Colombia's New Generation of Paramilitaries Operates on Both Sides of Venezuelan Border

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had his own “mission accomplished” moment in September, when he triumphantly told the United Nations that in Colombia, “today there is no paramilitarism. There are guerrillas and drug traffickers.”
It has been the Colombian administration’s policy to completely deny the continued existence of right-wing, pro-government death squads. From 2004 to 2006, it presided over the gradual, bloc-by-bloc demobilization of the enormous paramilitary army known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in its Spanish initials) that had committed the worst war crimes in América since the end of the Cold War.

But a report this week in a Venezuelan newspaper highlights the fact that not only has Colombia’s paramilitary nightmare not ended, but has beyond a doubt encroached onto its neighbor’s land and become a part of politics there as well. The northwestern Venezuelan border states of Zulia and Táchira have become an important base of operations for the so-called “emergent groups,” most famously the network known as the “Black Eagles.” They are demobilized paramilitaries who have picked up their weapons again, recruited new soldiers and have no intention of giving up their political and criminal empire.

On December 16, the Maracaibo, Zulia daily newspaper Panorama cited “sources trusted by both the Colombian and Venezuelan military” in a report claiming Maracaibo to be the “spearhead” for paramilitaries in the country. It speaks of a Black Eagles leader who goes by the nom de guerre “Salomón,” and who has inherited what remains of the feared warlord Jorge 40’s organization. Jorge 40, commander of the AUC’s Northern Bloc, was responsible for countless murders and massacres of campesinos, indigenous people and others along Colombia’s Atlantic coast.

An intelligence summary confirms that “the spearhead for paramilitarism in Venezuela is in Maracaibo, under the command of the former policeman and powerful drug trafficker Miguel Villarreal Arcila, alias “El Salomón,” who on occasion also calls himself ‘Gabriel’ or ‘El Flaco.’ This man is currently the owner of drug trafficking in Venezuela.”

“We have 25 trafficking routes identified, which begin in Colombia, cross through the neighboring country [Venezuela] and end on its coasts, from where the cocaine heads overseas…”

Zulia, where much of Venezuela’s oil wealth is concentrated, is its most anti-Chávez state, and its governor was Chávez’ main opponent in the last elections.

A previous investigation, in an August edition of Panorama, reported on the paramilitary presence in Táchira:

For three years now, the presence of paramilitaries in the border area of Táchira has been a reality, as has been the formation of relatively new dissident groups from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. And so were born the “Black Eagles.”

This irregular group, according to the commander of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade, General Paulino Coronado, has occupied the spaces that the Northern and Catatumbo Blocs had occupied, but their activities have passed over the border of Táchira state.

They entered through the border city of Cúcuta, in the Colombian state of Norte de Santander, which lies only one hour from the Táchira capital.

Their influences has shown in the crime rate in the troubled Andean state of Venezuela, not just in the lack of personal safety, but in higher-caliber crimes like kidnapping and extortion.

In 2004, the paras and connections to certain members of Venezuela’s opposition made headlines in Venezuela and around the world, when around 70 Colombian men were arrested outside Caracas, accused of being paramilitaries involved in a right-wing plot against the government of Hugo Chávez. One of the arrested men told the press that they were being trained to attack Venezuelan National Guard posts.  And a raid on a weapons stash near Caracas last month suggested another such plan may have been in the works, again with Colombian paramilitary involvement - though that has still not been determined.

But the true violence has occurred near the border, against Venezuela’s rural population. Since 2003, there have been repeated reports of Colombian paramilitaries hired by landlords in the border states of Zulia and Táchira to intimidate and kill rural activists, often part of the land reform program that Chávez has begun. The latest such incident occurred in October, when two family farmers were murdered in Táchira. A communiqué from the Tierra Nuestra collective read:

On October 2, the campesinos Heriberto Peñalosa and Miguel Antonio Bastos were murdered by Colombian paramilitaries. Both were members of the Hope of Táchira Cooperative, serving as president and education coordinator respectively.

The murdered farmers were the legitimate occupants of the property known as “Rancho Rojo,” which the INTI (land institute) declared idle… On April 16, 2007, the INTI, following the proper legal proceedings, turned Rancho Rojo over to the members of the Three Commanders, Hope, Futurama and Palmareños cooperatives, who have since carried out productive activities on these lands (cattle raising, planting grass for grazing, the cultivation of legumbres, etc.).

Heriberto Peña’s wife denounced that landowner Iván Rosa, the supposed owner of the property who had never produced a deed for it, had threatened the occupants with death several times and openly boasted of his ties to Colombian paramilitaries allied with the government of Álvaro Uribe.

The Colombian government insists that what are being called paramilitaries here are nothing more than drug gangs, and that the era of armed right-wing action against the left by illegal private armies in Colombia is over.  But the continuing tide of reports like this one suggest that politics is still very much a part of what these groups, now operating on both sides of the border, do.

There are increasing signs within Colombia also that the Black Eagles and similar groups are more than just gangsters, and resemble their AUC predecessors much more than Uribe would like to recognize. This reporter spent a week in the Catatumbo region of the Colombian state of Norte de Santander in June of this year, and there were constant rumors of small Black Eagle cells forming and meeting with the police and army. The Peasant-Farmer Association of Catatumbo (ASCAMCAT) had reported that soldiers passing through rural villages had threatened residents that behind the military, the Black Eagles were waiting to strike – and even introducing themselves as members of the paramilitary group. Then in September, ASCAMCAT reported:

On September 20, men passed through the village [of El Suspiro] dressed in the following way, according to townspeople: camouflaged pants, black shirts and bandanas with “Black Eagles” insignias. They identified themselves as members of said group, and stole chickens from the community.

However, the Black Eagles have fought the Colombian army in Catatumbo and elsewhere, also. The dynamics of the relationship between the Black Eagles and the Colombian state are still much less clear than the ties between the old AUC and major units of the army.

The Colombian and U.S. governments have for the most part successfully directed the media’s attention at Venezuela’s “failure” to stop drug trafficking in its territory, and at the alleged drug trafficking by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and that group’s penetration into Venezuelan territory.

But the news from Venezuela shows that the real penetration has been by the ruthless drug-trafficking death squads that Uribe claims to be a thing of the past.

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About Dan Feder

I was a member of the Narco News team in various capacities, from webmaster to Editor-in-Chief, from 2002-2008. Since 2006 I have also been a member of the International Peace Observatory, which performs human rights accompaniment for Colombian campesino organizations in conflict zones. I am now living in Boston and working as a website developer for DigitalAid, Inc.