They are a non-cohesive group dedicated to protecting the economic interests of former mid-level paramilitary commanders scattered across Colombia. At times, Aguilas Negras was the generic term used by the government to describe the many fragments of ex-paramilitaries still trafficking drugs across Colombia. Often, the paramilitary successors who have continued threatening or murdering journalists, lawyers and human rights activists have done so using the Aguilas Negras name. This political bent, along with their lack of a central leadership, distinguishes them in part from the other criminal bands operating in Colombia.
Groups using the Aguilas Negras name have since appeared in at least 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments, including Nariño, Cauca, Casanare, Guajira, Magdalena, Bolivar, Northern Santander, Santander, Bolivar, Sucre and Cordoba. But the groups appear to operate independently from one another, answering to no central command. Instead, each Aguila Negra cell concentrates on protecting their small fiefdom and vying with rivals like the Urabeños and the Rastrojos.
The AUC was an umbrella organization of death squads – some of them formed in the 1980s – focused on two goals: fighting leftist guerrillas and making money, most of it from drug trafficking. One important faction, led by Carlos Castaño, tried to emphasize the AUC’s right-wing ideology and present as the group as a political organization. This only led to more internal disputes within the AUC, and the fragile coalition broke down as many warlords competed among themselves for territory, accompanied by horrific massacres and displacements. On 15 July 2003, the AUC agreed to enter negotiations with the government. In return for dismantling their forces and aiding criminal investigations, the top AUC leadership was promised a certain degree of amnesty. A series of major disarmaments followed, and by 2006, 31,671 purported fighters had left the conflict.
The demobilization, however, proved to be a false peace. Most paramilitary blocs only handed in a small fraction of their weapons. Young men were paid to falsely present themselves as ex-AUC combatants, while the middle levels of command remained untouched. Across Colombia, smaller units of paramilitary militias kept their arms and remained in rural areas wearing civilian clothes but running the same criminal enterprises: protecting coca cultivations, extorting land-owners and business contractors, persecuting human-rights activists and so on. In contrast to the AUC blocs active before 2004, most of these successor groups did not bother to position themselves as enemies of the leftist guerrilla groups. In fact, some of these neo-paramilitaries would later pursue alliances with their former supposed enemies, as occurred between the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
It was in Cucuta, Northern Santander and in parts of Nariño that armed groups first began calling themselves the "Black Eagles" in early 2006. In Northern Santander, these were probably ex-members of the Bloque Catatumbo, active in the province since 1999 until its formal demobilization on December 10, 2004. In Nariño, the Aguilas Negras are believed to be former members of Bloque Libertadores del Sur, which officially demobilized June 30, 2005. Other armed bands calling themselves the Aguilas Negras soon appeared in Antioquia and along the Caribbean coast, first appearing in the Cordoba province in 2007. These combatants were likely drawn from the fourteen other paramilitary blocs that made up Bloque Norte, the AUC coalition which controlled most territory north of Antioquia.
At times, Aguilas Negras was the generic term used by Colombian media to refer to ex-paramilitaries still trafficking drugs within given territories. The organization led by Daniel Rendon Herrera, for example, made up of ex-combatants from the Bloque Elmer Cardenas (and which later evolved into the Urabeños), was at one time described as the "Aguilas Negras of Uraba." The post-AUC drug traffickers operating in Antioquia and Cordoba were referred to as the "Aguilas Negras of the North." At other times, groups intent on threatening lawyers, human-rights defenders and union leaders, have done so under the "Aguilas Negras" name. Groups threatened by the Aguilas Negras include the Bogota think-tank Nuevo Arco Iris and the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Labor unions, social aid agencies, and land reparation activists have all received similar threats.
The appearance of the Aguilas Negras was accompanied by the emergence of dozens of other criminal groups, usually linked to activity drug trafficking and targeted killings. A 2006 study by Colombian think-tank Indepaz listed 62 paramilitary successor groups that had registered actions across the country, many adopting names derivative of the AUC blocs. It is possible that in some areas of Colombia, low-level street gangs simply adopt the name "Aguilas Negras" to better intimidate victims into paying extortion fees, or abandoning their property. There is little evidence that the Aguilas Negras operate as a systematic organization. Instead, it appears to be the blanket name for the many successor groups willing to adapt the AUC’s tactics and, in many cases, its political discourse.
The upper ranks of the Aguilas Negras are made up of demobilized paramilitaries – either those who voluntarily opted out of the government peace process or those who were forcibly recruited. The lower levels of the group appear to consist of recruits dedicated to drug trafficking. The Aguilas Negras have built upon the criminal networks established by various paramilitary blocs throughout Colombia, but without adapting the same military, hierarchical structure. For now, it does not appear that the various factions of the Aguilas Negras respond to one another, or operate as a criminal federation. They are not known to control any transnational routes for the shipment of cocaine.
The group usually announces its presence in a given area by distributing pamphlets. Usually, these will announce the imposition of an evening curfew, declare their rivalry with another local gang, or threaten the community with "social cleansing" (that is, threats against drug addicts, prostitutes, or "guerrilla sympathizers" like union organizers or intellectuals). This is the same type of rhetoric once utilized by the AUC in order to impose social control within a given area.
Across Colombia, the Aguilas Negras have made their presence felt in areas once crucial for the AUC’s economic interests. It is significant that the first groups emerged in Catatumbo, Northern Santander, and in Nariño during 2006. These areas have some of the densest coca cultivations in Colombia and, ironically, saw some of the biggest paramilitary demobilizations. For drug traffickers, the presence of coca in these territories made them too valuable to cede once again to their rivals’ control. The Aguilas Negras then began appearing in departments valued as transit routes for cocaine, such as the southern municipalities of the Cordoba province.
Protecting the AUC’s old drug-trafficking corridors also goes hand in hand with protecting paramilitary land interests. In places like Cordoba, which saw some of the largest displacements by the AUC, the Aguilas Negras have been blamed for killing activists advocating for land repatriation. Similiar threats against displaced activists have been registered in Santander. Armed groups styling themselves as the Aguilas Negras have also spurred displacements in Sucre, Choco and the Uraba region in Antioquia.
After Colombia passed legislation in 2011 that opened the way for comprehensive land reform, as well as compensation for victims of the armed conflict, there is a serious risk that economic interest groups may contract Aguilas Negras gunmen to protect their interests. And as Colombia continues to sell off land to mining, oil and agribuisness interests, there is a good chance that interest parties may use the Aguilas Negras monikor to threaten those communities who protest.
- "‘Bandas Criminales,’ Seguridad Democratica y Corrupcion," Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, 14 December 2008.
- "El vuelo de las águilas negras," Verdad Abierta, 26 August 2008.
- “El nido de las aguilas,” Verdad Abierta, 10 February 2007.
- "Colombia's New Armed Groups," International Crisis Group, 10 May 2007. (pdf)