Report Sheds Light on Private Sector Role in Colombia Conflict

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A new report examines the relationship between private businesses and paramilitary groups during Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, arguing that a post-conflict truth commission should investigate these potentially criminal dealings.

The report, published on February 26 by Colombian think tank Dejusticia, details 439 instances of “corporate complicity” in human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups between 1970 and 2015.

The investigation is based on testimonies of former paramilitary leaders and 35 court rulings under Colombia’s special Justice and Peace law, which was set up in 2005 in the context of the demobilization of the paramilitary umbrella organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).

The report says that less than a third of these cases sparked a judicial investigation into the economic entities’ responsibility, and only 10 percent reached the courts.

The report also notes that while these 35 court rulings named specific private entities, they did not rule on the “responsibility of the economic actors for the violence.”

The vast majority of businesses identified seem to have willingly helped paramilitary groups to commit human rights violations — including by financing armed groups, helping displace people by force or collaborating in targeted killings. However, a little over 10 percent of economic actors appear to have been forced to collaborate through extortion.

“Para-Economy” and Indirect Complicity

Links between economic actors and Colombia’s paramilitary groups go all the way back to the 1980s when local businessmen and foreign multinationals anxious to protect their businesses funneled money to paramilitary groups they perceived as a protective force against leftist guerrillas.

This patron-client relationship remained the most common type of interaction between private actors and paramilitaries, accounting for half of the cases analyzed by Dejusticia.

The interaction included the sharing of lists of union or social leaders, which Dejusticia defines as “indirect complicity” and accounts for 82 of the interactions documented.

Despite the perception that foreign multinational actors played a dominant role in financing Colombia’s conflict, 98 percent of the cases included in the report involved Colombian economic actors.

Most cases relate to the agricultural, commercial and natural resource sectors, representing 38, 24, and 10 percent of cases respectively. Cattle ranching, banana and palm oil plantations were some of the areas were the phenomenon was particularly prominent.

SEE ALSO: AUC News and Profile

As the paramilitary phenomenon grew, businesses not only contributed to but also benefited from armed groups’ illegal operations, spurring a mutually-beneficial relationship within a “para-economy.”

Still, certain economic commercial entities took a step further to become directly complicit in committing human rights violations. Testimonies from several demobilized paramilitary leaders indicate that forced displacement was at times carried out not for strategic military needs, but to fulfill the economic interests of private actors, while 4 percent of recorded instances of corporate complicity involved homicides.

(Graphic by InSight Crime using data from Dejusticia)

The kinds of interactions documented in the Dejusticia report were concentrated in particular geographic areas. Northern parts of Colombia appear to have been particularly affected; the departments of Antioquia and Córdoba as well as the Urabá coastal sub-region topped the list of six areas that constituted more than 75 percent of registered cases.

Relatedly, certain paramilitary factions were more often linked to relationships with businesses. These included the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc, which operated in the Urabá region of Antioquia; the Pacific Bloc; the Catatumbo Bloc, named after a conflict-ridden area of the department of Norte de Santander; and the Montes de María Bloc, which operated in the department of Sucre.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The areas singled out in the report still suffer from their paramilitary legacy. For instance, the demobilization of the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc, the most mentioned AUC faction for ties with businesses, led to the birth of the Urabeños criminal group, one of the most powerful criminal actors in the country.

The departments mentioned in Dejusticia’s report are also among those that most suffer from targeted attacks against social and community leaders, which have increased since the signing of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the guerrillas’ subsequent demobilization.

Neo-paramilitary actors were presumably responsible for more than half of attacks against social leaders in Colombia in 2017, according to the latest annual report by the human rights organization Programa Somos Defensores.

In fieldwork conducted in these areas, InSight Crime has also observed evidence of the lingering effects of paramilitary activities.

“Some of the recent targeted killings of social leaders appear motivated by drug-related struggles between the ELN guerrilla group and the Urabeños, within a context of a power vacuum spurred by the FARC’s demobilization,” InSight Crime Senior Investigator Ángela Olaya noted.

“But from our extensive work in the field in recent years, most of the homicides are committed by self-proclaimed paramilitary groups that are descended from the AUC, and many seem to take place after victims report these groups’ financing.”

Truth Commission: A Way Forward?

The report calls for Colombia’s truth commission (known by its Spanish name, “Comisión para el esclarecimiento de la verdad, la convivencia y la no repetición,” or CEV) to continue investigating the ties between businesses and paramilitaries. Launched in December 2017 as part of the peace agreement with the FARC, the commission was given three years to shed light on the history of Colombia’s decades-long conflict, in particular its most brutal instances of violations of international humanitarian law.

Specifically, Dejusticia calls on the CEV to “explicitly include the issue of corporate complicity within its mandate,” and offers structural and methodological advice based on a comparative study of hundreds of cases of corporate complicity with paramilitary groups registered by previous truth commissions in 19 other countries, nine of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Colombian commission’s mandate, however, is tied to the country’s reconciliation process and precludes a judicial component. Still, the commission’s work could be significant, Dejusticia researcher Alejandro Jiménez told InSight Crime.

“The simple fact the CEV would mention and address this issue has impact, an impact in terms of guaranteeing the right to the truth,” he said. “Whether this materializes in terms of justice will be seen on a case by case basis.”

Beyond helping with Colombia’s reconciliation efforts, holding these economic actors accountable for their acts via the truth commission would be an important win for the FARC peace process, particularly as the implementation of the peace agreement has hit some major road bumps.

However, it will not be easy. Colombia’s upcoming elections include several hard-right candidates, and may result in some significant policy changes under the next administration.

“There’s clearly a competition for resources,” Dejusticia’s Jiménez said. “The commission has very little time and a lot of work ahead.”

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