In the last few months a new front in the Colombian armed conflict has opened up, as aerial bombardments were carried out against armed groups in rural areas in northern Colombia.
The targets are not members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN) that the government has been fighting for the past six decades, but groups of heavily armed men not previously targeted from the air.
In September 2015, the week before the first bombardment, came the announcement from peace negotiations in Havana that a pre-agreement had been reached on transitional justice and that a preliminary deadline for a final agreement between the FARC, the largest rebel group in the country, and the government was set for March 2016.
The notion of peace has formed a fundamental part of President Juan Manuel Santos’s political game plan, and undoubtedly played an important part in his re-election in 2014.
Although there are many sceptics of the peace process, the prospect of a Colombia without the FARC is an appealing one. The conflict has dominated the political and economic spectrum for as long as many Colombians can remember. If an agreement is signed, the dynamic of economic development will change and foreign investment in Colombia will increase.
One of the sectors that will receive the biggest increase in foreign investment is the mining sector, whose development has been long hindered by the existence of an armed conflict
After three years of peace talks, the conflict with the FARC is scaling down. Military operations against them have reduced significantly and aerial bombardments have been suspended since July 2015.
The paradox is that Colombia, which in the eyes of the world is so close to becoming a post-conflict country, is now carrying out aerial bombardments on other armed groups, with dubious legal justification.
At the beginning of October 2015, Víctor Ramón Navarro, alias ‘Megateo’, the self-styled commander of the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ (EPL) was killed in a joint operation between the Colombian police, air force and Interpol. The cause of death was probably the aerial bombardment that targeted his hideout in northern Colombia.
The EPL was a left-wing insurgency that officially demobilized in 1991 after peace negotiations with the government. Since then, many Colombians believed that Megateo and the newly-reformed EPL were nothing more than drug traffickers.
The news reports after his death both reflected and influenced this public opinion. The title of one article in a popular newspaper was “Intense operation against narcotrafficker Megateo”, while a subtitle of another article stated that “airplanes intervened in the hideout of the narco”.
In a tweet, President Santos congratulated the air force and warned “Criminals will face justice or find themselves under the ground.”
In the aftermath of the operation there was one important point that was being ignored: the legality of the operation.
If Megateo was just a narco, he was not a belligerent in the armed conflict and ought to have been captured in a law enforcement operation, as the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force state “lethal force may be used only as last resort in order to protect life, when other available means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result”.
In July 2013, Megateo gave an interview to the weekly periodical Semana. There, he kept up the façade of the romantic revolutionary, and there was a photo of him posing next to a red flag, the star and the revolutionary slogan beneath it meant to leave no doubt as to the group’s supposed political principles. Megateo made it clear that the armed group wanted to enter peace talks with the government, a request they had often made public before.
For a man wanted for the deaths of members of the security forces as well as drug trafficking offences in the US, this was a strategic ploy for Megateo to portray himself as the leader of a legitimate political actor in the armed conflict in order to negotiate some sort of immunity.
In past negotiations rebel commanders had managed to wipe the state clean and some even had even obtained legitimate political positions. In the case of the demobilisation of the paramilitaries in 2005, leaders received lenient maximum eight-year sentences, even though many of them were implicated in massacres and the forced displacement of thousands of civilians.
The Clan Usuga
The second bombardment happened in November 2015, when an encampment in the Uraba region was targeted. According to the Colombian Ministry of Defence, the camp was shared by the ELN and what the government referred to as the Clan Usuga. Twelve combatants were killed and their military hardware paraded on news broadcasts.
The name Clan Usuga refers to the supposed leader of this organization, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’, currently one of the most wanted men in Colombia, who throughout 2015 managed to evade a massive US funded police and military operation to find him.
Like Megateo, Otoniel and his brother Juan de Dios Usuga, alias ‘Giovanny’ – who was shot dead in a police raid in 2012- were former members of the EPL. After the group demobilised they joined the ranks of the right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and when that group demobilised headed the neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños.
The group that was bombarded in northern Colombia at the beginning of November do not refer to themselves as the Clan Usaga but as the “Gaitanista” Self–Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC). The government does not refer to them by this name, in an attempt to deny them political status and separate them from the public image of right-wing paramilitaries.
The word Self-Defence (Autodefensa), brings back memories of the violence that right-wing paramilitaries waged on peasant farmer communities throughout Colombia, in many cases with the complicity of the security forces.
The largest paramilitary group, the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) officially demobilised in 2005, but to many critics the demobilisation process was a political stunt and many groups carried on operating under different names, as seems the most likely the case for the AGC.
The group is linked with the Urabeños, operates in rural areas under a military command structure; they use heavy weaponry and undertake missions against the FARC and ELN.
In 2013, news agencies were invited to an event in a rural area in northern Colombia where the AGC, dressed in balaclavas in camouflage and armed with assault rifles, handed over five adolescents to the authorities, claiming they were members of the FARC captured in combat.
The commander told the reporters present that they were not a terrorist group but a political military organization who wanted peace. Like the EPL they had previously made public requests to enter a formal dialogue with the government claiming that they were “the third actor in the armed conflict”.
Two years later news agencies were again invited to film the handing over another captured adolescent. Another commander gave a speech about human rights and international humanitarian law, in front of what looked like a doctored Nigerian flag with the letters A G C on it.
Colombian organizations have recently reported an increase in AGC activity, and the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman recently released a report about the arrival of 150 AGC combatants to the region near the border with Panama.
The Santos government, like the previous administration of Alvaro Uribe, has done its best to draw a clear distinction between the paramilitaries and what came after them, which they have denominated Bacrim, short for Banda Criminal, intending to highlight the criminality of the organization and deny any political motive.
This is effectively how the AGC and EPL have been branded, despite their attempts to argue to the contrary. However, the government undermines its argument when it uses arms against these groups that under international humanitarian law are not be used against criminal groups.
The norm according to the Ministry Of Defence is that aerial bombardment can only be used against left-wing guerrillas or against other groups if they are sharing an encampment with guerrillas.
Megateo’s strategy to enter peace negotiations turned out to be a double-edged sword, as the attempt to portray the EPL as legitimate belligerents provided the government with a justification for the aerial bombardment that killed him.
In the case of the AGC, the government denied that they were a legitimate actor in the armed conflict, and justified the bombardment on the argument that they were sharing a camp with the ELN.
However it is highly unlikely that the AGC would share a camp with the ELN for two reasons. The two groups are historically enemies, who had only recently been engaged in combat with each other; and he AGC would scarcely choose to share a camp with a guerrila group who might be bombed.
After the attack, the AGC sent a press release denying any type of collaboration with the ELN and criticising the use of excessive force by the security forces.
Whether they are politically or criminally motivated, the existence of these armed groups is a serious issue for a country supposedly on the path to peace. It is important that government accepts publicly that in certain regions there has been a continuation of the paramilitary model and that therefore peace cannot be achieved without addressing this issue.
After decades of armed conflict, the definition of what forms part of this conflict and what doesn’t have evidently become blurred.
This is something that will have to be clarified, because if apolitical drug trafficking organizations become military objectives in a post-conflict Colombia achieving real peace rather than a political and economic strategy of pacification could be a very distant goal.