence that are motivating people to take to the streets, and prospects for reform.

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Renata Segura, deputy program director for Latin America and the Carribean, and Beth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia, about the anti-government protests across Colombia. They discuss what the deadly unrest looks like, a controversial tax reform proposed in April that triggered protests and the blockades that have sprung up across the country’s cities, towns and villages. They unpack protesters’ demands, notably the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in aggravating already rife inequality, and how police crackdowns have further fuelled people’s anger. They also talk about how Colombian society views the protests, whether protesters’ demands are widely shared and how likely it is that President Ivan Duque’s government will take measures to address their grievances. They discuss the likelihood of similar protests elsewhere in Latin America, given that many other countries in the region suffer the same inequality, worsened by COVID, that has taken people to the streets in Colombia. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Colombia page.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Colombia
Deputy Program Director, Latin America and Caribbean