A Brief History of Paramilitarism in Colombia and Its Impact on the Current National Strike

Vicente Guevara
A Brief History of Paramilitarism in Colombia and Its Impact on the Current National StrikeEl Paro Nacional that began on April 28th, 2021 has now been going on for over 2 months. During this time, the international community has been able to witness the horrific types of violence that the Colombian population has been subjected to for decades now. Although much of the violence being seen in cities like Cali, Bogota, Medellin, etc. has been caused by the ESMAD and the national police, there is also an ‘obscure’ hand at work that has been present in many of these cities.

Colombia in the past few weeks has witnessed armed civilians next to police shooting live rounds, unmarked cars shooting at medical brigades, bodies showing up in rivers, and dismembered bodies in plastic bags on the streets. There’s no denying that the security forces of the state are involved in these crimes, however, a similarly important factor to consider during these times is the role of paramilitarism in Colombia.
The traditional definition of paramilitaries in Colombia, especially from those on the right, is one that portrays them as private security forces created in order to protect “private property” and to defend against “terrorist guerrilla forces”. However, when examining their true origins and their actions one can grasp the deeper history of what are rightly called death squads. Their history is rooted in the dispossession of lands from campesinos along with Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, with an emphasis on exploiting those lands for the global capitalist market as well as carrying out atrocities to maintain the status quo in the country.

These forces have been historically created by the state, landowners, transnational corporations, and U.S. imperialist ‘counterinsurgency’ policies. Although obscure in 2021, compared to the 1980s and 1990s, paramilitary forces still operate in the country on a massive scale and have been involved in much of the violence against the Colombian population during the National Strike. But what is their history and how are they involved today?
A proper analysis of the phenomenon of paramilitarism in the country must start with the violence experienced by campesinos/colonos in the late 19th and early 20th century. The roots of these private forces, many times linked to local and national government institutions, are found in the incursion of capitalists seeking to privatize lands and cheap labor in order to partake in the inclusion of Colombia within the global capitalist market.

In order to achieve this, the capitalists would find land where campesinos/colonos had already begun self-sufficient production. They would then use ‘legal’ mechanisms to privatize the “empty” lands, leaving the campesinos with few options — they would either become agricultural wage workers, tenants or be displaced completely.

In the 1930s, in order to “protect” their new lands, the ruling classes then created “rural police forces” in departments like Cundinamarca and Valle del Cauca. These rural police would sleep and eat in the haciendas of the “landowners”. In Valle del Cauca for example, they were given uniforms and horses from the landowners, making clear their private security role. They would use tactics such as cutting off water, closing roads, burning down the campesinos’ homes, destroying their cultivations, and stealing their products as they would head to the local markets. In Cundinamarca, specifically the locality of Sumapaz, the lands stolen were then administered by “loyals” who were organized into gangs in order to carry out the aforementioned violent actions. This pattern of creating private security forces benefiting the ruling class continued in the period of La Violencia in the 1940s through the early 1960s with the creation of Pajaros and Chulavitas, prominent paramilitary groups organized by Conservatives. The Pajaros were in charge of assassinating and intimidating all of those that threatened the establishment, as well as forcibly displacing thousands of campesinos from their lands. This period left well over 200,000 killed and millions displaced as the ruling class of the country privatized more lands than ever and more and more transnational corporations, such as Nestlé, began benefitting from the violence against the Colombian population. The political role of the Pajaros was extremely clear as well; to exterminate any dissent in the nation coming from progressives, communists, campesinos, and the working class.

Following this period, the formal counterinsurgency doctrine of the Cold War was established through the imperialist policies of the U.S. After several visits to the country by U.S. Army generals, the U.S. proposed psychological warfare operations in which the U.S. Army would participate together with the Colombian Army. They selected and trained military as well as civilian personnel for clandestine operations in the country, including paramilitary or terrorist activities against suspected “communist” proponents, and the creation of hunter-killer squads.

The creation of paramilitary groups became a permanent part of Colombian history as they were later instituted as Decree 3398 of 1965 and later became part of the law as Law 48 of 1968. These institutional moves allowed for the Colombian government to use all civilians for military purposes.

The institutionalization of paramilitary forces galvanized transnational corporations, such as the Texas Petroleum Company, as well as landowners, businessmen, and the state to create death squads across the nation. By the late 1980s, there were over 200 paramilitary organizations in the country. The alliance between paramilitaries and narcotraffickers in the 1980s, further propelled by U.S. foreign policy and the documented relationship between DEA agents and other U.S. personnel and paramilitary groups such as Los Pepes, led to a further growth of and reach of the paramilitary groups in the nation. Although paramilitaries were formally declared illegal in 1989, this was too late as they were already a key characteristic of the methods of control employed by the ruling class of the country.

During this period, as is the case today, anyone seemingly associated with leftist and progressive movements was a target. It was around this time that more than 4,000 members of the leftist political party Union Patriotica were killed. The political genocide of the UP during the late 80s through the early 2000s was carried out by paramilitaries and the state, working together to annihilate the movements that challenged the status quo.
=The paramilitarization of Colombia reached its zenith during the 1990s, a decade in which they carried out hundreds of massacres and thousands of assassinations. The groups came together in 1997 to form the national paramilitary group the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The AUC was led by the Castaño brothers, who had previously been trained by the military during the creation of the first modern paramilitary groups in the late 1970s and early 80s.

The AUC entered negotiations with the government of Alvaro Uribe Velez in 2003 and finalized their demobilization process in 2006. With this process, the paramilitary structures in the country began to be viewed as something of the past by many. As is known today, this move simply gave them a higher level of obscurity and a distance from the ruling class and, most importantly, the state.

From then on until today, the remaining death squads, which could be correctly classified as paramilitary forces, began being referred to as “BACRIMS” or Bandas Criminales. Again, this new name added to their non-political façade, making paramilitarism out to be a problem of criminality and not a problem of the capitalist social order extant in the country.

However, as is clear to anyone with a sense of justice and an understanding of Colombian history that groups such as Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos, and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, just to mention a few, continue terrorizing campesinos to take their lands, continue targeting anyone working to change the status quo in the country, and in general continue carrying out the “dirty work” that can’t properly be carried out by the “legal” security forces of the state.
Additionally, and directly related to the violence seen in the cities during the National Strike, due to the history of paramilitarization, a culture of paramilitarism has become part of the Colombian collective identity. This has been clear in cities such as Cali, where armed civilians — side by side with the police —fired against the Indigenous minga and other protestors over the course of several days.

The combination between the repressive forces of the state, paramilitary organizations, and the culture of paramilitarism, especially in the upper classes, has combined in order to carry out the atrocities seen during these last two months. The horrific strategies of violence that we are seeing are not new nor are they a surprise; the same rivers that saw our grandparents’ and our parents’ generations filled with their blood are now filled with the bodies of our generation.

¡A parar para avanzar! ¡Viva el Paro Nacional!