Paramilitary threat holds up Colombia peace talks

Havana peace talks between Colombia's government and the FARC are said to be stalled as the government refuses to acknowledge the existence of far-right paramilitaries, while the rebel movement demands their dismantling. The Colombian and US governments both maintain that paramilitary groups ceased to exist in 2006 when the last unit of AUC formally demobilized. The paramilitary forces that resisted demobilization are dubbed "Bacrim," for "criminal bands." But Los Urabeños, one of the AUC's successor organizations, shut down much of the country's north with an "armed strike" for several days early this month. The strike was called to proest government opperations against the Urabeños—refered to officially by the name of their ruling family, the "Clan Úsuga." In Havana, the FARC's Pastor Alape asserted that "the attention of the country cannot center on the so-called Clan Úsuga" because "the problem of paramilitarism is much more profound." (El Tiempo, April 9; Colombia Reports, April 8; El Colombiano, March 29)

Colombia's Fiscal General Jorge Perdomo has formed a special task-force that will investigate 13,000 businessmen and ranchers suspected of having financed paramilitary groups. But the task-force seems to be focusing on support for the now-disbanded AUC. (Colombia Reports, April 13) Colombia's official human rights watchdog, the Defensoría del Pueblo, says that just the Clan Úsuga is active in 22 of the country's 32 departaments, especially mentioning Antioquia, Bolívar, Cauca, Cesar, Chocó, Córdoba and Sucre. (El Espectador, April 13) In response to the Havana controversy, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas asserted that "the bacrim are not paramilitares," only "organized crime, pure and simple." (El Tiempo, April 13; El Tiempo, April 12)

José Gerardo Acevedo a police commander in Antioquia's Valle de Aburrá, went even further, declaring that the "Oficina de Evigado," the Medellín Cartel successor organization said to collaborate with the Urabeños, doesn't exist but is a "myth." (El Colombiano, April 9)

Amid this official denialism, UK-based Justice for Colombia issued a report, "Silenced: The Murder of Political Activists in Colombia," finding 534 social leaders murdered in the country between 2011 and 2015—grim testament to ongoing paramilitary terror. Antioquia and Cauca were named as the two most dangerous departments. (El Espectador, April 12)

The Urabeños—more formally the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia—actually issued a statement denying responsibility for assassinations for social leaders. Ironically, the statement blames the killings on "criminal groups"—the government's official designation for the Urabeños. (El Tiempo, April 11)

The new US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices entry on Colombia mentions Clan Úsuga and parses its words carefully, noting that the NGO Coordination Colombia "considered organized criminal bands to be a continuation of former paramilitary groups." (El Espectador, April 13)

Also as the report was released, campesinos in the corregimiento (rural community) of Macondo, Turbo municipality, Antioquia, announced that they had received death threats. The campesinos were in the process of "reclaiming" lands usurped by paramilitaries under legal mechanisms established for this purpose, and believe this is why they are being targeted. Turbo is in the Urabá region of Antioquia's north, traditional heatland of the Urabeños. (El Espectador, El Espectador, April 12)