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Colombia’s 2003-2006 negotiated demobilization of paramilitary groups was partly successful. No militia with the size, territorial reach, or murderous capacity of the former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) exists today.
But it was not completely successful. Many former mid-level AUC commanders, longtime participants in Colombia’s illegal drug underworld, formed new militias in the years after the demobilization. They took perhaps 15 percent of AUC fighters with them, and recruited many more new ones. Groups like the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, the Meta Bloc, and smaller bands pose what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls Colombia’s “main security threat” today.
The Bogotá think-tank INDEPAZ has closely followed the phenomenon of “neo-paramilitary” groups, which Colombian authorities refer to as “criminal bands” or “BACRIM.” Its latest report, from November 2015, found these groups operating, to at least some extent, in 338 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities or counties. INDEPAZ estimates that the BACRIM currently have over 4,000 members, a number that has held more or less steady in recent years.
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Unlike the paramilitaries of a decade ago, BACRIM don’t have a strong counterinsurgent mission. Though they control territory, have command structures, and often resemble armies, their main purpose is to control criminal activity, especially drug trafficking and illegal mining. They often do business with guerrilla groups, and are just as likely to fight each other for turf as they are to fight “leftists.” These turf battles kill hundreds each year, and displace thousands, with some of the most notorious recent examples in the Pacific coast cities of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
In some zones, BACRIM are allied with large landholders, especially those who gained their property illegally, by dispossessing small farmers. They pose the greatest threat to the security of land-rights defenders and beneficiaries of land restitution. They are also allied with some local politicians, and use the threat of violence to intimidate their political opponents. During the campaign for October 2015 mayoral and gubernatorial elections, the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit said that 70 percent of threats against candidates came from BACRIM.
Ties between BACRIM and the security forces are a problem in several parts of the country, but the motive for collaboration is almost never counter-insurgency, as it was during the 1980s-2000s. When it occurs, corruption is usually the cause.
The BACRIM prefer not to fight the state. At times, though, the central (not the local) government fights them. Many top BACRIM leaders have been arrested or killed since 2010; in 2015 Colombian forces killed “Megateo,” a powerful narco-militia leader near the Venezuelan border, and devoted many resources to tracking down Dairo Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” thehead of the Urabeños, which today is the most powerful BACRIM. In November, police bombed an Urabeños encampment for the first time, in Chocó.
Colombia continues to debate whether BACRIM count as an armed group. That classification would allow them to be confronted under the norms of international humanitarian law, not regular criminal law, thus allowing the Army to play a greater role in confronting them. It would also give their victims a stronger claim to receiving assistance from the state. However, armed-group status would also give BACRIM more of a claim to negotiate eventual demobilization terms with the government, a step that has little support due to doubts that former BACRIM would remain demobilized for very long before re-forming.
Like organized crime groups elsewhere in Latin America, the BACRIM remain very hard to stamp out, in large part because of their narco-wealth and their ability to corrupt and penetrate local government. They pose a major obstacle to the implementation of peace accords in many territories.
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