Paramilitary Arrest Closes Chapter in Colombia Conflict

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The arrest of a member of one of Colombia’s oldest paramilitary families closes a chapter in Colombia’s conflict, and is representative of just how much the war has changed over the decades.

Former paramilitary warlord Ovidio Isaza, alias “Roque,” was arrested by police on September 28, on charges of drug trafficking and carrying a weapon.  According to police, Roque managed cocaine processing laboratories in Colombia’s central Antioquia province, and would charge other criminal groups a tax in exchange for using his territory to grow coca or process cocaine. On average, he would charge criminal groups 150,000 pesos (about $83) per kilo of cocaine produced or moved through his territory, according to El Tiempo

A judge ordered that Roque be held in Colombia’s La Picota high-security prison in Bogota where his elderly father Ramon Isaza is currently serving time for crimes committed by his paramilitary army.

The Isaza family founded one of Colombia’s first self-defense groups in the 1970s, which later evolved into a drug-trafficking, paramilitary force in the 1990s. The family patriarch, Ramon, alias “El Viejo,” is unofficially known as Colombia’s “oldest paramilitary.”

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The saga of Roque and the Isaza family is particularly symbolic of the evolution of Colombia’s conflict over the decades, and exemplifies why it has been so difficult for the government to end the war. Ramon Isaza first organized a self-defence force among other farmers and ranchers in Colombia’s central region, the Magdalena Medio, in order to defend themselves from extortion and kidnapping threats from guerrilla groups. The Isaza organization grew steadily, and in the mid-1980s they began calling themselves the “Self-Defense Forces of the Magdalena Medio.” As the vigilante group expanded, they linked up with other self-defense forces in the area, and even received military training from British and Israeli mercenaries. 

Many of these self-defense groups began working in collaboration with drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar, though Ramon Isaza was originally resistant to forging an alliance with the Medellin-based drug capo, whom he viewed as representing dirty money in the Magdalena Medio. This resistance sparked a war between Escobar’s and Isaza’s forces.

After Escobar’s death, Isaza’s paramilitary force became large enough to be divided into five fronts, each one headed by a different commander, including his son, Roque. They joined up with paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and essentially ruled Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region until they demobilized in 2006. 

Ramon Isaza was sentenced to prison, but his son Roque refused to participate in Colombia’s Justice and Peace process, designed to give reduced punishments to paramilitaries in exchange for their testimony in court. In March 2012, Roque was formally expelled from the Justice and Peace process, meaning he will now be tried in an ordinary civilian court.

Roque’s decision to abstain from the Justice and Peace process in order to continue with the business of drug trafficking was not atypical. Many of the combatants that make up Colombia’s new generation of criminal groups — which the government calls “bandas criminales,” or “BACRIMs” —  were also former members of the AUC. Because these so-called “self-defense” forces became so deeply involved in trafficking drugs, it was difficult for the Colombian government to offer enough incentives to mid-level AUC commanders like Roque to fully demobilize. As a result, out of the ashes of the AUC arose the successor groups active today, like the Urabeños. Roque’s arrest signals the end of an old era of paramilitarism, but his criminal career is also a useful lesson in why the conflict still continues today. 

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