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II. Background: Paramilitary Violence, Wealth, and Power

Colombia’s paramilitaries are no ordinary armed group fighting in self-defense or for a political cause.  As confirmed by demobilized paramilitaries themselves, these groups are powerful mafia-like organizations.  Much of their membership is composed of young men recruited with promises of high salaries, and they are well funded through drug trafficking and other criminal activities.  They exert enormous and increasing political control, backed by the threat—frequently acted upon—of force.

Profits from Drugs and Crime

In May 2005 investigators from the Colombian judicial police (Dirección Central de Policía Judicial or DIJIN) found fifteen tons of cocaine loaded on yachts in the Colombian state of Nariño.  The cocaine belonged to several different owners, including both the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, or FARC-EP) and paramilitary groups.1  Another ton of cocaine, belonging to the paramilitary block Libertadores del Sur and valued at roughly U.S.$30 million, was found the following week at the same location.2 

The drug business is a major source of funding for many if not all paramilitary blocks, and it is extremely profitable.  Colombia’s General Comptroller estimates that drug traffickers now control 48 percent of the best lands in the country.3  Several paramilitary commanders were deeply involved in drug trafficking even before they joined or started paramilitary groups.4 

As a result, paramilitary activity in some regions is not so much directed at fighting guerrillas as at obtaining control over valuable areas.  In recent years paramilitary groups have engaged in combat against one another because of the business.  And there have been reports, such as that described above, suggesting that paramilitaries even work alongside the FARC-EP in some drug trafficking operations.

In interviews, demobilized paramilitary members told Human Rights Watch about their involvement in the drug business, and how it affected their armed actions.  One young man who had been a squad commander said:

On the plains we had to look for chemicals.  We charged the farmers who were processing the coca a tax [vacuna] of 30, 40, 50 percent.  Lately, we had gotten into a fight with the Buitragos [commanders of another paramilitary group] to take over a zone.  It was not a fight for Colombia.  It was a drug trafficking war.5

The paramilitaries “wanted to get the guerrillas off the land because of the coca.  They said that it was to liberate the people, but it’s for the coca,” said another member.

In the region of Norte de Santander, one man told us, his group made money through the coca crops that they had on land that they had “recovered” from guerrillas.

Paramilitary groups’ involvement in the drug business frequently goes beyond simply taxing growers, and includes processing and direct trafficking.  One paramilitary who had been part of the Central Bolivar Block described his tasks as “buying the coca, guarding the area, and looking for guerrillas.”  The local commanders would “buy the coca base from the farmers, refine it, and send it to the bosses.” 

“In Casanare some commanders have laboratories.  Boyaca is one of the places that is best suited for crystallization…  It’s very lucrative,” said a former member of the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Casanare and Boyaca (Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare y Boyaca or ACC). 6 

A paramilitary who had operated in the Catatumbo Block told us that, because he had handled chemicals in a previous job, once he joined the paramilitary block he was sent to provide security in drug processing labs and to “participate, as a chemist, in the elaboration of coca paste.” 

Aside from the drug business, paramilitaries have also traditionally financed their operations through contributions from wealthy persons.  One demobilized paramilitary who had operated in the departments of Catatumbo and Cordoba said that “a majority of the money came from the large farming capitalists.  They paid us as though we were their security guards.”

The forced taking of property and land are also common, a fact that has contributed to Colombia having one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the world.  And, according to reliable investigative reports, paramilitaries have been closely associated with numerous other mafia-like businesses, including the sale of stolen gasoline, smuggling of contraband, and the provision of credit at usurious interest rates.7  Through extortion, they have managed not only to make money, but also to assert control over entire sectors of local economies, such as the transportation sector in Valledupar.8

Political Control and Corruption

Paramilitary groups in Colombia have enormous political power, at many levels.  Locally, paramilitaries frequently supplant the state, charging taxes for “security,” regulating economic activity, and controlling even the smallest details of citizens’ everyday life, such as their attire—a phenomenon that residents of Medellín described in interviews with Human Rights Watch.9 

Increasingly, paramilitaries also exert control over who holds political office.  By threatening and even killing candidates they do not like, paramilitaries are able to make sure that their favorites run unopposed.10  Colombian prosecutors recently ordered the arrest of paramilitary commander “Don Berna” for having allegedly ordered the April 10, 2005 assassinations of Colombian Congressman Orlando Benítez, his sister and his driver, after Benitez refused to follow Don Berna’s order that he stop campaigning in the region.11

According to top paramilitary commander Vicente Castaño Gil, about 35 percent of the Colombia’s national Congress consists of paramilitaries’ “friends,” and “by the next election, [the paramilitaries] will have increased that percentage.”12  Another AUC leader, Ivan Roberto Duque (a.k.a. “Ernesto Baez), has recognized that “for many years… [the paramilitaries] have intervened in politics, intimately and permanently penetrated local and regional political processes, and built structures of regional and local politics.”13 

Their close relationships with local politicians and government officials have allowed paramilitaries to make money off government operations.  Thus, for example, the paramilitary commander known as “Jorge 40” recently admitted to mounting complex schemes in collusion with local authorities to divert funds from Colombia’s health system.14 

Local governments frequently handle enormous sums of money, particularly in regions where mining or the oil and gas business result in significant royalties for the governments.  Yet, as has been documented in audits, such royalties have in several recent cases vanished through their investment in irregular contracts and “atomization” of the funds.15

Perhaps more importantly, by increasing their political influence paramilitaries can not only make financial gains, but also position themselves to better protect their economic and legal interests, and continue their illegal businesses undisturbed.  One widely cited recent study concludes that paramilitaries are essentially enormous mafias whose main objective “is to achieve the monopoly over a set of activities that are susceptible to the control of organized crime, such as wholesale food markets, racketeering, drug trafficking, and, as a superior goal, the appropriation of political power in the cities.”16 

Ivan Roberto Duque has said that his organization will not disappear as a result of the demobilization process, but that instead he wants to “legitimize the AUC’s power and build it into a big political movement.”17  Indeed, in recent years paramilitaries have even shown an interest in holding public office.  In Medellin, demobilized commander Giovanni Marin is reportedly running for a seat in the national chamber of deputies.18  

In this context, it is understandable that some Colombian politicians have expressed concern that, unless the demobilization process effectively dismantles these groups’ underlying structures, Colombian democracy will be “subordinated” to paramilitaries’ interests. 19

High Pay for the Troops

The profits from the drug trade and other criminal activity allow paramilitary groups to easily recruit troops among the many poor and unemployed in Colombia.   Demobilized members of paramilitary groups give a wide array of personal reasons for joining the groups, ranging from their own forcible recruitment as children to their fascination with firearms.20  However, the one reason we heard most frequently was that they simply wanted a job, and the paramilitaries paid better than most. 

Paramilitary troops are highly paid for their “work.”  Salaries vary by rank and paramilitary front, but several demobilized paramilitaries from different blocks said that their salaries started at around 360,000 pesos a month and rose rapidly over time.  One young man described the Centauros Block’s salary structure:

“The troops made 360,000.  Squad commanders made a little more.  The nurses make 500,000,” said the man, who had worked as a hired assassin before joining the paramilitaries.  “The second in charge makes over one million.  Block commanders make thirty, forty, fifty million, and also have land, coca crops, things like that.”


A member of the North Block (commanded by “Jorge 40”) said this was “a good block” because it paid him 500,000 pesos per month.

These salaries are higher than Colombia’s gross national income per capita, and often higher than the minimum wage, which is not available to many poor Colombians.21  In addition to receiving salaries, most paramilitaries receive food, shelter, medical care, weapons, and uniforms. 

The importance of money as a factor motivating entry into paramilitary groups is borne out by a survey conducted by the office of the Mayor of Medellín: 23 percent of those surveyed stated that their primary reason for joining the Cacique Nutibara Block was economic need.22  For nearly all those we interviewed, the high pay offered by paramilitaries was a powerful incentive to join the group.

According to one member, “people go into the Self-Defense forces because of the money and because of culture, because they belong to paramilitary towns.”  Another noted “most of the people who joined our group were young men who were looking for work.”

“If there had been employment, nobody would have gone to the organization,” said a former member of the Córdoba front.

Paramilitary Atrocities

Paramilitaries have a well-known and lengthy record of spine-chilling atrocities including massacres, killings, forced disappearances, and kidnappings.23  Many of their top commanders are wanted in Colombia for serious crimes.24

Atrocities, which under Colombian law are generally understood to encompass all serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, are frequently perpetrated even within the group itself, to punish members who disobey orders, or to train new recruits.  A former paramilitary who had deserted explained:

I learned how hard it was because I remember what they did to one of our group, a young girl of fourteen who did not show up for practice and she was wrapped in burlap bags, tied up with barbed wire and burned alive. I remember her screaming and trying to get out of the bags, and with each stretch, her skin got hurt with the barbed wire.  We had to set fire to the girl.  We were about fifty completing the [paramilitary training] course.  We were just following orders.

Other demobilized paramilitaries tried to explain their groups’ atrocities:  “Because you have a power over the civilian population, you have to make the civilian population obey,” one demobilized man told us.  If the civilians did not obey, he explained, they would be punished with forced labor.  If they still did not obey, “other decisions would be taken.”    We heard a similar explanation from a former member of the Catatumbo Block, who said that “it is stipulated that there are borders and you have to win people’s respect, and so we had to kill people to show that you could not come in or go out of certain areas.”

A man who had operated in the Catatumbo region tried to justify his involvement in massacres by arguing that “the organization didn’t do it because we felt like it; we did it for the farmers themselves….  I don’t consider it a massacre.  I consider it defending a community.” 

“Sometimes civilians who worked with the paracos [the paramilitaries] by giving information and doing favors died,” said a traumatized young man who had been forcibly recruited into the group and subsequently deserted.  “They sometimes talked about things they shouldn’t have, and they were killed.  As for people who were associated with the guerrillas, [the paramilitaries] killed even their families.”  He explained that, when his group arrived at a “guerrilla town,” their commander would announce that those who had links to the guerrillas had to leave.  If they did not, they would have to suffer the consequences.   But, he said, “I never knew how they went about investigating them.  A lot of innocent people die out there.”

Military-Paramilitary Links

Paramilitaries have often worked closely with Colombian military units, and have committed abuses in collusion with those units.   The existence of such links has been extensively documented in past Human Rights Watch reports.25  Today there continue to be credible reports of military-paramilitary links in various parts of the country.26

In interviews, several demobilized paramilitaries confirmed that they had had a close working relationship with military units.  “In some areas, we did work with the army,” said one demobilized paramilitary.  “This was coordinated at a high level, that of a colonel or battalion commander… We did not work mixed together.  Sometimes not even the soldiers themselves knew.  [The paramilitaries] would be on one side of the road and the [soldiers] on the other side.”

We heard almost identical statements from a person who had been in the Cundinamarca Block: “We worked jointly.  We would coordinate, we would be on one side and the army on the other.”

In some cases, paramilitaries draw troops from the military.  One man told us “when I was in the military, we would move around together” with the paramilitaries.  After serving in the army for several years, he joined the Central Bolivar Block (Bloque Central Bolivar or BCB): “Those who had not served in the military were rejected by the BCB.”

The Catatumbo Block, a demobilized member told us, “always knew where the army was… we coordinated to not face each other.”  In fact, he said, the group’s practice when they caught a guerrilla was that “if he was wounded and could not walk we would kill him, but if he could walk we would give him to the army after we got information out of him.”

Military units have also been reported to side with one paramilitary group against another.  Former paramilitaries who had operated in the regions of Meta and Casanare, either as members of the Centauros Block or of the ACC, consistently told us that the military had recently been working in conjunction with the Centauros Block to fight the ACC.  As a result, we were told, the ACC has been decimated, while the Centauros Block has finally asserted control over much of the region.  In June 2005, the Colombian government announced that it had started to prepare for the Centauros Block to go through the demobilization process.27

[1] “The Mexican Connection,” Semana, May 22, 2005, (retrieved July 17, 2005) .

[2] “In Tumaco (Nariño) a ton of cocaine belonging to the paramilitaries is seized,” El Tiempo, May 20, 2005 (retrieved June 27, 2005).  Colombia’s paramilitaries are not a single unified group, but are instead divided into separate blocks, under separate leadership.  Several of these blocks belong to a larger coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC).

[3] General Comptroller of the Republic, “The Administration of the Agrarian Reform and the Process of Confiscation and Termination of Rural Assets” (“La Gestión de la Reforma Agraria y el Proceso de Incautación y Extinción de Bienes Rurales”), June 2005, (retrieved June 29, 2005).

[4] A clear example is that of Diego Murillo Bejarano, also known as “Don Berna” or “Adolfo Paz.” Known as the Inspector General of the AUC paramilitary coalition, Murillo is a former security chief for the Galeano family, associates of Pablo Escobar and members of the Medellín Cartel. Murillo has also been linked by the authorities to Medellín gangs used to carry out high-profile assassinations. In recent years, Murillo became the commander of several paramilitary blocks, including the Cacique Nutibara Block, which went through the demobilization process in 2003. 

Another example is that of the “twins,” Victor Manuel and Miguel Angel Mejia, well known drug traffickers who allegedly paid the AUC U.S.$ 2 million to operate a block in Arauca.  See “The Metamorphosis,” Semana, June 4, 2005, (retrieved June 5, 2005).

[5] Human Rights Watch interview with demobilized paramilitary, Bogotá, 2005.  All of the interviews with demobilized paramilitaries used in this report were conducted between March and June, 2005, in the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Montería, and Medellín.  The interviews were conducted on condition of anonymity.  Therefore, we have not used the names of the individuals we interviewed, and have not included identifying information beyond, in some cases, their rank and the paramilitary block to which they belonged.

[6] The ACC, under the command of alias “Martin Llanos,” is not at the negotiating table.

[7] See, e.g., “Paramilitaries infiltrated regional economies,” El Tiempo, July 2, 2005,  (retrieved July 16, 2005); “The ‘Chepitos’ of the Coast,” Semana, April 23, 2005, (retrieved June 27, 2005).  See also Hugh Bronstein, “Mafia-Style Crime Plagues Colombia’s War Refugees,” Reuters, June 30, 2005,, (retrieved July 20, 2005).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Human Rights Watch interviews with Medellín residents, Medellín, March 12, 2005. 

[10] “The tentacles of the AUC,” Semana, April 23, 2005, (retrieved June 27, 2005); “Para-politics,” Semana, August 16, 2003, (retrieved June 27, 2005); “The New Caciques,Semana, April 23, 2005, (retrieved July 18, 2005).

[11] “Witnesses assure that ‘Don Berna’ was holding assassinated congressman Orlando Benitez to account,” El Tiempo, May 31, 2005, (retrieved June 1, 2005).

[12] “Vicente Castaño Speaks,” Semana, June 4, 2005, (retrieved June 5, 2005).

[13] “Paramilitaries aspire to become a political movement, Ernesto Baez confirmed,” El Tiempo, July 21, 2005, (retrieved July 22, 2005).

[14] “Para-Health,” Semana, Sept. 4, 2004, (retrieved June 28, 2005).  “Jorge 40” discusses the issue on the recordings of negotiations between High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo and the paramilitary leadership first published in Semana in September 2004.  “Explosive Revelations,” Semana, September 25, 2005, (retrieved June 5, 2005).

[15] This has happened, for example, in the municipality of la Jagua de Ibirico, in the department of Cesar (much of which is controlled by the AUC’s North Block.  According to a report by the General Comptroller’s Office, this municipality received approximately U.S. $14 million in mining royalties from 2004.  Yet only 39 percent of that amount was invested in the manner required by law (75 percent should have been invested in health, water systems, and education).  About one third of the money was invested in 603 different contracts, 99.3 percent of which were entered without the required public bidding.  See General Comptroller of the Republic, Powerpoint presentation: “Meeting of the Committee Monitoring the Investment of Royalties, Municipality of La Jagua de Ibirico, Cesar” (2004).   Similar irregularities were found with respect to royalties from oil and gas in other municipalities in Sucre, Casanare, and Arauca, where paramilitaries also exert an influence.  It is impossible to reach any conclusions about paramilitary involvement in irregular contracts or diversion of royalties based solely on the auditing reports on these municipalities.  Nonetheless, these reports do illustrate how lucrative such involvement might be.

[16] Gustavo Duncan, From the Countryside to the Cities in Colombia: The Urban Infiltration of Warlords  (Bogotá: University of the Andes, 2005), p. 2.

[17] Luis Jaime Acosta, “Feared Colombian militias want political party,” Reuters, July 21, 2005, (retrieved July 22, 2005).  See also “Paramilitaries aspire to become a political movement, Ernesto Baez confirmed,” El Tiempo, July 21, 2005, (retrieved July 22, 2005).

[18] “Heads of the Self-Defense Forces are campaigning with representative Rocío Arias,” El Tiempo, April 27, 2005, (retrieved June 28, 2005).  The national chamber of deputies is one of the two chambers of Colombia’s Congress.  The other chamber of Congress is the Senate.

[19] “Paramilitarism is a project of accumulation of political power and economic wealth through the use of arms….  For this reason, more than a matter of peace, which in and of itself is crucial, this negotiation will define what type of democracy we will have.”  Rafael Pardo Rueda, “The Essence of Paramilitarism is not Being Dismantled,” El Tiempo, February 2, 2005, p.1-14.

[20] One young man who had gone through the demobilization process described how he had been sold at age sixteen to a paramilitary front:  “I did not want to study more because of our bad economic situation.  So I started to work for four months, but then I lost my job.  A man from our neighborhood told me and two others to come work planting rice.  But instead, he sold us for $100,000 pesos each.  I was sixteen, another was fifteen, and the last nineteen.  They gave us to the Buitragos, who are the owners of Martin Llanos’s Block.”  Human Rights Watch interview with demobilized paramilitary, Bogotá, 2005.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the problem of child recruitment by Colombia’s armed groups.  See Human Rights Watch, You’ll Learn Not to Cry (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003).

[21] In 2003, gross national income per capita was U.S. $1,810 for the year (US $150.83 per month).  See World Bank Group, s.v. “WDI Data Query,” (retrieved July 13, 2005).  Colombia’s minimum wage is currently set at 381,500 pesos per month (approximately U.S. $198). 

[22] Office of the Mayor of Medellín, Powerpoint Presentation: “Program of Peace and Reconciliation: Return to Legality”, March 12, 2005.  Other important reasons marked in the survey included: a personal vendetta or revenge (25 percent), and threats upon his life (25 percent).

[23]Human Rights Watch has documented numerous paramilitary atrocities in past reports.  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, War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998); Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).

[24] According to the Attorney General’s office, as of May 5, 2005, it had arrest warrants for the following persons, commonly identified as paramilitary commanders: Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano (two warrants); Luis Eduardo Cifuentes Galindo (five); Salvatore Mancuso Gomez (nine); Ivan Roberto Duque Gaviria (two); Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (six); Ramon Maria Isaza Arango (one); Ramiro Vanoy Murillo (two); Guillermo Perez Alzate (two).

[25] See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, The “Sixth Division”: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia; “The Ties that Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 12, no. 1(B), February 2000.

[26] See, e.g., “Head of Joint Chiefs of Staff is Designated to investigate links between military and ‘paras’ in Chocó,” El Tiempo, May 5, 2005, (retrieved June 27, 2005).

[27] Office of High Commissioner for Peace, Statements of High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, to Media in Yopal, Casanare, June 1, 2005, (retrieved July 21, 2005).

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