Medellin, Life Under Paramilitary Occupation
"I copied the concept of paramilitary forces from the Israelis." Carlos Castaño, head of the paramilitary AUC (United Self-Defense of Colombia)
Five months ago, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe ordered "Operation Orion," in which a combined military-police-intelligence task force of 3,000 troops moved into Medellín’s Comuna 13, a district of 100,000 people in the central-western hill, with tanks and a helicopter gunship to "cleanse" the area of "subversives." As predicted, the "target" neighborhoods that make up Comuna 13 (especially 20 de Julio, Belencito, Corazón, El Salado y las Independencias) are now under control of the paramilitary AUC (United Self-Defense of Colombia).
In late 2002, President Uribe entered into "peace negotiations" with the leaders of the AUC-talks that will most likely lead to the legalization of paramilitarism along the lines of the CONVIVIRs that figured so prominently during Uribe’s term as governor of Antioquia (1995-97)-but various regional paramilitary fractions, including Medellín’s Bloque Metro and Cacique Nutibarra, have opted out of the agreements, perhaps because of their stipulations against drug trafficking, in which paramilitaries are deeply involved. So far, the crowbar that acted as the lever for Operation Orion, the Colombian Army’s Fourth Brigade, has yet to take action against the paramilitaries in Comuna 13, which is unsurprising since the two forces have worked hand in iron glove in Comuna 13-as in the rest of the city-for several years.
Before mid-October, most of Comuna 13 was carved up among three "revolutionary" urban militias: the FARC, the ELN, and the CAP (People’s Armed Comandos). The first generation of these militias sprouted in the mid-1980s after the peace process between President Belisario Betancur and the FARC, EPL (Maoist), and M-19 (national populist) broke down. In Comuna 13, the third generation of milicianos was composed of young people from the neighborhoods, the occasional university students, and a handful of second-generation veterans that survived Medellín’s wars of the 1990s. Though they purported to favor an overthrow of the Colombian state and the institution of a more equitable, democratic political and economic system, militia methods were often reprehensible: kidnapping, extortion, blackmail and murder.
Yet alongside these militias (militias which, it must be said, kept the paramilitaries out of Comuna 13 for over a year), and with scant resources and minimal access to employment or education, communities have struggled to build a common life for themselves. This they have done through organization and cooperation in the face of constant violence, threats, and harassment from the police, military, and paramilitary forces. In Comuna 13, people have built their roads, schools, health clinics, senior citizens’ centers and youth centers with their own hands and funds, and they have fought for proper sewage, drinking water and electricity.
The state and paramilitaries that appeared after 1999 fear and loathe such independent community organizing as much as they do the "revolutionary" militias. Paramilitaries had displaced a considerable minority of Comuna 13’s residents from the countryside in Urabá in the 1980s and 90s, many of them Afro-Colombians; all arrived in Comuna 13 with venerable traditions of village organizing and protest intact. Operation Orion and the subsequent paramilitary occupation of Comuna 13 have, however, displaced the displaced.
There is an element of tragic absurdity in this repetition, but the logic is clear. While some of the displaced returned to Comuna 13 in February, people directly connected to the paramilitaries have occupied most of the houses that Operation Orion left vacant. The community organizations have been infiltrated with paramilitaries as well. In the eyes of the "forces of order," anyone from Comuna 13 who is not working with the AUC is a potential or actual guerrilla-an enemy to be eliminated.
Homicide is down 38% over the same period last year, from 114 to 75, though according to a community leader from 20 de Julio, "they are not killing people in the neighborhood anymore. Rather, they take them out and kill them in neighborhoods nearby, which distorts the indices of violence in Comuna 13." Gunfire no longer echoes through the night because now more than half the killings are done with knives. The paramilitaries want to avoid making the same mistakes the militias made, so they do not "tax" public transportation or petty commerce, either. Instead, they rob gasoline from the Ecopetrol pipeline near San Cristobal, and, at $.50 to $.60 per gallon, sell $10,000 worth of it daily. Meanwhile, in Saravena, Arauca, U.S. Special Forces are training a new Colombian Army brigade to protect Occidental Petroleum’s pipeline from guerrilla sabotage-part of a $94 million subsidy of the petroleum industry in Colombia, courtesy of President Bush.
Now that Comuna 13 is under control of "dissident" paramilitaries of the Bloque Metro and those of Cacique Nutibarra, which have moved toward unity, a highway to Urabá, to be financed in part with North American capital, will cut a secondary road through its heart. Urabá, which gives way to the Caribbean port of Turbo, is home to the core constituency of the regional paramilitary right-the multinational banana plantations, the logging companies and the cattle barons. Through Uribe and his Goebbels, Minister of Justice and the Interior Fernando Londoño, this group currently exercises power at the national level.
Urabá’s "strategic corridor" is the route through which arms and drugs move in and out of Colombia. Whatever the legal niceties of Uribe’s negotiations with the leadership of the AUC, then, the paramilitary occupation of Comuna 13 in Medellín dovetails neatly with the broader, U.S.-led counterinsurgent strategy of control of strategic territory, transport routes and resources. The extent to which it favors the "primitive" (because of its methods) accumulation of capital is unmistakable.
Where have the displaced of Comuna 13 gone? The countryside, where 82% of the population is poor and where warfare is even more relentless than in Medellín, is not an option, so many, especially milicianos, have gone to the northeastern part of the city, which sits in a fold that slopes gently up to an emerald ridge on the other side of which lies the corridor from Guarne to the municipalities of the east where the FARC and the ELN have a strong presence: Santa Ana, San Luis and Granada. Military intelligence alleges that the 34th Front of the FARC and the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front of the ELN have sent reinforcements from the east to protect the corridor out of the city at all costs.
The war between the FARC, ELN, and CAP militias and the paramilitary Bloque Metro and Cacique Nutibarra has made the northeastern sector into the city’s most violent. According to police, there have been 133 homicides there this year; in Robledo alone there have been 54. It is a matter of time before "one, two, three, many" operations like Orion pave the way for paramilitary occupation of northeastern Medellín. Such is life in the Cattle Ranchers’ Republica true paramilitary paradise.
FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia and can be reached at email@example.com.
Semana, "Guerra silenciosa en Comuna 13"