The Águilas Negras, or Black Eagles, are a non-cohesive group dedicated to protecting the economic interests of former mid-level paramilitary commanders scattered across Colombia. Águilas Negras is often used as a generic term to describe the many fragments of ex-paramilitaries still trafficking drugs across Colombia. Frequently, paramilitary successors who have continued threatening or murdering journalists, lawyers and human rights activists have done so using the Águilas Negras name. This political bent, along with their lack of a central leadership, distinguishes them in part from the other criminal groups operating in Colombia.
The Águilas Negras emerged between 2004 and 2006, amidst Colombia’s problematic demobilization of the AUC. 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, mostly through drug trafficking. One important faction, led by Carlos Castaño, tried to emphasize the AUC’s right-wing ideology and present the group as a political organization. This led to internal disputes within the AUC, and the fragile coalition broke as paramilitary leaders competed among themselves for territory, triggering 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, top AUC leaders were promised a degree of amnesty. A series of major disarmaments followed, and by 2006, 31,671 purported fighters had left the conflict.
Águilas Negras Factbox
Principal Criminal Groups
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 middle-level command remained untouched. Across Colombia, smaller paramilitary units kept their arms and remained in rural areas. Disguised as civilians they continued to run the same criminal enterprises: protecting coca cultivations, extorting land-owners and business contractors, persecuting human-rights activists and so on. In contrast to pre-2004 AUC blocs, most successor groups did not bother to present themselves as enemies of leftist guerrillas. In fact many would later ally with former supposed enemies, as occurred between the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Colombian media and government has used “Águilas Negras” as a shifting and not strictly defined term. For example, the organization led by Daniel Rendon Herrera, and made up of ex-combatants from the Elmer Cardenas bloc, was at one time described as the Águilas Negras. The group would later evolve and become known as criminal group the Urabeños. Post-AUC drug traffickers operating in Antioquia and Cordoba have been referred to as the “Águilas Negras of the North.” At other times, groups threatening lawyers, human-rights defenders and union leaders, have done so under the Águilas Negras name.
Armed groups using the Águilas Negras title first appeared in 2006 in Catatumbo, Northern Santander and Nariño, some of Colombia’s densest coca cultivation areas. Águilas Negras groups then began appearing in places valued as cocaine transit routes, such as Cordoba department’s southern municipalities.
Controlling former AUC drug trafficking corridors went hand in hand with protecting paramilitary land interests. In places like Cordoba, which saw some of the largest displacements by the AUC, the Águilas Negras were blamed for killing activists advocating for land repatriation. Similar threats against displaced activists have been registered in Santander. Armed groups styling themselves as the Águilas Negras have also spurred displacements in Sucre, Choco and the Uraba region in Antioquia.
The appearance of the Águilas Negras was accompanied by the emergence of dozens of other criminal groups, usually linked to drug trafficking and targeted killings. A 2006 study by local think-tank Indepaz listed 62 active paramilitary successor groups in Colombia. It is possible that in some areas, low-level street gangs simply adopt the name “Águilas Negras” to better intimidate extortion and land theft victims.
There is little evidence that the Águilas 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. Demobilized paramilitaries will likely make up the upper ranks of a given Águilas Negras group. Lower ranks may be composed of recruits dedicated to drug trafficking or other criminal activity.
Groups using the Águilas Negras name have appeared in at least 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments, including Nariño, Cauca, Casanare, Guajira, Magdalena, Bolivar, Northern Santander, Santander, Bolivar, Sucre and Cordoba. Cells have also been reported in the Venezuelan states of Tachira and Zulia. The Águilas Negras have generally built upon criminal networks established by their paramilitary predecessors. They are not known to control any transnational cocaine shipment routes.
Allies and Enemies
Individual Águilas Negras groups are known to compete with rival gangs and drug traffickers over criminal interests as well as cooperate with former paramilitary-enemies like the FARC and the ELN.
Due to their structure it is impossible to track down and dismantle any Águilas Negras central leadership. Tracking the Águilas Negras’ ascendancy or decline is difficult as various armed groups lay claim to the name. In 2011 Colombia passed legislation opening the way to for comprehensive land reform and repatriation. There is a risk that Águilas Negras groups may be contracted to intimidate those whose land repatriation efforts threaten economic interests.