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Paramilitaries Continue Rampage in Colombia: the Case of El Bagre, Antioquia

The peasant residents of El Bagre, Colombia, in the Department of Antioquia, have been brutalized this year by the paramilitary group known as the Autodefensas Gatinastas, a successor group to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (“AUC”) – the paramilitary umbrella group which was designated as a “terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department, and which feigned a demobilization back in 2006.

Thus, according to reports coming out of Colombia, at least 17 peasants have been brutally murdered in the first half of this year by the paramilitaries.   As Contagio Radio explains, these victims were “killed, dismembered, [and] thrown into rivers or buried in mass graves.”   As a result of these assaults, peasants have set up a humanitarian refuge within El Bagre for the now hundreds of peasants displaced by this violence.  I first learned of the this crisis from messages on the Twitter account of former Colombian Senator, Piedad Cordoba, who has been one of the lone voices calling for international attention to the situation in El Bagre, Antioquia.

The Department of Antioquia is ground zero for paramilitarism in Colombia, and its former Governor, and later Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe, one of the key intellectual authors of the paramilitaries.  As one AUC leader explained, Uribe “was our commander . . . .  He never fired a gun; but he led, he contributed, he was our man at the top.  . . .  The massacres, the disappearances, the creation of an [AUC] group: he is responsible.”  Indeed, for years there have been credible allegations that Uribe was responsible for the formation of an AUC bloc while governor of Antioquia department from 1995 to 1997, and that he used the AUC to coerce millions of voters into electing him President in 2002.

But again, this is not news to the U.S. government which has been quite aware of Uribe’s paramilitary ties for years.   Thus, as Colombia Reports points out:

In 2004, a declassified US Intelligence Report, originally written in 1991, stated that Uribe had “worked for the Medellin Cartel,” run by notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who the report described as a “close personal friend.”

In 2007, another US intelligence report – leaked to the Los Angeles Times – alleged that Uribe instructed General Mario Montoya, a local army commander who was later promoted to become the army’s top commander, to lead a controversial counter-insurgency push in the city of Medellin in which AUC forces played a major role. At least 14 people were killed in “Operation Orion” and dozens were forcibly disappeared.

Uribe’s known paramilitary ties did not prevent the U.S. from arming his military to the teeth, nor did they prevent President George W. Bush from considering Uribe his closest friend in the region and even awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Moreover, despite the continued allegations against Alvaro Uribe, and the recent arrest of his brother Santiago on charges that he himself was a paramilitary leader responsible for dozens of assassinations, Alvaro Uribe continues to be an important figure in Colombian politics, and the most outspoken public figure in Colombia against the ongoing peace discussions between the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas.

This puts the current grisly violence in El Bagre, Antioquia into context.  This violence is but further proof that there can be no lasting peace in Colombia in the absence of the Colombian government putting an effective end to the paramilitaries which continue to have powerful political allies.  So far, the Colombian government, which continues to deny the very existence of the paramilitaries, has shown little will to do this.   And, it certainly has shown no will to do so in El Bagre, thus sending military forces to that town to dismantle illegal mining operations set up by local residents to eke out a living, while at the same time leaving the paramilitaries alone to terrorize these residents.

The U.S., which itself denies the existence of the paramilitaries, and which has in fact encouraged paramilitarism over the years in order to combat the threat of progressive change in Colombia, must be vocal in its opposition to the paramilitaries now in order to ensure the success of the peace process – a process which represents the only real hope for war-torn Colombia.

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Dan Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.  His latest book is No More War: How the West Violates International Law by Using ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention to Advance Economic and Strategic Interests.

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