Paramilitaries reemerge in pockets of Colombia

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Sandra Gutierrez Torres has a dangerous job. She helps run a grass-roots human rights organization in Colombia's oil capital, Barrancabermeja, and last month her work may have cost the life of her sister.

Katherine Gonzalez Torres disappeared days after a new right-wing paramilitary group calling itself the "Black Eagles" e-mailed a death threat to more than 70 rights groups nationwide: "We will finish with you by means of your families ... your families will pay dearly."

Nothing has been seen or heard of Katherine since. Her family thinks that she's become a victim of a rising tide of organized violence in pockets of the country. The spike in attacks attributed to supposedly demobilized paramilitaries coincides with a growing scandal linking them to some of Colombia's top politicians.

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It's unfortunate timing for conservative president Álvaro Uribe, who hosted President Bush Sunday and is hoping a Democrat-controlled US Congress will approve the Bush administration's request for $3.9 billion in new aid, mostly to help Colombia fight the drug trade over the next seven years.

The "para-politics" scandal has seen eight pro-Uribe senators jailed for links with paramilitaries. In late February, Foreign Secretary María Consuelo Araújo resigned after her brother, a senator, was jailed for paramilitary involvement, and her father and cousin, also pro-Uribe politicians, were similarly accused.

The same week, Uribe's former intelligence chief Jorge Noguera was arrested for allegedly supplying the names of human rights workers to paramilitaries.

'New generation' of paramilitaries?

The Black Eagles claim to be an offshoot of the United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of paramilitary groups that formed in the 1980s to help wealthy cattle ranchers, business owners, and drug mafias battle leftist guerrillas. They were supposed to have demobilized after a controversial "peace process" with the government began in 2003.

The chief of Colombia's paramilitary reintegration program, Frank Pearl, said last month that the government had "lost track" of 4,731 demobilized fighters. Former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso stated last month that groups such as Black Eagles were rearming, and now number up to 5,000.

The same month, the Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) reported that 22 new illegal armed groups were active in 10 departments across the country.

Epicenter is the oil capital of Colombia

Nowhere is the apparent rise of a "new generation" of paramilitaries on display more than in Barrancabermeja. The city has been rocked by 17 execution-style shootings so far this year, as well as three grenade attacks, one of which killed a young secretary at a real estate agency.

"The AUC in this region numbered around 5,000. Now, after demobilization, there are six or seven commando-style groups of 50 or less, such as the Black Eagles," says Father Eliécer Soto, the director of the human rights program of the Catholic diocese of Barrancabermeja.

José Celdales, a farmer and community leader running for mayor of nearby Santa Rosa del Sur in October, says that he has survived four paramilitary attempts on his life since 2004. The latest of those killed his brother just last month. Mr. Celdales says that he was targeted for denouncing murders by drug-traffickers, adding: "The author of the attacks is the local commander of the Black Eagles, a demobilized AUC commander. He told me personally that he would kill me."

Doris Parra, human rights adviser to Colombia's national police, says the situation in Barrancabermeja is "very worrying," and that the Black Eagles are a concern for the police in many areas. "We will review our systems of protection for human rights workers," she says, adding that she is preparing a report on "emerging illegal armed groups."

Barrancabermeja police spokesperson Lt. Col. Gomez Auella Alfonso blames the fresh violence on criminal groups fighting over their stake in the illegal drug trade, rather than politically motivated paramilitary violence. "There are definitely criminal gangs operating. Some of them claim that they are the Black Eagles, but the police don't accept that that means there is a real armed group here called the Black Eagles."

But Soto refutes this. "[The AUC] had to disarm a strong part of their military structure so they could reintegrate their chiefs into civilian life," he says "but there are thousands of paramilitaries active around Colombia, and the massacres are continuing." He estimates that 40 to 50 percent of paramilitaries are still active. But he warns that the problem they represent to critics of "para-political" corruption is the same as before demobilization, Now, he says, it's more terrifying because it's clandestine. So, he says, "the effects on the people are the same."

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