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Colombia’s Black Eagles
S andra Gutierrez Torres has a risky job. She helps run a grassroots human rights organization in Colombia’s oil capital of Barrancabermeja. In February, it seems, Sandra’s work may have cost the life of her 20-year-old sister, Katherine Gonzales Torres—another possible victim in what is being called a “rising tide of organized violence” throughout Colombia.
Sandra’s sister Katherine left her home at 1:00 PM on Tuesday, February 13, heading for her job as a shop assistant. But she didn’t arrive and nobody has seen or heard from her since.
Katherine’s disappearance has her family fearing the worst in the context of a threat e-mailed the previous week to social justice organizations, trade unions, human rights lawyers, and leftist politicians nationwide: “We will finish with you by means of your families; your children and your loved ones will give their lives…your families will pay dearly.” The threat was signed: “Armed Political Branch of the ex-AUC, the New Generation Black Eagles.”
The right-wing, anti-guerrilla AUC militia, the self-proclaimed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, began as civilian military auxiliaries in the late 1960s, became private armies of wealthy landowners and drug barons in the 1980s, and supposedly demobilized in a controversial “peace process” with the current government in 2003.
Now, according to opposition politicians and human rights groups,
around 5,000 ex-paramilitaries are taking up arms again and new
militias are emerging, to fight for control of Colombia’s lucrative
drug trade and as hired guns of business and political interests.
It seems a number of these groups are using the name Aguilas Negras
(Black Eagles) to forge a political and paramilitary identity in
much the same way as the notoriously violent AUC did in the 1990s.
B arrancabermeja is in the Magdalena Medio region, an administrative area in central Colombia based on the country’s main river, the Magdalena. Within the region lie the nation’s largest gold reserves and also significant copper, uranium, and other resources, as well as the largest oil refinery.
Claims in the region that the Black Eagles are doing the bidding
of powerful interests, in the same way as the AUC did, have often
focused on organized violence against artisan gold mining communities.
Some 300,000 artisan miners and peasant farmers live in the south
of the Bolivar department, which falls within the Magdalena Medio
region. Many of them have lived for generations by extracting gold
by hand from the rich deposits in the Santo Domingo and San Lucas
Ranges. But the area is now in the sights of the multinational mining
firm Anglo Gold Ashanti, which operates in Colombia as Kedahda SA.
This rugged, remote area is also a guerrilla stronghold, making it a battleground involving all three organized armed groups—paramilitaries, guerrillas, and the army—in which civilians are often caught in the crossfire. The vice-president of the Federation of Artisan Miners and Farmers of the South of Bolivar (Fedeagromisbol), Gabriel Henao, told me the Black Eagles were actively sowing terror in the region to try and drive the people off the land and free it up for multinational exploitation. “Former paramilitaries from the BCB [Central Bolivar Bloc] have been seen guiding the military, pointing out civilians and telling the troops they are guerrilla, and threatening to kill farmers and miners if they don’t leave. They are calling themselves the Black Eagles. One of them came up to me in front of the troops and boasted: ‘I’m in charge around here.’”
The tension came to a head last September 19 when a local leader of Fedeagromisbol, artisan miner Alejandro Uribe Chacón, was killed by the army. Uribe Chacón, 28, was president of the Communal Action Committee. The military said Uribe Chacón was a guerrilla killed in combat, but this was emphatically denied by his wife, community members, co-workers, the local Catholic diocese, the staff of a European Union development program active in the region, the representative of the government’s Defender of the People human rights office in the region, human rights workers, and others who knew him. They maintain that Uribe Chacón was not a guerrilla, but that the army planted an AK47 rifle on him and dressed him in camouflage gear, after assassinating him, to make it appear as if he was.
The following week, Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro said that he
had evidence that troops had assassinated at least 100 civilians
since 1998, passing them off as guerrillas in order to produce “positive
results” in the country’s civil war. Gabriel Henao said
the murder of his friend Uribe Chacón came in a very specific
context: deliberate terror sowed by both regular and irregular troops,
from the army to the Black Eagles, with the aim of displacing the
mining and farming community.
B arrancabermeja is the nearest big city to the beleaguered southern part of the Bolivar department and its 200,000 inhabitants include thousands of refugees from there and elsewhere in the surrounding countryside. Sandra Gutierrez Torres works for Barrancabermeja’s Popular Women’s Organization (OFP), which for 34 years has supported women and youth from poor neighborhoods, displaced people, and victims of violence. Other OFP workers have also lost family members in what are believed to be acts of retaliation for the organization’s repeated denunciations of paramilitary involvement in the region’s economy and society.
The morning after Katherine Torres disappeared, the OFP organized a caravan of vehicles to mount a search. A long line of bulletproof vehicles belonging to human rights defenders and trade unionists—under court protection because of death threats earned through their activism—snaked through the city. The lead vehicle carried large speakers and leaders of social justice groups took turns demanding that those responsible for Katherine’s disappearance return her unharmed. A regular refrain was: “They took her alive and we want her back alive.”
Demonstrators then blocked one of the city’s main roads at rush hour to continue denouncing the disappearance to a captive audience of waiting traffic. Speakers alleged Katherine’s disappearance came within a context of official inactivity, and even complicity, in human rights abuses in the region by organized criminals, including the Black Eagles.
A Barrancabermeja police spokesperson said Katherine’s disappearance was under investigation while a spokesperson for the city government said that the city’s peace process would take time. “He told us change doesn’t happen overnight,” Jackeline Rojas said. “Fine, but while we wait, why do we have to keep suffering the loss of our loved ones?” Human rights adviser to the national police, Doris Parra, said from Bogotá that the current situation in Barrancabermeja was “very worrying…. We will review our systems of protection for human rights workers in the wake of this incident, especially in relation to their family members.” She added that the Black Eagles were a concern for the police in various parts of the country.
In February demobilized paramilitary chiefs Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Mario Jimenez, the latter of whom was a feared commander in the Magdalena Medio, confirmed publicly that groups such as the Black Eagles were re-arming throughout Colombia. They added they could not understand the government’s silence. A current paramilitary warlord also spoke out on the issue, saying he feared this “new generation” was looking to assassinate him.
At the Barrancabermeja demonstration, Sandra struggled to stay calm as speakers, including a local priest and nun, called for city authorities to protect human rights activists and their families and cited a “rising tide of organized violence” in the region, particularly at the hands of the Black Eagles. A long queue of buses, cars, and motorbikes waited in sweltering heat, with the general absence of car horns or audible complaints seeming to indicate a respect for the demonstration and a sharing in the grief and pain that was behind it. The police also appeared to respect the general sense of shock over the disappearance of a relative of an OFP worker, which has a high profile in the city. They stood by for more than 30 minutes, allowing the demonstrators to stay in the road and light candles for a brief vigil amid a sea of halted traffic.
A week later, nothing had been seen of Katherine and city authorities sent a letter to the OFP threatening legal action against them for blocking the intersection. OFP coordinator Yolanda Bercerra commented: “They do nothing about murders and disappearances of the citizens of this city, but they threaten us with consequences when we try to draw attention to what’s going on. What are we supposed to do?”
Tens of thousands of Colombian families have suffered the pain of a loved one “disappearing” during Colombia’s civil war. The majority are victims of paramilitaries, who deliberately dispose of the bodies of their victims away from their homes so that the crime will be harder to trace and as extra emotional torture for victims’ families. In 2006 alone the national Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences registered 4,367 disappearances in Colombia.
In February 2007 the MAPP-OEA (Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace Process) in Colombia reported that 22 new illegal paramilitary groups were active in 10 different departments across the country. The organization said many of the violent groups were expanding, despite the fact it had highlighted their existence to the government in previous reports.
T he growth of the Black Eagles and the general climate of fear in cities like Barrancabermeja comes while the country is transfixed by an unprecedented scandal engulfing President Uribe’s government. Known as “parapolitics,” the scandal has seen eight pro-Uribe senators jailed for links with paramilitary death squads. In late February Foreign Secretary Maria Consuelo Araujo resigned after her brother, a senator, was jailed for his involvement with paramilitaries and her father, also a pro-Uribe politician, was similarly accused, as was her cousin, a pro-Uribe governor.
In February an opposition senator and ex-militant of the M19 guerrilla movement, Gustavo Petro, claimed he had evidence that Uribe allowed brutal paramilitaries to develop in the department of Antioquia while he was governor in the 1990s. He accused Uribe’s brother of direct paramilitary involvement, including murders. The president responded by labeling Petro and other left-wing politicians “terrorists in business suits” in a familiar echo of para-military rhetoric.
Paramilitary public announcements and threats, like the one received recently by social justice organizations nationwide, habitually identify with Uribe’s policies and label human rights NGOs, trade unions, and leftist politicians as “disguised terrorists.” The latest Black Eagles’ communiqué, which contained the threat against families of human rights workers, said: “The North American people, headed by their current government, know very well that you [social justice organizations] will not be the future of our country; we count on their military and technical support that will guarantee us a resounding victory over the guerrillas and their submissive servants.
“All of you should know that following each of you who claim to be defenders of human rights, social leaders, two-bit lawyers, camouflaged journalists, and all ex-guerrillas who believe they’re untouchable, right behind each of you will be one of our commandos, following you day and night…. We will judge you according to your actions, massacring you in public plazas so that the people know the social justice that the traitors of the homeland deserve…. When lawyers, NGOs, and ex-guerrillas of the Polo [Democratic Alternative Pole, the main opposition party] say they are going to judge the president, we warn you that it will cost you blood….”
Despite the frequent linking of Colombia’s military and political establishment with paramilitary atrocities, Washington seems set to continue giving around half a billion dollars in aid to Colombia annually—the great majority of which is spent on the military. Meanwhile, the world watches a crisis on a potentially government-toppling scale envelope the country’s political class, the conclusion of which might seem to be that Colombia’s great stain of institutionalized para-mil itarism will at last, perhaps, be cleansed.
While Uribe’s cronies fall to the Supreme Court “para-politics” investigation, groups like the Black Eagles are still involved in the same dirty war, the same careful use of terror as a political tool, and the same links to the nation’s elites—and 20-year-old Katherine Gonzales Torres is still missing.
Caleb Harris is a New Zealand-born freelance journalist currently based in Colombia. He has lived and worked there since 2005 and has written for newspapers, magazines, and radio in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.
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