Colombia’s Black Eagles




S

andra Gutierrez Torres has
a risky job. She helps run a grassroots human rights organization
in Colombia’s oil capital of Barrancabermeja. In February,
it seems, Sandra’s work may have cost the life of her 20-year-old
sister, Katherine Gonzales Torres—another possible victim in
what is being called a “rising tide of organized violence”
throughout Colombia. 


Sandra’s sister Katherine left her home at 1:00 PM on Tuesday,
February 13, heading for her job as a shop assistant. But she didn’t
arrive and nobody has seen or heard from her since. 


Katherine’s disappearance has her family fearing the worst
in the context of a threat e-mailed the previous week to social
justice organizations, trade unions, human rights lawyers, and leftist
politicians nationwide: “We will finish with you by means of
your families; your children and your loved ones will give their
lives…your families will pay dearly.” The threat was signed:
“Armed Political Branch of the ex-AUC, the New Generation Black
Eagles.” 


The right-wing, anti-guerrilla AUC militia, the self-proclaimed
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, began as civilian military
auxiliaries in the late 1960s, became private armies of wealthy
landowners and drug barons in the 1980s, and supposedly demobilized
in a controversial “peace process” with the current government
in 2003. 


Now, according to opposition politicians and human rights groups,
around 5,000 ex-paramilitaries are taking up arms again and new
militias are emerging, to fight for control of Colombia’s lucrative
drug trade and as hired guns of business and political interests.
It seems a number of these groups are using the name Aguilas Negras
(Black Eagles) to forge a political and paramilitary identity in
much the same way as the notoriously violent AUC did in the 1990s. 



B

arrancabermeja is in the
Magdalena Medio region, an administrative area in central Colombia
based on the country’s main river, the Magdalena. Within the
region lie the nation’s largest gold reserves and also significant
copper, uranium, and other resources, as well as the largest oil
refinery. 


Claims in the region that the Black Eagles are doing the bidding
of powerful interests, in the same way as the AUC did, have often
focused on organized violence against artisan gold mining communities.
Some 300,000 artisan miners and peasant farmers live in the south
of the Bolivar department, which falls within the Magdalena Medio
region. Many of them have lived for generations by extracting gold
by hand from the rich deposits in the Santo Domingo and San Lucas
Ranges. But the area is now in the sights of the multinational mining
firm Anglo Gold Ashanti, which operates in Colombia as Kedahda SA. 







This rugged, remote area is also a guerrilla stronghold, making
it a battleground involving all three organized armed groups—paramilitaries,
guerrillas, and the army—in which civilians are often caught
in the crossfire. The vice-president of the Federation of Artisan
Miners and Farmers of the South of Bolivar (Fedeagromisbol), Gabriel
Henao, told me the Black Eagles were actively sowing terror in the
region to try and drive the people off the land and free it up for
multinational exploitation. “Former paramilitaries from the
BCB [Central Bolivar Bloc] have been seen guiding the military,
pointing out civilians and telling the troops they are guerrilla,
and threatening to kill farmers and miners if they don’t leave.
They are calling themselves the Black Eagles. One of them came up
to me in front of the troops and boasted: ‘I’m in charge
around here.’” 


The tension came to a head last September 19 when a local leader
of Fedeagromisbol, artisan miner Alejandro Uribe Chacón, was
killed by the army. Uribe Chacón, 28, was president of the
Communal Action Committee. The military said Uribe Chacón was
a guerrilla killed in combat, but this was emphatically denied by
his wife, community members, co-workers, the local Catholic diocese,
the staff of a European Union development program active in the
region, the representative of the government’s Defender of
the People human rights office in the region, human rights workers,
and others who knew him. They maintain that Uribe Chacón was
not a guerrilla, but that the army planted an AK47 rifle on him
and dressed him in camouflage gear, after assassinating him, to
make it appear as if he was. 


The following week, Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro said that he
had evidence that troops had assassinated at least 100 civilians
since 1998, passing them off as guerrillas in order to produce “positive
results” in the country’s civil war. Gabriel Henao said
the murder of his friend Uribe Chacón came in a very specific
context: deliberate terror sowed by both regular and irregular troops,
from the army to the Black Eagles, with the aim of displacing the
mining and farming community. 



B

arrancabermeja is the nearest
big city to the beleaguered southern part of the Bolivar department
and its 200,000 inhabitants include thousands of refugees from there
and elsewhere in the surrounding countryside. Sandra Gutierrez Torres
works for Barrancabermeja’s Popular Women’s Organization
(OFP), which for 34 years has supported women and youth from poor
neighborhoods, displaced people, and victims of violence. Other
OFP workers have also lost family members in what are believed to
be acts of retaliation for the organization’s repeated denunciations
of paramilitary involvement in the region’s economy and society. 


The morning after Katherine Torres disappeared, the OFP organized
a caravan of vehicles to mount a search. A long line of bulletproof
vehicles belonging to human rights defenders and trade unionists—under
court protection because of death threats earned through their activism—snaked
through the city. The lead vehicle carried large speakers and leaders
of social justice groups took turns demanding that those responsible
for Katherine’s disappearance return her unharmed. A regular
refrain was: “They took her alive and we want her back alive.” 


Demonstrators then blocked one of the city’s main roads at
rush hour to continue denouncing the disappearance to a captive
audience of waiting traffic. Speakers alleged Katherine’s disappearance
came within a context of official inactivity, and even complicity,
in human rights abuses in the region by organized criminals, including
the Black Eagles. 








The
city has been rocked recently by a series of violent events—including
kidnappings, a grenade attack on a real estate agency that killed
a young secretary, an attempt to kill a government official with
a grenade, death threats, and shootings. OFP co-coordinator Jackeline
Rojas said the events showed how Colombian militarism, legal and
illegal, was spilling over into daily life. “How does someone
get hold of a grenade to attack a real estate agency?” she
asked. She said it was believed the attack was connected with unpaid
debts the agency was trying to collect and showed the disturbing
normalcy of extreme, military-type violence in the city. 


A Barrancabermeja police spokesperson said Katherine’s disappearance
was under investigation while a spokesperson for the city government
said that the city’s peace process would take time. “He
told us change doesn’t happen overnight,” Jackeline Rojas
said. “Fine, but while we wait, why do we have to keep suffering
the loss of our loved ones?” Human rights adviser to the national
police, Doris Parra, said from Bogotá that the current situation
in Barrancabermeja was “very worrying…. We will review
our systems of protection for human rights workers in the wake of
this incident, especially in relation to their family members.”
She added that the Black Eagles were a concern for the police in
various parts of the country. 


In February demobilized paramilitary chiefs Salvatore Mancuso and
Carlos Mario Jimenez, the latter of whom was a feared commander
in the Magdalena Medio, confirmed publicly that groups such as the
Black Eagles were re-arming throughout Colombia. They added they
could not understand the government’s silence. A current paramilitary
warlord also spoke out on the issue, saying he feared this “new
generation” was looking to assassinate him. 


At the Barrancabermeja demonstration, Sandra struggled to stay calm
as speakers, including a local priest and nun, called for city authorities
to protect human rights activists and their families and cited a
“rising tide of organized violence” in the region, particularly
at the hands of the Black Eagles. A long queue of buses, cars, and
motorbikes waited in sweltering heat, with the general absence of
car horns or audible complaints seeming to indicate a respect for
the demonstration and a sharing in the grief and pain that was behind
it. The police also appeared to respect the general sense of shock
over the disappearance of a relative of an OFP worker, which has
a high profile in the city. They stood by for more than 30 minutes,
allowing the demonstrators to stay in the road and light candles
for a brief vigil amid a sea of halted traffic. 


A week later, nothing had been seen of Katherine and city authorities
sent a letter to the OFP threatening legal action against them for
blocking the intersection. OFP coordinator Yolanda Bercerra commented:
“They do nothing about murders and disappearances of the citizens
of this city, but they threaten us with consequences when we try
to draw attention to what’s going on. What are we supposed
to do?” 


Tens of thousands of Colombian families have suffered the pain of
a loved one “disappearing” during Colombia’s civil
war. The majority are victims of paramilitaries, who deliberately
dispose of the bodies of their victims away from their homes so
that the crime will be harder to trace and as extra emotional torture
for victims’ families. In 2006 alone the national Institute
of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences registered 4,367 disappearances
in Colombia. 


In February 2007 the MAPP-OEA (Organization of American States Mission
to Support the Peace Process) in Colombia reported that 22 new illegal
paramilitary groups were active in 10 different departments across
the country. The organization said many of the violent groups were
expanding, despite the fact it had highlighted their existence to
the government in previous reports. 



T

he growth of the Black Eagles
and the general climate of fear in cities like Barrancabermeja comes
while the country is transfixed by an unprecedented scandal engulfing
President Uribe’s government. Known as “parapolitics,”
the scandal has seen eight pro-Uribe senators jailed for links with
paramilitary death squads. In late February Foreign Secretary Maria
Consuelo Araujo resigned after her brother, a senator, was jailed
for his involvement with paramilitaries and her father, also a pro-Uribe
politician, was similarly accused, as was her cousin, a pro-Uribe
governor. 






The
same week, Uribe’s former intelligence chief, Jorge Noguera,
who resigned last October, was arrested and charged with allegedly
supplying the names of human rights workers and trade unionists to
paramilitaries. President Uribe had personally appointed Noguera to
the directorship of the Administrative Department for Security (DAS)
in 2002 and, after the scandal broke last year, posted him away from
the intense media scrutiny to Milan, Italy as Colombian consul. The
president was unstinting in his defense of Noguera throughout the
scandal and Uribe seems politically indestructible, despite persistent
allegations of links with para-militaries and drug-traffickers casting
an enduring shadow over his presidency. 


In February an opposition senator and ex-militant of the M19 guerrilla
movement, Gustavo Petro, claimed he had evidence that Uribe allowed
brutal paramilitaries to develop in the department of Antioquia
while he was governor in the 1990s. He accused Uribe’s brother
of direct paramilitary involvement, including murders. The president
responded by labeling Petro and other left-wing politicians “terrorists
in business suits” in a familiar echo of para-military rhetoric. 


Paramilitary public announcements and threats, like the one received
recently by social justice organizations nationwide, habitually
identify with Uribe’s policies and label human rights NGOs,
trade unions, and leftist politicians as “disguised terrorists.”
The latest Black Eagles’ communiqué, which contained the
threat against families of human rights workers, said: “The
North American people, headed by their current government, know
very well that you [social justice organizations] will not be the
future of our country; we count on their military and technical
support that will guarantee us a resounding victory over the guerrillas
and their submissive servants. 


“All of you should know that following each of you who claim
to be defenders of human rights, social leaders, two-bit lawyers,
camouflaged journalists, and all ex-guerrillas who believe they’re
untouchable, right behind each of you will be one of our commandos,
following you day and night…. We will judge you according to
your actions, massacring you in public plazas so that the people
know the social justice that the traitors of the homeland deserve….
When lawyers, NGOs, and ex-guerrillas of the Polo [Democratic Alternative
Pole, the main opposition party] say they are going to judge the
president, we warn you that it will cost you blood….” 


Despite the frequent linking of Colombia’s military and political
establishment with paramilitary atrocities, Washington seems set
to continue giving around half a billion dollars in aid to Colombia
annually—the great majority of which is spent on the military.
Meanwhile, the world watches a crisis on a potentially government-toppling
scale envelope the country’s political class, the conclusion
of which might seem to be that Colombia’s great stain of institutionalized
para-mil itarism will at last, perhaps, be cleansed. 


While Uribe’s cronies fall to the Supreme Court “para-politics”
investigation, groups like the Black Eagles are still involved in
the same dirty war, the same careful use of terror as a political
tool, and the same links to the nation’s elites—and 20-year-old
Katherine Gonzales Torres is still missing. 





Caleb
Harris is a New Zealand-born freelance journalist currently based
in Colombia. He has lived and worked there since 2005 and has written
for newspapers, magazines, and radio in the UK, Australia, New Zealand,
and North America.