“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.
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.