Colombia is no stranger to violence: It was the site of a bloody independence battle in the 19th century. And between 1899 and 1902, conservative and liberal forces waged a bloody 1,000-day war across the country, which was later rekindled by the death of liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948. In 1958 — once the conflict between liberals and conservatives was settled — unappeased liberals united to eventually create the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other left-leaning guerrilla groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and M-19. The rise of these leftist groups crystallized the conflict between right and left in Colombia in a way that endures to this day.
In response to the guerrilla violence and state neglect, in the 1970s rural communities in Boyaca department decided to take up arms in defense. In 1997, the groups were formalized into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). However, their use of extreme violence and their ties to the drug trade and to state institutions motivated then-President Alvaro Uribe to officially demobilize the units between 2003 and 2006. But the private armies did not completely disappear: Now former AUC combat units are active in Colombian organized crime and have evolved into the United Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, a neo-paramilitary group also known as Clan del Golfo.
Colombia is not an easy country to govern. Its mountains and jungles have historically harbored towns and villages that have wildly different political worldviews and that have been in constant conflict since the country's independence in 1810. Political identity — left or right — has long been a defining feature of Colombia's isolated towns, particularly those in Antioquia department. It is in this context that in 1977 embattled rancher Ramon Isaza gathered forces in the sleepy river town of Puerto Boyaca to fight the FARC forces terrorizing his community.
Angered and frustrated by the lack of security offered by the state, Isaza and his fellow ranchers decided to form an anti-guerrilla group known as Los Escopeteros, the shotguns. On Feb. 22, 1978, the group had their first battle against the fourth front of the FARC, leaving three FARC members dead. The date became symbolic among Colombia's conservative groups, which celebrated it as proof that the ranchers of Boyaca would stand and fight — and prevail — against leftist insurgencies.
A few years later, in 1982, in the remote town of Amalfi in the mountains of northern Antioquia, three men who had lost their father to the FARC — Fidel, Carlos and Vicente Castano — vowed revenge for his death. As word of the fledgling paramilitaries spread among the population of rural Antioquia, Isaza and his men intensified their fight against the FARC, employing ever more brutal tactics perpetrated by revenge thirsty combatants such as the Castano brothers. They killed and dismembered their enemies and rescued kidnapped ranchers to gain loyalty. One of the most important ranchers rescued by Isaza's men was Henry Perez, who, motivated by Isaza's courage, decided to finance and arm his own self-defense group.
Eventually, with the help of lawmakers, the groups won legitimacy in the eyes of the law. Isaza and others like him banded together with the Puerto Boyaca-based Barbula battalion of the Colombian army into the Association of Peasants and Ranchers of Middle Magdalena (ACDEGAM). The group became the primary organization through which rich businessmen and politicians funneled money to private armies. The practice was seen as moral, given the official ties of the armed groups with the Colombian army.
The Making of a Paramilitary Commander
About the time that the self-defense group gained legitimacy in the eyes of the law, they captured the attention of Colombia's drug organizations. Excited to hire the self-defense forces as private armies to oversee the cartel's production operations, Colombia's most notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, decided to have former British and Israeli special operation forces train the group in the art of killing. Subgroups such as Los Tiznados, Macetos, Grillos and Maicopas emerged from this effort, all under the command of Escobar. Out of these trainings, Carlos, the youngest of the Castano brothers, emerged as one of the most feared and battle-hardened commanders. His hatred for left-wing politicians, guerrillas and intellectuals and his far-right political ideology set the charismatic brother apart. Castano became commander of the self-defense force unit of Cordoba and Uraba — a separate, notoriously violent unit.
In the late 1980s, believing that the self-defense forces had become too powerful and ambitious, Escobar's Medellin cartel began an all out war on the units, ravaging Antioquia and Cordoba departments.
In 1991, Escobar's henchmen killed Perez — the rescued rancher who led his own self-defense forces. In the wake of the assassination, an alliance between rival drug traffickers, paramilitary forces and the military emerged. The PEPES (Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) paramilitary wing aided the national police in corralling and eventually killing Escobar in December 1993. During this time, Carlos Castano began his ascent to maximum commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the organization that united Colombia's right-wing groups.
In 1998, the powerful Cali Cartel was dismantled, paving the way for the AUC to become one of the most powerful, armed non-state entities in Colombia, rivaled by only the FARC. Vicente Castano, Carlos's older brother, sought to take advantage of the powerful position by allying his faction of the AUC with drug lord Diego Murillo, leader of the Medellin-based Envigado Office. But the decision proved a moral dilemma for Carlos, who struggled to decide whether to become a well-funded and powerful criminal organization or to continue fighting leftists strictly on ideological grounds. The dilemma caused mounting conflict between Carlos and Vicente that peaked in 2004, when Vicente's AUC faction ordered a hit squad to kill Carlos over a rumor that he was planning to cooperate with the DEA.
Meanwhile, the Colombian government, under Uribe, worked to negotiate demobilization of the AUC. In 2008, 14 top AUC members, thinking that they would be able to keep their assets while serving jail time in a luxury hacienda, were suddenly extradited to the United States on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. In Uribe's mind, the move put an end to the AUC, but in reality the group's middle-ranking members integrated into Colombia's criminal landscape, becoming Los Urabenos and El Clan del Golfo. Today, they are known as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces.
Since 2010, President Juan Manuel Santos has referred to what was once the AUC as Organized Criminal Bands (BACRIM). But the term is polarizing: For the left, BACRIM are paramilitaries that the government refuses to label as such. For the right, Santos has been too compromising in FARC and ELN demobilization efforts, when it was unflinching during AUC negotiations. Regardless, what is clear is that neither right- nor left-wing militant groups are particularly ideological these days. The FARC, before its peace deal, was charging taxes on communities of coca farmers and drug traffickers alike and had drug trafficking links with Venezuela's military and with Mexican cartels. The same can be said of the ELN, whose main sources of funding continue to be extortion and drug trafficking. The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, too, can also be considered a competitor for the cocaine supply chain — from production to export — fighting for control of former FARC territories.
In the jungles of the Amazon basin, on the isolated Pacific Coast and on the Venezuelan borderlands, former AUC members are clashing with the ELN and with FARC dissident groups.
Over the next decade, despite the push for FARC demobilization and a potential ELN peace agreement, Colombian organized crime will continue to fall along the age-old ideological lines endemic to Colombian militancy. After years of gaining concessions from the state, criminal groups have learned that having a political facade is advantageous, even if that facade is clearly cracking. For example, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, whose official mission is to protect the disenfranchised and vulnerable rural communities from theft and criminal groups, are now recruiting former FARC dissidents (their sworn enemies), according to the country's General Prosecutor's Office.
As the FARC weakens, the ELN and Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces will continue to increase their capabilities, even when it means working against the wishes of rural communities — those they claim to protect — by diversifying away from coca cash crops. As long as there is a demand from foreign drug consumers, these groups will continue to profit. (According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the amount of coca crops surged to almost 190,000 hectares in 2016, almost 20 percent more than in 2015. When Plan Colombia began in 1999, there were less than 125,000 hectares of coca planted.) By the same token, as long as Venezuela's economic and political instability persists, exporting drugs from Colombia through Venezuela will be a relatively easy endeavor. And with the survival of the drug trade, so too will Colombia's ideological militarism endure, if only for strategic reasons.
A previous version of this column misstated the place of origin of the ranchers who fought against leftist insurgencies in 1978. This error has been corrected.