But at the current moment of the Colombian peace talks, a spectre is haunting the Conversation Table, the spectre of paramilitarismo. We are not talking about a minor issue. Currently, this matter is the main concern for delegates of both sides -FARC-EP and Colombian government- and for the social organizations that support the peace process.
For people who are not familiarized with Colombian political slang, in this Andean country the word “paramilitar” does not remit to civil security units like money transport or bank security, which is the way it is used in many countries. In Colombia, paramilitares are counter-insurgency death squads.
Colombian paramilitaries are an active part of the historical counter-insurgency strategy of the Military Forces since 1962. By then, an American mission of USA military officers, headed by General Yarborough, made high-level counter-insurgency recommendations to the Colombian High Command. One of these was the conformation and training of undercover groups commissioned for “doing the dirty job”: extrajudicial executions, selective killings and massacres, torturing and disappearing.
The phenomenon of paramilitarism has undergone many changes during Colombian history. These groups are responsible for the largest number of cases of political violence in recent years. During Álvaro Uribe’s mandate, the largest confederation of “paras”, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Corps of Colombia, AUC), was demobilized in a polemic peace process where impunity reigned. After that, negationism about the persistence of the phenomenon has been a characteristic of the Colombian government.
In this way, the Uribe and Santos administrations continue ignoring that in Colombia death squads keep on killing social leaders, displacing peasants and threatening social organizations and left-wing parties.
But today the phenomenon is even more complex. Current death squads are divided in three major groups: The Urabeños or Úsuga Clan, self-denominated Gaitanistas Self-Defense Corps of Colombia; the Rastrojos or Popular and Peasant Patrols; and the Black Eagles. Their main activities are not only focused on counter-insurgency but also on “paraeconomía” (control of illegal economies -like mining and drug-trafficking- and legal ones like food commerce and transport), the “parapolítica” (the consolidation of political power in the local administrations of regions through corruption, clientelism and coercion) and a new systematic phenomenon: the threats against the process of lands restitution for displaced people.
Recent events confirm these claims. The past armed strike of Urabeños in Chocó, Sucre, Córdoba and Antioquia during the last week of past March achieved to paralyze an extensive area without receiving any strong answer from the State, proving the connivance with official Armed Forces. Curiously, the strike was the prelude for a national demonstration against the peace process convened by Álvaro Uribe, former president and current senator. This situation corresponds with a growing series of threats against human right defenders and selective murders of social activists like Maricela Tombé (peasant leader from Cauca), Klaus Zapata (Communist Youth militant from Soacha) and William Castillo (leader fom Guamocó).
The FARC-EP has insisted many times on it: peace is impossible while death squads keep on acting with impunity. The responsibility rests with the government: it will be a national tragedy to discard three years of talks and four partial agreements, just because the government is incapable of rooting out the phenomenon of paramilitarism.