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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ex-paramilitaries form crime gangs in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Hundreds of far-right Colombian militia members who demobilized after peace talks have formed at least 10 new gangs in the last six months linked to cocaine smuggling and extortion, a government report said.

Top military and human rights officials, who told Reuters of the report but did not provide a copy, said the groups would pose a big challenge to the second government of President Alvaro Uribe, which starts in a week.

The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which terrorized this Andean country for years in the name of combating Marxist rebels, has mostly demobilized under a plan negotiated with the government in the last three years.

But at least 1,000 former AUC members have formed new gangs, with names like the Red Eagles and Black Eagles, which protect drug smuggling routes and threaten violence against those who refuse to pay for protection, the report said.

"These criminal structures are in an embryonic stage and so far are operating without coordination," said Volmar Perez, a state official with the title People's Defender charged with promoting human rights. "We are asking the authorities to carry out measures to avoid their consolidation," he told Reuters.

More than 30,000 paramilitaries have turned in their guns in exchange for concessions including reduced prison terms for crimes such as massacre and torture. Critics said the government had not provided enough training and employment programs to help paramilitaries rejoin the legitimate economy.

"If the process of reinsertion is not carried out widely, many of those demobilized people will rejoin illegal armed groups," Perez said.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the existence of the gangs and told Reuters the army was moving against them. "We will fight them just as we did the paramilitaries," said Santos, adding that soldiers killed nine gang members in the northern province of Antioquia last week.


The paramilitaries, organized in the 1980s to help landowners protect their property from left-wing rebels, grew rich on drug smuggling.

German Espejo, an analyst with Bogota thinktank Security and Democracy, said it was too soon to estimate the membership in the new gangs, but that it was certainly more than 1,000.

"These groups are formed by paramilitaries that never demobilized, by some who did and by new recruits," Espejo said. "They are keeping the franchise alive, no longer as the AUC but as the Black Eagles, the Red Eagles, etc."

While their main business was extortion and drug trafficking, Espejo said they were also protecting businesses -- such as hotels, gas stations and taxi companies -- owned by former paramilitary leaders.

"If the government does not come up with something for these 30,000 demobilized AUC combatants to do in the legitimate economy, they are going to go back to what they know, which is crime," Espejo said. "And they are going to go back angry."
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