An emblematic land restitution campaign in north Colombia illustrates how in some parts of the country, the BACRIM continue to act as a private army for business interests with deep ties to Colombia's paramilitary movement.
A new report by Colombialand.org, a group monitoring Colombia's land restitution process, tells the story of the long-running case of Curvarado and Jigumiando, which predates the Victims and Land Restitution Law but is widely considered to be a test case for the how the law will be implemented.
The region's largely Afro-Colombian population was displaced during a military campaign between 1996 to 1997. The operation was one of the clearest examples of collusion between the Colombian army and paramilitaries, and remains one of Colombia's biggest single displacements.
After the community fled the constant massacres, assassinations, and indiscriminate bombardments, their lands were snapped up by large-scale cattle ranching and African palm agri-businesses with close ties to leading members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
Many of the displaced eventually returned to the region, backed by national and international human rights groups and armed with a strategy that allowed them to build new communities in the midst of the businesses and armed actors that had displaced them -- "Humanitarian Zones." Legally recognized by the Colombian state and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the communities are neutral zones where all armed actors, both legal and illegal, are prohibited from entering.
The communities' legal claims to the land have been recognized by Colombian courts and the restitution process is now in progress. However, the agri-businesses, armed groups, and the danger to the communities all remain. According to the Colombialand report, remnants of the AUC "continue to exert social and economic control" throughout the region. Residents identify the paramilitaries in the zone as belonging to the Gaintanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaintanistas de Colombia) -- better known as the Urabeños.
[See InSight Crime's profile page for the Urabeños, including most recent news coverage and a map showing areas of operation]
The Humanitarian Zone residents accuse the Urabeños of acting as a private army protecting the interests of businesses that refuse to cede land to the population despite the court rulings.
Campaigners are constantly threatened when they make claims on the land or challenge the ranchers and other "bad-faith occupiers," and there have been cases of targeted assassinations. The communities have also accused the Urabeños of coordinating and protecting land grabs by banana companies, who they say have encouraged poor and displaced people from outside the region to seize communal land to grow plantains and yucca, which are sold to companies such as Banacol and Uniban.
[See InSight Crime's profiles of Urabeños leaders "Mi Sangre," "Otoniel," "Giovanni," "Chepe," and "Gavilan."]
Human rights groups that work with the communities have also confirmed the presence of coca crops in the communal lands, and residents claim that large shipments of precursor chemicals enter the region unhindered by army road blocks, while suspicious trucks pass out.
InSight Crime Analysis
Throughout most of Colombia, the hybrid organizations of the BACRIM (for "bandas criminales," or "criminal bands"), which have combined the remnants of paramilitary and drug trafficking organizations, have a different structure, modus operandi, and objectives when compared to their paramilitary predecessors.
However, when InSight Crime visited the region of Curvarado in 2012, residents refused to distinguish between the paramilitaries of the AUC era and those that continue to terrorize the population today, insisting the only difference is the name and the fact they are no longer uniformed and tend to carry only side arms.
There is little doubt that those the residents continue to call "paras" are now affiliated with the Urabeños. The region is close to the group's heartland, and its Carlos Vasquez Front is based in the nearby town of Chigorodo.
In some ways, the group's operations in the region are reflective of how paramilitary factions evolved into the BACRIM. Instead of paramilitary patrols, they rely on unseen intelligence networks, such as the motorbike taxis that are the only means of public transport and, according to residents, feed information about all movements in the area back to the Urabeños command. Instead of massacres and open violence, they try to control through fear, with constant threats and occasional selective killings. The communities remain convinced that the security forces in the region -- the army's notorious 17th Brigade -- continue to collude with the "paras," but whereas once they spoke of soldiers wearing army uniforms by day and AUC fatigues by night, now their conclusions are based on the freedom with which the armed groups operate -- hinting at a far more low-key connection.
Despite these differences, the continuity with the AUC era is clearly evidenced in Curvarado and Jigumiando. The armed groups operating here share one important characteristic with the AUC, which sets them apart from other BACRIM organizations active elsewhere in Colombia: their involvement in violent counter-land reform.
[See InSight Crime's profile of the AUC and complete coverage]
According to the testimonies of demobilized AUC leaders, the paramilitary campaign in Curvarado and the surrounding region -- known as Uraba -- was from the very start intended to halt the "campesino" land reform effort. Infamous AUC leader Vicente Castaño was behind the push that allowed African palm companies to buy up Uraba. Meanwhile, the banana companies that operate in the region have a long history of ties to paramilitarism and some remain under investigation. The ties between cattle ranching and the AUC are even closer, particularly as ranching has traditionally been a favored method for laundering illicit profits and transferring stolen lands to the relatives or friends of paramilitary chiefs.
Many of the companies and individuals currently involved in the Curvarado-Jigumiando land dispute are the same that took advantage of the 1996-1997 displacement. Meanwhile, in such an isolated region, the "para-economy" remains strong. Residents and investigators told InSight Crime that some of the ranchers in the region are frontmen for extradited high-ranking AUC chiefs, and that they continue to operate on their bosses' behalf. Even as the Urabeños remain focused on criminal enterprises -- such as the drug trade, unlicensed mining, and extortion -- within Uraba, it is clear that the paramilitary remnants active in Curvarado and Jigumiando continue to play the same role as their AUC predecessors: mercenary muscle serving the needs of the long-standing counter-land reform alliance between business and paramilitarism. Meanwhile, the continued operations of guerrilla groups in the region even offer the "paras" the same opportunity to mask their economic criminal activities beneath a veneer of counter-insurgency -- a tactic common in the AUC heyday, but less so with today's comparatively depoliticized successor groups.
While the BACRIM should not be treated as merely an extension of the AUC and must be countered on their own terms, the operations of the Urabeños in Curvarado and Jigumiando are a stark reminder not only of the roots of these next generation groups, but also of the continuing effects of the AUC's march across Colombia.