Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Paramilitarism

Top Defense Official in 2004: Backing Paramilitarism “Goes With the Job”

For nearly 20 years, when uniformed U.S. military deploy to Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command has required that they carry a little card reminding them of “the five ‘Rs’ of human rights”: to “recognize, refrain, react, record, and report” if they hear of, or witness, a human rights violation.

Higher up in the Pentagon, though, standards have been lower.

The National Security Archive just revealed a 2004 memo from Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon (George W. Bush’s first term). It’s a series of bullet points addressing the suspicious past of Colombia’s then-president, Álvaro Uribe.

Uribe almost certainly had dealings with the paramilitaries (AUC) while governor of Antioquia [the department that includes Medellín, between 1995 and 1997],” Rodman informs Rumsfeld. But he brushes it off: “It goes with the job.

“Goes with the job?” The AUC, at the time, was on the Bush administration’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The Bush administration had in fact added the AUC to the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations on September 10, 2001. At the time, AUC leaders were sending hundreds of tons of cocaine to the United States. The AUC grew rapidly in size and strength in Antioquia while Uribe was governor, committing massacres including one that destroyed the village of El Aro in 1997—a crime for which Colombia’s Supreme Court recently called Álvaro Uribe to provide testimony. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the paramilitaries committed the majority of extrajudicial killings and massacres in Colombia’s conflict, according to the government’s National Center for Historical Memory.

Assistant Secretary Rodman was not ignorant about Colombia. In August 2001, he had a long exchange with reporters about an initiative for which he was playing a lead role: the new Bush administration was reviewing U.S. policy toward the country with an eye to allowing Colombia’s military to use counter-drug aid to fight its armed conflict.

No U.S. official would ever, during Uribe’s presidency, have said publicly that the Colombian president—a Bush administration favorite—had links to the paramilitaries. In private, Rodman’s blasé attitude about a group that was killing thousands of civilians per year—a listed terrorist organization, no less, during the war on terror’s most intense moment—flies directly in the face of the uniformed U.S. military’s publicly stated attitude toward human rights in Latin America, going back to the 1990s.

Southcom’s “five ‘Rs,’” if truly observed, would have required evidence about Uribe’s dealings with the paramilitaries to have been recognized, reacted to, recorded, and reported, while U.S. officials should absolutely have refrained from shrugging it off as something that “goes with the job.” The exact opposite happened.

Who are Colombia’s “Black Eagles?”

“The weeks following the [June 17] elections witnessed an upsurge in killings of social leaders,” reads last Friday’s UN Secretary-General report on Colombia. The killings have come alongside an even larger wave of death threats sent to political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and social leaders in just about every corner of the country.

Often, the threats come from an apparent paramilitary group calling itself the “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras). This name has been attached to death threats since shortly after 2006, when the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization dissolved.

Curiously, though, nobody ever actually sees Black Eagles anywhere in Colombia. Especially in the last several years, there is nowhere in the country where a group using that name actually controls territory. The Colombian think tank INDEPAZ found, for 2016:

The presence of this structure was detected in 41 municipalities [counties] in 19 departments, the highest since 2012. Its actions are concentrated on threatening social leaders, human rights defenders, social movements and collectives, and others. In recent years, its presence has been disarticulated, and hasn’t shown control over any zone in particular.… The increase in its presence coincides with the largest year [then, 2016] for killings of social leaders and human rights defenders.

INDEPAZ map shows counties where Black Eagles issued threats in 2016.

Who really are the Black Eagles, then? In at least some cases, they might be members of Colombia’s security forces.

In their 2016 book Los Retos del Posconflicto, León Valencia and Ariel Ávila of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation contend that the “Black Eagles” don’t really exist: they are a name that others use to threaten and intimidate social leaders and human rights defenders.

In particular, they add an allegation that I’ve heard in numerous conversations with Colombian human rights defenders, but haven’t seen in print elsewhere: that some of those making threats as “Black Eagles” are elements of military or police intelligence. On page 120:

The “Urabeños” sought to subordinate by force, or to establish alliances with, existing armed groups while allowing them to stay in place. In some zones where they established a presence, they even used other names to carry out their criminal activities. For example, to threaten social and political leaders, in some zones they used the name “Black Eagles,” a denomination that has also served intelligence sectors within the security forces to intimidate and to create confusion, especially during the last two years due to the advances of the peace process.

Records of paramilitary atrocities are “moth food” today

As many of you remember, in 2006 Colombia embarked on the so-called “Justice and Peace process” after 32,000 members of the paramilitaries (the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or AUC) demobilized. (A top ex-paramilitary leader recently said that as many as 12,000 of those weren’t even paramilitaries, just people rounded up at the last minute.)

At their late-1990s and early-2000s height, the AUC was committing more human rights abuses than the guerrillas. While the FARC and ELN led in categories like kidnapping, landmine use, and child recruitment, paramilitaries—often working with the military’s acquiescence—were committing more murders, massacres, displacements, and torture.

Of the 32,000 demobilized “paras,” a subset believed to have committed war crimes was to undergo full judicial confessions, and then to pay a reduced sentence of up to eight years in prison.

So whatever happened? This paragraph, from an April 2017 report by Colombia’s Antonio Nariño Project (PAN), is devastating.

As of December 26, 2016, 7,531 applicants [for lighter penalties in exchange for full confessions in the Justice and Peace system] had given confessions, and 49 sentences had been handed down. According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía], there are 76,981 technical records of these confessions. However, in accordance with the law [Law 975 of 2005, known as the Justice and Peace Law], only people directly involved in the events described may have access to these technical records. Journalists and media outlets are excluded. Sebastián Salamanca, the PAN’s coordinator, says that “the hearings’ video archives are rotting in offices and we citizens can’t access them; those documents, necessary to know the truth about what happened in the war, today are moth food.”

Hat tip to scholar Camilo Tamayo Gómez for pointing this out in a recent column in Medellín’s El Colombiano.

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