– Illegal paramilitary groups operated for many years in Colombia, stealing farmland and killing thousands
– Recent arrests and deaths of group leaders reveal connections between groups and political leaders
– Despite allegations against President Uribe, public support for hard-line law and order likely to keep Uribe’s approval rating high in the near- to mid-term
Paramilitary Groups and Their Operations
Colombia’s outlaw paramilitary groups were originally developed and funded by wealthy landowners and drug traffickers in the 1980s in attempts to gain greater control over leftist insurgents who were roaming the countryside, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Beginning in the 1990s, during the height of their operations, these paramilitary groups killed thousands and stole millions of acres of land, ultimately gaining control over much of Colombia’s coastal region. As time progressed, paramilitary groups sought more power, becoming increasingly involved in drug trafficking, and further running their own operations as opposed to merely taking orders from drug cartel leaders.
These far-right groups are currently engaged in a peace process with the federal government, which has successfully convinced more than 31,000 fighters to lay down their weapons. To date, as a result of intense demobilization, demilitarization, and reintegration (DDR) initiatives over 50 paramilitary warlords and their supporters have demobilized.
Notable Government Arrests
On May 6, 2008 the Colombian government arrested former army battalion commander Colonel Hernan Mejia for allegedly conspiring with these right-wing death squads. Mejia commanded the Popa Battalion for two years beginning in January 2002, and is accused of inflating the number of reported rebels his troop killed in combat. Prosecutors claim that paramilitary militias regularly gave Mejia’s troops the bodies of militia victims dressed in fatigues and presented as guerillas. In one specific example from October 2002, Mejia allegedly presented 18 men as slain rebels amid conflicting reports the bodies were actually those of paramilitary fighters killed by their own men in a mass execution. Mejia has surrendered, but denied all charges. Three of the men formerly under his command have also been charged; two have also surrendered. A search is ongoing for the third.
A second recent victory for the prosecution of paramilitary forces was the death and capture of the “Twins”, a set of brothers heavily involved in drug trafficking operations. On May 1, 2008 Colombian officials announced that fingerprints confirmed that Victor Manuel Mejia (no known relation to Col. Mejia) had been killed in a shootout with police on April 30, 2008. On May 2, 2008 security forces arrested Victor’s twin brother, Miguel Angel Mejia, 60 miles outside the capital of Bogota. The brothers had been leaders of “Los Mellizos” (“The Twins”), a major drug operation believed to have shipped nearly 70 tons of cocaine to the United States in less than two years.
Emerging Political Scandal
Along with the demobilization of the paramilitary groups has come the discovery of instances of political corruption. Since the peace negotiations began in 2006, ten percent of Colombia’s 268 federal lawmakers have been jailed on charges of backing or benefiting from the groups, and an additional ten percent are under investigation.
President Uribe has not remained immune from allegations either. In late-April 2008, Uribe’s second cousin, a close political confidante, was jailed as well under suspicion of colluding with paramilitary forces. Lawmakers are accused of developing mutually beneficial relationships with the groups, such as illegal use of the groups to partner with legitimate military forces.
Continuing Public Approval
However, despite a growing number of corruption allegations against federal policymakers and political advisors, public support for Uribe and his government remains the highest in Latin America. His approval rating remains consistently above 70 percent according to public opinion polling. While opponents do exist in furthering speculation of close ties between government and the paramilitary groups, the majority of the public applauds Uribe’s no-nonsense, take-charge attitude when it comes to combating domestic crime and violence. Uribe is direct in his dismissal of corruption allegations, often choosing to call local radio stations and discuss the recent scandal for over an hour.
However, while the peace negotiations with the paramilitary forces has lead to a reduction in violence, new emerging drug barons are filling the power vacuum in the trafficking business and Uribe will likely be forced to continue a forceful move against trafficking groups. It is likely that contempt for rebel groups such as the FARC outweighs any alleged connections between Uribe-allied politicians and the paramilitary squads, leading Uribe to maintain a high level of public approval in the near- to mid-term.