Thursday, December 22, 2011

Colombian Neo-Paramilitary Gang to Demobilize

One of Colombia’s foremost criminal groups is set to begin “demobilizing” today, according to El Espectador. About 450 members of the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) have agreed to turn themselves in. The first group, reportedly numbering 150, is set to meet with state prosecutors Friday in Villavicencio, the largest city in Colombia’s Eastern Plains.
ERPAC’s leader, Jose Eberto Lopez Montero, alias “Caracho,” previously insisted that he was keen to surrender and dismantle the organization. The question now is whether the Colombian state offered Caracho and his organization some kind of incentive in order to do so. So far authorities have denied offering the ERPAC anything beyond the reduced prison sentence that, under law, the ERPAC combatants may receive in exchange for voluntarily turning themselves in to justice.

The ERPAC was among the first of the new criminal groups which emerged from the ashes of the paramilitaries who fought for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The ERPAC adopted a name which placed them in the political tradition of the AUC, but they did not necesarily adopt the AUC’s policies towards guerrilla group the FARC. Instead, the ERPAC was among the first of Colombia’s post-AUC groups which established an alliance with the FARC, agreeing to respect each other’s territory and to buy coca base from the guerrillas.

The demobilization of the ERPAC will leave a vacuum of power in the Eastern Plains, their former stronghold. It could yet inspire other criminal groups, which the government has labeled “bandas criminales” (BACRIMs) to follow suit. The leader of another powerful criminal organization, the Rastrojos, is reportedly seeking to turn himself into US justice. That leaves another BACRIM, the Urabeños, whose founder originally fought in the Eastern Plains. It is unlikely that the Urabeños still have the latent contacts needed to establish a foothold here, as their base of operations is along the Caribbean Coast. But there is no doubt that they have an interest in moving into the ERPAC’s old territory.

The ERPAC’s surrender calls to mind the demobilization of the AUC. This process was mired in problems and allowed the BACRIMs to surge forth, after mid-level AUC commanders who did not demobilize simply kept on fighting and trafficking drugs. Given there are an estimated 1,200 members of the ERPAC, one question is what will happen to those who have not surrender. Those who remain are fighting for another ERPAC faction which is not loyal to the current leader, Caracho, so there probably was little chance of them surrendering anyway.

The Colombian government has long maintained that their official policy is to dismantle the BACRIMs through pressure from law enforcement. The ERPAC’s reported surrender may be one sign that in some cases, it is more convenient for large groups of drug traffickers to demobilize all at once, rather than having the police or military track them down one by one. But is seems for now the ERPAC’s surrender may have come about largely because their leader was determined to do so, and we don’t know what kind of incentives the state may have offered if any.

Caracho only took over the ERPAC last December, after the group’s benefactor Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” was killed in a raid by the security forces. Caracho had a tough time keeping the group together. In a interview and photo spread with Semana magazine in November, he spoke of his desire to dismantle the group if they were only charged with the crimes the state could prove they committed. In Caracho’s words, this meant only taking responsibilty for the homicides, kidnapping and mass displacements committed after December 2010, when he assumed control of the group.

The ERPAC’s demobilization may nevertheless have wide-reaching implications for Colombia’s policy towards the BACRIMs. As El Espectado puts it:

“ERPAC’s surrender calls into question the convenience and usefulness of submission. On one hand, a successful process with the ERPAC could motivate other groups to do the same. From there, the possibility of removing these illegal armed groups from the stage should not be so easily dismissed. On the other hand, the shadow of the demobilizion of the former paramilitaries is still very present and many fear the mistakes from this era will be repeated.”

News Briefs
  • The Peace Corps is scaling back in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador due to security concerns, reports the New York Times. The Northern Triangle nations are besieged by crime and violence, although the Peace Corps’ decision was reportedly not in response to any specific incidence against a Corps member. The presence of the Peace Corps is one measure of what countries in the region are perceived as having intolerable problems with violence. For comparison, the Peace Corps relaunched their program in Colombia in 2010, nearly 20 years after it was suspended due to insecurity.
  • A long rainy season means Colombia is again experiencing some of its worst flooding in years, with 170 victims registered so far according to AlertNet.
  • In Veracruz, the Mexican Navy took over security duties in a port city after the police force was collectively fired, reports the AP.
  • The AP on the latest wave of “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads, making waves in Sinaloa, Mexico.
  • InSight Crime has two parts (here and here) in a three-part series on crime in Costa Rica up right now. Elsewhere, NPR has a similar story on how drug trafficking gangs are now threatening the region’s most stable country.
  • Chile has millions of new voters on voting lists, which could shake up the country’s democracy in the next elections, says the AP.
  • Noam Chomsky wrote an open letter asking that Venezuelan opposition judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni be released. The Guardian has more.
  • The AP reports that police found the severed head of a notorious Jamaican gangster in Kingston.

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