The Next Generation of Threat in Colombia

September 29, 2010 | Jennifer Jo Janisch

“Black sons of bitches: you’ve been declared a military objective. Your days are numbered.”

“Terrorists: you’re impeding economic progress and the government’s democratic security doctrine. Long live a Colombia free of guerrilla union leaders.”

“We know where your lovely daughter goes to school.”

They are racist. Political. Chillingly intimate. They are often carried out. And their authors are almost never investigated, found or punished.

They are death threats, sent in flyers, faxes, emails and text messages, to Colombia’s human rights defenders, community leaders and journalists by illegal armed groups referred to as “The Heirs.” They are the decentralized, new paramilitary groups who continue to displace, extort, threaten, rape and kill Colombia’s rural black and indigenous peasants, all in a quest to control land for the purposes of drug trafficking, and laundering illicit funds through the trade of natural resources.

Many hail Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s recently departed president, as a savior for bringing security and stability to Colombia. The leftist guerrilla groups — weakened by a Colombian military that has been fortified with billions in U.S. aid over the past decade — no longer pose the constant threat of kidnapping to Colombia’s city-dwelling elites or wealthy landowners. Ruthless and politically connected right-wing paramilitary leaders who rose up to protect them from the rebels have been extradited to face drug trafficking charges in the U.S., and many of their rank-and-file turned in their arms in 2005.threat-3

But human rights groups argue that the demobilization of paramilitary soldiers and the extradition of their top commanders was flawed. They say that the Uribe administration was content to secure the cities while essentially leaving the country’s interior to devolve into chaos. This, they argue, allowed these new paramilitary groups to continue the reign of terror, violence and forced displacement their predecessors began decades ago, and created  “Two Colombias” — one for the urban rich and one in which rural-dwelling Afro-Colombian minorities and indigenous groups are terrorized.

Conservative estimates by the Colombian National Police put the new paramilitary groups’ numbers at over 4,000. They have a substantial presence in 24 of Colombia’s 32 departments, most heavily concentrated in the city of Medellin, the Uraba region of Choco state, and the states of Meta and Narino. They take names like the “Aguilas Negras” (Black Eagles), the “Rastrojos” (Weeds) and the “Nueva Generacion” (New Generation).

Their proliferation has coincided with a significant increase in the national rates of internal displacement from 2004 at least through 2007. Much of the displacement is occurring in regions where successor groups are active, and indigenous and Afro-Colombians are the most affected.

Both Uribe and his successor, former defense minister and now-president Juan Manuel Santos, call them bandas criminales emergentes, or emerging criminal bands, nothing more than loosely organized groups of thuggish drug traffickers. But the language of the threats reveals far more complexity, with claims that targets are “opponents of the government,” “are undermining [Uribe’s] democratic security doctrine” and are “impeding economic progress.” The politicized nature of the threats is proof to those who receive them that they are not coming from simple criminals, but from elements of the former paramilitary groups — groups who have an ideology and a strategy for identifying and attacking those whom they see as being in their way.

Watch: Francia Marquez Minas, a young Afro-Colombian activist, reads a death threat her community received from the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles). In it, she and her community are declared enemies of democracy.