Paramilitaries in Latin America

views updated

Paramilitaries in Latin America

Paramilitary forces take three forms in Latin America: officially sanctioned forces that supplement the military and police, illegal groups, and private security companies. The privatization of security is a general trend in Latin America, given states' inability to enforce the rule of law, insecurity in rural and urban areas, and often dysfunctional judicial systems. Police are poorly paid, trained, and equipped, and often corrupt. This contributes to the high crime rate in Latin America, where an estimated 15 percent of the gross domestic product is lost to violence annually.

Latin America has numerous examples of legal paramilitary forces. One of the most famous are the rondas campesinas, or peasant militias. Based on indigenous communal traditions of providing local security, rondas have an important role in Peruvian history. In the nineteenth century rondas were employed by General (later president) Andrés Cáceres to fight against Chilean forces during the War of the Pacific (1879–1884). In the 1980s rondas, called the Committees of Self Defense, lightly armed and under the control of the Peruvian army, were instrumental in defeating the Sendero Luminoso in the sierra of south central Peru (Junín and Ayacucho) by depriving the Maoists of territorial control. In 2003 President Alejandro Toledo signed legislation that gave the rondas extensive legal responsibilities for protecting communal security and resolving conflict.

In El Salvador during the civil war of 1970s and 1980s, the paramilitary Organización Nacional Democrática (ORDEN) was established under the Ministry of Defense. Accordingly, the military organized some 100,000 members at the village and town levels. After developing an unsavory record for human rights violations, ORDEN was disbanded, but some members joined death squads that were totally outside the law.

In the Guatemalan counterinsurgency of the same time, the army expanded the army reserves known as the comisionados militares into the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Auto-Defensa Civil). Approximately 900,000 peasants were recruited (many forcibly) and rewarded with food, housing, and jobs. Once again, horrendous human rights violations ensued. The patrols were disbanded in 1996. In 2004 the Guatemalan government agreed to pay $600 each to about 700,000 ex-members.

Due to Colombia's chronically weak central authority, absence of effective governance (such as police and military presence, roads, schools, and other infrastructure) in major portions of the national territory, and strong regionalism in a difficult geography, paramilitaries have been prominent in Colombia. They have been used by national, regional, and local political forces. There was even a short-lived experiment at the national level with legal paramilitaries: The CONVIVIR (Vigilance and Private Security Services) system started in 1990 as a neighborhood watch concept in Antioquia, but unlike the rondas in Peru, CONVIVIR were allowed to carry only sidearms, and they soon disbanded.

The emergence of Colombia as a producer of cocaine in the early 1980s transformed the simmering internal conflict and helped spawn an immense paramilitary problem. Coca cultivation moved north from Bolivia and Peru into southeastern Colombia, providing a new source of funding for the military operations of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). By the mid-1990s Colombia had become the largest exporter of cocaine to the United States and the rest of the world. The guerrillas protected and taxed the cultivation, production, and transport of coca. The United States, fearful of the establishment of a narco-state, and fighting drug addiction at home, committed itself to support Colombia via economic and security assistance.

In the 1990s the FARC appeared invincible, stealing livestock and property, forcibly recruiting children to fight, taking over towns, assassinating and kidnapping officials and prominent citizens, defeating the army in battalion-size units, and conducting urban terror operations, all while benefiting from the coca economy. The army, with only 35,000 soldiers available for combat in 2000 and burdened with poor organization, mobility, and intelligence, could not secure territory, protect the population, and defend infrastructure. Thus, a serious security gap emerged, which was filled by some thirty illegal paramilitary groups that came under the umbrella organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia).

In the 1980s cattle ranchers organized self-defense groups to fight Colombia's growing guerrilla threat. As the self-defense groups grew, they meshed with the complex local, regional, and national politics. They also found the lucrative advantage of the coca business: By 2000 some 70 percent of the income of the paramilitaries came from narcotics. The competition with the FARC over territory, coca, and people was intense, resulting in intimidation, killings, massacres, corruption, and more than one million people displaced by the crossfire. Believing that "the enemy of my enemy is my ally," some elements of Colombia's public security forces considered the paramilitaries useful in the fight against the FARC and ELN. This gave rise to the notion that the paramilitaries were the army's "Sixth Division,"—that is, assisting the existing, legitimate five divisions by conducting operations, while the army provided support and intelligence, and then looked the other way. The government was fighting a war on three fronts: against the guerrillas, the narcos, and the paramilitary forces.

By the end of 2006, nearly 32,000 paramilitaries had accepted the government's offer to lay down their guns, demobilize, demilitarize, and reintegrate into society. But there were serious difficulties with reintegration. Moreover, the FARC occupied space vacated by paramilitaries, and corruption engendered by the coca boom reached high political levels. On the plus side, the administrations of Andrés Pastrana Arango (1998–2002) and Álvaro Uribe (2002 to present) undertook a significant expansion of the army and police by, for example, putting policemen in every municipality by 2003. Additionally, Colombia developed variants of legal paramilitary forces, including a national early-warning net composed of private citizens, and the town soldiers (soldados de mi pueblo), a local militia under the command of a regular army officer. These measures, combined with a more effective military and sophisticated strategy, improved public security dramatically. But the goal of establishing legitimate state authority across the national territory remained elusive.

See alsoArmed Forces; Cáceres, Andrés Avelino; Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: Army of National Liberation (ELN); Colombia, Revolutionary Movements: United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC); Peru, Revolutionary Movements: Shining Path; Toledo, Alejandro; War of the Pacific.


Brockett, Charles D. Political Movements and Violence in Central America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Degregori, Carlos Iván. "Reaping the Whirlwind: The Rondas Campesinas and the Defeat of the Sendero Luminoso in Ayacucho." In Societies of Fear: The Legacy of Civil War and Violence in Latin America, ed. Kees Koonings and Dirk Krujit. London: Zed Books, 1999.

Human Rights Watch. The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia. New York: Author, 2001.

International Crisis Group. "Demobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal." Latin American Report no. 8. Brussels: Author, 2004.

Kirk, Robin. More Terrible than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America's War in Colombia. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.

Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

                                 Gabriel Marcella