Armed Conflicts, Global Governance, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Amid Elections, Armed Groups Hold Colombian Town under the Gun

CAUCASIA, Colombia , Jun 1 2010 (IPS) - Rolling through this mountainous region of central Colombia, the brown waters of the Río Cauca wind through mist-shrouded hills before joining up with the larger Río Magdalena and emptying out into the Caribbean Sea.

In this area, known as Bajo Cauca and characterised by campesino farms and gurgling waterfalls, the dusky hues of the river are an apt metaphor for the violence that has had residents here existing in fear since the beginning of the year.

“We’ve never lived what we’re living through now,” says Fernanda Márquez (not her real name), whose son was kidnapped by the larger of Colombia’s two main rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), 13 years ago. “They kill innocent children, throw bombs, kidnap. It’s terrible.”

For much of the last year, groups of warring drug traffickers have battled for control of this strategically important city and surrounding towns along the river. As Colombians go to the polls this month to choose a successor to President Álvaro Uribe, the groups continue to wage a scorched-earth battle to determine dominance over the smuggling of narcotics, weapons and people along the river.

According to police, between Jan. 1 and May 26, there were 74 murders in the Bajo Cauca region, and at least 24 grenade attacks, though other sources say the number of the latter is closer to 44.

During one recent week alone here, six people were killed during the invasion of a farm, gunmen killed a mother and her nine-year-old son, a 14-year-old boy died during a grenade attack, a 21-year-old labourer disappeared and the home of Leiderman Ortiz, the crusading publisher of the La Verdad de Pueblo newspaper, was damaged by yet another grenade.

All of this occurred despite a massive police and military presence in the region and recent arrests of dozens of individuals believed to be linked to the groups.

Ground zero for this turf war has been the riverside town of Caucasia, a ramshackle place with a metropolitan population of around 120,000 and where two groups – Los Rastrojos and Los Urabeños (both aided by a subset of a gang known as Los Paisas) – are vying for control. Anonymous pamphlets in town regularly threaten death to the groups’ perceived enemies.

“There are alliances between these criminal gangs and the subversive groups, particularly the FARC,” says Colonel Luis Eduardo Herrera Paredes, chief of Bajo Caucau’s Comando Operativo de Seguridad. “We have seen a panorama where the criminal bands organise the distribution (of cocaine) and the FARC protect the cultivation process. The majority of these murders are among these criminal groups.”

The groups have their roots in Colombia’s long and bloody internal armed conflict, where far-left rebels of the FARC and the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army or ELN) have squared off against the Colombian state and paramilitary groups allied with localised political and economic interests. Critics charge that the paramilitaries often worked as little more than a ruthless wing of Colombia’s official security services.

Formed in 1997, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces or AUC) represented the coalescing of these localised militias.

Largely under the aegis of Carlos Castaño, whose father had been kidnapped and killed by guerillas and whose brother, Fidel, was a major paramilitary leader and drug trafficker before he allegedly died in combat in 1994, the AUC went from a series of largely autonomous collectives to a tightly-organised combat-ready outfit that moved through the country like a murderous scythe, depriving the guerillas of safe havens and murdering, often in quite ghastly fashion, any whom they suspected of supporting them.

In addition to the drug trade, despite its designation as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, and the credible linking of the AUC to dozens of massacres, the group was also able to derive income from international firms doing business in Colombia, who continued to make payouts to the AUC to protect their business interests. Chiquita Brands International, for example, was fined 25 million dollars by the U.S. government in 2007 for doing so.

Operating as anti-subversive shock troops for the first five years of its existence, by 2002, when the AUC started negotiating potential demobilisation with the Colombian government, the group was increasingly consumed by the business of drug trafficking, leading to violent schisms between leaders.

Castaño, who was known to have objected to the AUC’s deepening involvement in the drug trade despite his own past links to traffickers, disappeared in April 2004. His body was found two years later, allegedly the victim of a plot orchestrated by his brother, Vicente, who himself later disappeared and was believed to have been murdered.

The antecedent of the two of the current groups warring in Bajo Cauca, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, to the AUC are direct and vivid.

At its height, one of the most numerically significant wings on the AUC was its Bloque Central Bolívar, which numbered around 6,000 combatants and was led by Carlos Mario Jiménez, better known by his nom de guerre, “Macaco”.

After the Bloque Central Bolívar demobilised at the beginning of 2005 under Colombia’s Justice and Peace Law, which required paramilitary members to confess their crimes, making amends with the victims and cease criminal activities in exchange for substantially reduced sentences, Jiménez entered a Colombian prison. However, charging that they broke the terms of their deals by continuing to be actively involved drug trafficking, Colombian authorities extradited him and several other top AUC leaders to the United States in May 2008 to stand trial for conspiring to import cocaine.

In Caucasia, local residents and authorities say, the current leader of the Rastrojos, who goes by the alias “Sebastian”, was an active member of Jiménez’s Bloque Bolívar. A 2009 Colombian government memorandum concluded that the Rastrojos were active in 10 of Colombia’s 32 departments and had around 1,400 members.

Until his arrest in early 2009, the Urabeños were led by Daniel Rendón, known as Don Mario, a former member of the AUC’s Elmer Cárdenas bloc, which never even perfunctorily went through with the demobilisation process.

“It’s only about money,” says Jesús Alean Quintera, the director of the Fundación Redes, a human rights organisation that works in the Bajo Cauca region and has extensively documented that activities of the groups, particularly with regards to minors, both in Caucasia and the neighbouring community of Nechí. “The recruitment of children into these groups has become a real problem.”

Now, with even the thinnest veneer of ideology stripped away, groups such as Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños, Los Paisas and Las Águilas Negras (thought by some to be a front group for Los Urabeños) are free to collaborate with Colombia’s rebel factions in the service of a more tangible reward, and the people of Caucasia wonder when their situation will change.

“There are a lot of killers of 13 or 14 years old these days, both boys and girls” says Leiderman Ortiz, the local journalist who survived the grenade attack. “We’re living through a war, though terrorism here, and we think that all the authorities, from the president on down, need to understand how grave this situation is.”

*Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His blog can be read at

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