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News > Latin America

Colombia's Largest Right-Wing Paramilitary Group Labels Human Rights Defenders 'Military Targets'

  • Colombians, including victims of paramilitary and state violence, protest against in Bogota against violence during the armed conflict, March 6, 2008.

    Colombians, including victims of paramilitary and state violence, protest against in Bogota against violence during the armed conflict, March 6, 2008. | Photo: EFE

Published 10 May 2017

The Colombian government refuses to acknowledge the paramilitary problem, even as the bodies of activists continue to pile up.

“The only way to finish off all these plagues and rats is to exterminate them,” threatened a paramilitary pamphlet distributed in Colombia, referring to anyone ranging from human rights activists to land defenders to left-wing politicans.

This is just the latest indication that right-wing political violence isn’t only keeping pace with war-time levels despite a historic peace agreement — it’s actually surging.

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The malicious one-page call to arms, signed by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym AGC — one of the offspring of the notorious right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC — went on to “promise” a violent campaign of “torture and death” in the name of showing “who rules this country” and proving that the syndicate does indeed continue to operate in full force.

“We declare as military targets all human rights organizations, unions, land activists, defenders of FARC and ELN prisoners, those who do reports on human rights, members of political organizations of the FARC, the congress of the people, Patriotic Union, Patriotic March,” the pamphlet stated, including at the end of the list an organization that has already warned of a new “political genocide” against its members.

“Death to all those gonorrhea-infected motherfucking toads who are fomenting and supporting increased violence,” the statement, dated May 2017, continued. “We inform you that as of this date you are declared military targets.”

The pamphlet — acquired by the Washington Office on Latin America and distributed on social media by human rights lawyer and social justice advocate Dan Kovalik — comes amid distressing levels of violence against human rights defenders in Colombia despite the signing of a historic peace agreement last year between the government and the country’s largest left-wing rebel army, the FARC. According to the United Nations, at least 41 social activists were killed in the country in the first four months of 2017 alone.

“I think it is very clear that they (paramilitaries) are more emboldened both in terms of their threats and actions,” Kovalik, who teaches international human rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, told teleSUR Wednesday. “It definitely appears that as the peace accords were advancing and were agreed to there's actually been heightened killings by right-wing paramilitaries of various social leaders.”

The “military targets” identified by the AGC paramilitary group have already been victims of what appears to be a targeted campaign of political violence. According to official statistics, in the 14 months between Jan. 1, 2016, and March 1, 2017, a staggering 156 social leaders were killed, including rural activists, Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders. Recently, even two members of the FARC — whose more than 7,000 troops are currently in the process of laying down their arms at transition camps across the country — were assassinated while preparing to reintegrate into civilian life.

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Human rights organizations have pegged the blame for the surge in violence that has claimed the lives of dozens of social leaders in recent months on right-wing paramilitary forces like the AGC, warning that the resurgence of paramilitary activity poses the greatest threat to upending the still-fragile new era of peace.

Kovalik argued that the paramilitary threat poses a “fatal risk” to the country’s budding peace, adding that during a recent visit to Colombia with a U.S. congressional delegation in solidarity with local peace activists, he observed a “unanimous feeling” among social organizations that right-wing paramilitary groups were “gaining strength.”

One danger, he pointed out, is the prospect of emboldened paramilitaries going after demobilized FARC members — a target the AGC clearly identified in their pamphlet. The threat, combined with the trend of violent attacks against peace activists and progressive leaders, recalls the history of the violent extermination of the left-wing political party Patriotic Union — founded by members of the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party — beginning in the 1980s during a previous attempted peace process.

But despite the dark shadow of death squad violence, the government has long refused to acknowledge the paramilitary problem. Instead, both U.S. and Colombian authorities label the paramilitaries as “criminal gangs,” effectively depoliticizing their violence and downplaying their role in a spiral of targeted attacks and violent harassment of mostly poor, rural communities.

“The Colombian and U.S. governments are denying the nature of (paramilitary) force, which obviously has right-wing political goals and which targets particular social leaders as opposed to being merely a criminal organization,” Kovalik said, adding that by doing so authorities offer their “tacit assent” to paramilitary activities. “I think both the Colombian and U.S. governments are happy for the paramilitaries to wipe out the left in Colombia.”

In the early aftermath of the official end of the more than half century-long civil war, tackling paramilitary violence is more paramount than ever. After the FARC left its jungle and mountain camps to demobilize once and for all, large swathes of territories the rebel army long controlled have been transformed into power vacuums that threaten to give rise to a new resurgence of paramilitary groups eager to gain power in post-conflict Colombia.

Local communities have already noted an increase in paramilitary activity, including a proliferation in various parts of the country of graffiti and threatening pamphlets imposing curfews and announcing plans to carry out “social cleansing.” The AGC has previously distributed hostile pamphlets heralding plans to “control, organize and recuperate territory” from the FARC.

And the paramilitaries are no minor force, underlining the urgent need to treat them as a major armed group in the peace process and develop concrete strategies for dealing with their violence. The AGC is the country’s largest illegal armed force, with an estimated 3,000 members, according to the National Police. However, the paramilitary force claims to boast a membership of 8,000, which would make it comparable in size to the FARC at the end of its 52-year life as an armed movement.

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Refusal to recognize the AGC and similar syndicates as paramilitaries with a political right-wing political bent, Kovalik argued, allows the U.S. and Colombian governments to “turn a blind eye” to the crisis, allowing paramilitary incursions on civilian populations — such as Afro-Colombian communities in the poor and deeply victimized department of Choco — to go ahead unchallenged despite the fact that they happen under the nose of the Colombian military.

Colombia’s landmark peace agreement with the FARC was widely heralded as bringing an end to the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere, but the dark underbelly of the country’s incomplete and delicate peace has gone comparably unnoticed, even as the bodies of human rights defenders continue to pile up.

Kovalik argued that international mainstream media has failed in its moral responsibility to inform the world of Colombia’s crisis, revealing a tendency to fixate day after day on the political situation in Venezuela while scarcely covering events next door in Colombia or speaking truth to power in Bogota.

“What we are talking about in Colombia is many times worse than what is happening in Venezuela. You don't have the wholesale murder of human rights leaders in Venezuela,” he said. “The disparate treatment of those two countries … is stunning.”

Paramilitary groups are said to be responsible for some 80 percent of civilian deaths in the country’s more than half-century-long civil war that has claimed the lives of some 260,000 people and victimized millions more.

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