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The next level in the Colombian conflict
Juan Camilo Clavijo Martín
The conflict in Colombia is now presenting itself in a new form, one that has not been seen before. War has reached the cities, setting the stage for a reformulation of Colombia’s policy of democratic security.
The period between 2003 and 2005 saw the creation of new paramilitary groups identified by the Colombian government as ‘criminal bands’ (BACRIM in its Spanish acronym). These bands have inherited the structure of the old United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), as well as its drug and arms trafficking businesses. The open conflict among the newly formed groups is currently increasing the level of violence in Colombia.
The criminal bands were created when former AUC commanders were demobilized and extradited to the United States. The AUC’s intermediate officers, knowing that they no longer had any superiors, decided to take over their structures. This was done at the cost of warfare and has taken the Colombian conflict to the next level.
These bands have strengthened their presence in cities. The best example is Medellín, where crime rates have increased to significantly high levels: small-time drug trafficking, homicides and “score-settling” have become everyday occurrences in the city.
According to the Human Rights Report prepared by Medellín’s ombudsman’s office (Personería), in 2009 the number of homicides in several of the city’s neighbourhoods had increased compared to 2008. The report, which uses data from official sources and from organizations that are part of the Municipal Human Rights Committee, emphasized the alarming number of homicides that took place during this period. Between January and October 2009, there were 1,717 homicides reported in the city, compared to 830 in the same months of 2008; this is an increase of 106.9 per cent.
This state in which the Colombian conflict finds itself is caused by the fighting among different bands for the control of strategic routes in rural areas and in certain sectors of Colombian cities. Armed actors in Colombia have evolved in a fashion that parallels the military strategy of the Colombian police and armed forces.
During the Álvaro Uribe administrations, the policy of democratic security first implemented in 2002 has had an impact that is acknowledged by the Colombian people. This policy led to the demobilization of the AUC and the recovery of rural areas South of the country (Sur de Meta, Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo and Vaupés), which used to be under the control of the guerrillas (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, FARC; National Liberation Army, ELN). In recent years, the policy has therefore focused upon rural areas.
Contrastingly, less attention has been paid to urban sectors, since military operations for democratic security concentrated on recovering territories far from cities where the guerrillas had established their strongholds. Therefore, the criminal bands made urban areas their prowling ground. Cities have become the backdrop of confrontations among these bands, which are the urban militia of guerrillas and gangs.
The BACRIM has been categorized in six groups by the government: Los Rastrojos (The Dregs), Ejército Revolucionario Popular Anticomunista de Colombia (Colombian Popular Revolutionary Anticommunist Army, or ERPAC), Los Machos, Los Paisas (paisa designates an inhabitant of Medellín), Renacer (Rebirth) and Banda Criminal de Urabá (Urabá Criminal Band), also called Los Urabeños.
Each of these bands has a presence in a specific region of the country. For example, Los Rastrojos inherited the structures created by Don Berna, an AUC commander that operated in Antioquia and Córdoba. This structure is now fighting Los Paisas in the department of Córdoba and in some sectors of Medellín.
Some institutions, such as the Nuevo Arco Iris Foundation, are of the opinion that the government’s democratic security policy has peaked: it has achieved as much as it can in terms of reducing homicide and violent crime rates and its effectiveness is starting to decline.
According to the Nuevo Arco Iris Foundation, “The balance of the actions and the presence of illegal groups in Colombia in 2009 show a different scenario. A new generation of paramilitaries —called ‘criminal bands’ by the government— is spreading all over the country and has achieved a record number of actions that exceeds the total sum of incidents that were carried out by the FARC and the ELN.”
These findings are not accepted by the government, which has captured band leaders (Don Mario or Riñón) and increased the number of arrests and trials related to these groups. Further, operations by the armed forces and the national police take place almost daily in critical areas.
Overall, the policy of democratic security has improved safety up to unprecedented levels in Colombia. However, this policy must now transcend rural areas and reach urban sectors, all the while maintaining strong actions in the South of the country. This policy must be taken to the next level to deal more directly with cities.
The current Colombian conflict must stay the course that was designated in 2002. Should this not be the case, all the gains achieved since then maybe lost, leading to a return to the situation of the 1990s when armed groups controlled different areas of the country and its citizens could not circulate freely throughout its territory.
Juan Camilo Clavijo Martín is a consultant for the Colombian Government’s High Council for Social Reintegration. He has an MA in Social Development from the University of Sussex.