Paramilitary areas of operation; number of paramilitary groups and their level of coordination; whether paramilitary groups wear uniforms; whether paramilitary groups have directed threats or violence against family members of state prosecutors or investigators (1998-August 2000) [COL35058.E]

This Response adds to and updates information on the organization and activities of paramilitary groups provided in previous Responses, such as COL15919.E of 1 December 1993 and COL32197.E of 15 July 1999.

No report stating a definite number of paramilitary groups or their specific areas of operation could be found among the sources consulted. As described below, some reports refer to paramilitary actions or presence of paramilitary groups throughout the country, with varying levels of autonomy, coordination and mobility. The definition of "paramilitary" groups varies, although they are always mentioned as armed groups that do not belong to, or are opposed to, the major guerrilla organizations, and are often referred to as autodefensas or self-defense groups.

The June 1989 Decree No. 1194, mentioned in various sources as the legal measure that outlawed paramilitary groups in Colombia, reportedly refers to "the armed groups, misnamed paramilitary groups, that have been formed into death squads, bands of hired assassins, self-defense groups, or groups that carry out their own justice" (HRW Nov. 1996).

According to Country Reports 1999:

The many paramilitary groups are diverse in their motivations, structure, leadership, and ideology. The 1997 establishment of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) as a national umbrella organization was designed both to provide a national structure and to develop a more coherent political culture for the nation's local and regional paramilitary groups. The AUC paramilitary umbrella group comprises between 5,000 and 7,000 combatants, who are members of 7 major organizations. The largest of these organizations is the ACCU, which is based in Cordoba department and the Uraba region of Antioquia department. The AUC also has as many as 4,000 of its own dedicated combatants. Carlos Castano heads both the AUC and the ACCU. Although illegal, some paramilitary groups reflected rural citizens' legitimate desire to defend themselves from the guerrilla threat. Other groups were actually the paid, private armies of drug traffickers or large landowners. Many members of paramilitary groups are former security force members or former guerrillas (25 Feb. 2000).

A February 2000 report cites a Colombian sociologist as estimating that paramilitaries are present in 350 of the 1,070 municipalities of Colombia (Le Monde Diplomatique Feb. 2000). However, in a report on Colombia, Human Rights Watch discusses the organization, coordination, actions and mobility of paramilitary groups, including a reference to the existence of "mobile groups (frentes de choque), better trained and equipped and able to move quickly throughout Colombia" (Oct. 1998, Ch. IV). The report provides the following information:

At the time of this writing, there are at least seven groups allied under the name United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC): the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba and Urabá, ACCU), the largest and most public group; the Eastern Plains Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas de los Llanos Orientales, also known as Los Carranceros, after their leader, Víctor Carranza); the Cesar Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas del Cesar); the Middle Magdalena Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas del Magdalena Medio), the group with the longest history; the Santander and Southern Cesar Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas de Santander y el sur del Cesar); the Casanare Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas del Casanare); and the Cundinamarca Self-Defense Group (Autodefensas de Cundinamarca).
... AUC units operate frequently in direct coordination with the Colombian security forces. In this report, we refer to them as paramilitaries because of this historical and continuing relationship with the Colombian military. Within Colombia, these groups can also be referred to as "self-defense" groups, a description the AUC uses.
However, the AUC does act independently, and has a separate command structure, source of weapons and supplies, and operation planning.
...The ACCU quickly became Colombia's most organized and largest paramilitary group. Although each front has a local leader, Castaño says that all coordinate through a central command. Castaño is the commander-in-chief. Like the guerrillas they consciously emulate, the ACCU has a general staff (estado mayor conjunto) made up of the leaders of each regional paramilitary group. Regional groups also have a general staff (estados mayores regionales). The fighting force is divided into two types of unit: stationary groups, known as local self-defense associations (juntas de autodefensas locales) and support groups (grupos de apoyo); and mobile groups (frentes de choque), better trained and equipped and able to move quickly throughout Colombia. Among the men pledged to the ACCU are former EPL guerrillas, some of whom surrendered directly to the ACCU. Both local and special fighters receive a base salary plus food, a uniform, weapons, and munitions...

The same report refers to armed civilian groups, described as "special vigilance and private security services" known as CONVIVIR groups, which cooperate extensively with security forces and are attributed a variety of human rights abuses (ibid. Ch. II). Authorities reported different numbers of legally registered CONVIVIR groups throughout the country, ranging from 414 to more than 600; however, Human Rights Watch notes that in at least one area, only one of five CONVIVIR groups was licensed (ibid.). CONVIVIR groups have reportedly enlisted "anonymous civilians who operate without uniform or visible insignia and in unmarked vehicles" (ibid.). Country Reports 1999 reports that the government began "dismantling" CONVIVIR groups in 1999, although some continued to operate (25 Feb. 2000).

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights 1999 report on Colombia states that

The current cycle, during which the armed conflict is being intensified, has been going on for the last three years, and is characterized by the deployment of and increase in the FARC's operational capacity to mount large-scale attacks against the army, by the decline in the ELN's operational capacity, against which the main military effort of the paramilitary groups is directed, and by constant retaliatory activities by paramilitary groups throughout the country, focusing almost exclusively on the civilian population (1999, Ch. 1).

The report refers to paramilitary groups, stating that these "call themselves 'self-defence groups' and claim to be clearly against the guerrillas," adding that "most of them identify themselves publicly and collectively as 'United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia' (AUC) and their strongest and best-known unit is the 'Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Self-Defence Groups' (ACCU)" (ibid.).

The report also describes the "Evolution of Paramilitarism", including links with security forces and main targets of paramilitary groups (ibid., Ch. 2).

A more recent article summarizes the evolution of paramilitary groups as follows:

In the early days, the armed forces co-operated more or less actively in recruiting, organizing, training and even arming these groups. Local officers ensured that considerable support from the army was given to those interested in forming such anti-guerrilla groupings. Much dirty work was carried out by these groups, encouraged by the military or even conducted by them on an 'off duty' basis. Scrutiny of military activities changed this state of affairs: most paramilitary organizations now exist without any real army support. Indeed, while this can be easily exaggerated, on a few occasions the army has engaged in combat with the paramilitaries. The reality is that the monopoly of the use of force is now shared in Colombia. The paramilitaries, present in vast areas of the country, are themselves increasingly linked to the narcos. They take part in all manner of illegal activities, and, while quite willing to massacre unarmed peasants who may be sympathetic to the guerrillas, they are usually reluctant to take on the rebels in direct combat (Jane's Intelligence Review 1 June 2000).

In addition to references to uniforms in the above-cited sources, paramilitary groups are also reported to wear civilian clothes. For example, one report refers to an abduction carried out by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas who were "hooded men in civilian clothes," adding that "their get-up would normally suggest right-wing paramilitary groups, rather than left-wing guerrillas" (The Economist 13 Mar. 1999).

Perons involved in proceedings related to paramilitary groups, including government prosecutors or investigators and their families have reportedly been the targets of threats and violence. In November 1996 Human Rights Watch stated that family members of investigators searching for information on the involvement of security forces members in paramilitary activities or other abuses "have reported harassment and threats from the security forces," adding that

Government investigators have reported to Human Rights Watch that they are watched closely by the intelligence services, have their telephones tapped, or warned to limit their inquiries. Equally common is an unwillingness among some investigators to aggressively investigate allegations of human rights abuses based in part on a fear of retaliation if powerful paramilitaries and their military patrons are involved. Such fear is not unfounded. As we describe later in this report, the judge who identified the military masterminds of the La Honduras/La Negra massacre was later forced to leave the country for her safety and her father was subsequently murdered, apparently in retaliation for her investigation (Nov. 1996).

More recently, the UNCHR reported that "the worsening of the armed conflict and the intolerance of certain sectors have created a climate of intimidation that particularly affects...public servants involved in these issues," adding that

The programme for the protection of witnesses, victims who are officials and parties to criminal proceedings has been incapable of providing adequate measures and resources for those who are threatened, especially in proceedings involving paramilitary or guerrilla groups. Although this programme is designed to protect judicial officials, its application has been limited to parties to proceedings, since the limited resources assigned to it have not allowed it to provide protection to the former. In practice, the programme has serious limitations as to the scope, duration and types of protection, as well as resources. The Office has received several complaints from witnesses and victims who, although subject to the protection programme, find themselves unprotected after a short time and subject to repeated threats against their life and integrity and that of their families. Several of the complainants have been obliged to resort by their own means to international assistance to leave the country and, in other cases, they become part of the large number of displaced persons (1999, Ch. 4).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999. 25 February 2000. United States Department of State, Washington, DC. human_rights/1999_hrp_report/colombia.html [Accessed 11 Sept. 2000]

Human Rights Watch (HRW), New York. October 1998. War Without Quarter. [Accessed 11 Sept. 2000]

_____. November 1996. Colombia's Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States. (REFWORLD)

Jane's Intelligence Review [London]. 1 June 2000. Hal Klepak. "Colombia: Why Doesn't The War End?" (NEXIS)

Le Monde Diplomatique [Paris]. February 2000. Benoit Guillou. "Le plus vieux conflit armé d'Amérique Latine: Clameurs de paix en Colombie." [Accessed 26 Feb. 1999]

United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), Colombia. 1999. "Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Office in Colombia." [Accessed 11 Sept. 2000]