Background Briefing

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I.  Paramilitary Groups: Powerful Organizations Easily Able to Replenish their Ranks

Colombian paramilitary groups trace their origins to small “self-defense groups” formed by local landowners and businessmen to defend themselves and their property against guerrilla violence, and to death squads created by drug cartels in the 1970s and 1980s.  Operating with the tolerance of, and often in collusion with Colombian military units, paramilitary groups have a long and horrific history of abuses against civilians, including massacres, assassinations, torture, forced displacement, forced disappearances, and kidnappings.1  

Financed through the drug business, extortion, and forced takings of land, paramilitary groups have a great deal of economic power.  They have been estimated to control an enormous share of Colombia’s drug trade,2 and they illegally own vast expanses of land that they have taken by force.3 

These groups also have increasing political influence in Colombia.  Through their territorial control, paramilitaries have been able to install or manipulate many local politicians.  Even at the national level, there are now politicians who openly support paramilitary groups.4

Paramilitary organizations have been estimated to command as many as 23,000 troops.5  Because of their extraordinary wealth and continued involvement in the drug business, they also have an immense capacity to replenish their ranks and continue to operate even while many of their members appear to be demobilizing. 

To actually demobilize and dismantle these mafias requires much more than simply trusting paramilitary leaders to turn over their weapons and land and move their troops into government programs for reintegration to society.  For a genuine demobilization to take place, it is essential that the Colombian government investigate and attack the structure, sources of financing, and historic sources of political and economic support of these complex groups.  It is also crucial that the government hold paramilitaries accountable for, and uncover the truth about the serious human rights and humanitarian law abuses they have committed.  And the government must ensure that these groups fulfill their commitments to cease hostilities, turn over their illegal assets and land, cooperate with authorities, and make reparations for their crimes.

[1] Human Rights Watch has extensively documented collusion between paramilitary groups and the Colombian military in the commission of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.  See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, The “Sixth Division:” Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2001); Human Rights Watch, “The Ties that Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, No. 1(B), February 2000.

[2] Scott Wilson, “Colombian Fighters’ Drug Trade is Detailed; Report Complicates Efforts to End War,” Washington Post, June 26, 2003, p. A01; Juan Forero, “Colombia’s Landed Gentry: Coca Lords and Other Bullies,” New York Times, January 21, 2004, p. A4.

[3] See “Los Señores de las Tierras,” Semana, Vol 1152, May 28, 2004 [online] (retrieved January 6, 2005).

[4] See Juan Forero, “Rightist Militias are a Force in Colombia’s Congress,” The New York Times, November 10, 2004, [online], (retrieved November 10, 2004). 

[5] Comisiones de Paz del Congreso de la Republica, “Informe de Relatoria General,” Section  3.1, [online]
(retrieved January 5, 2005).

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