Birds they have returned. Or maybe they never left. Armed civilians in the streets to defend “order” are not a novelty in Colombia. During the protests against the government of Iván Duque, the scenes of men coming out – to injure the demonstrators or at least to intimidate them – with a pistol, scare and remind us of the history of the country. In the late 1940s and early 1950s they were Birds, an illegal armed, paramilitary and para-police group that murdered and intimidated liberal citizens and peasants opposed to the Government. They were men at the service of politicians and landowners in the Valley, in the same region where during the last month they have fired at indigenous people and young people who oppose the policies of President Iván Duque. Now they call themselves “good people.”
“It is, unfortunately, a historical tradition that dates back to the 1940s. A violence carried out by private sectors, but that in some way has had the approval of the State ”, explains Daniel García Peña, historian, former high commissioner for peace and university professor. The men who have been recorded in videos pointing at crowds during the marches in Colombia, have been escorted by the police and some media have opened their microphones to defend themselves against the accusations that point them to urban paramilitaries. The national government, which has focused on talking about the excesses of some protesters whom they call vandals, has not commented on those attacks on protesters.
“The term paramilitary is controversial because in the Colombian case it evokes a specific period of history, but that military response by civilians is the inheritance of that phenomenon, added to a culture and a mentality that stimulates the ‘right’ to arm themselves, such as It has been promoted by a political party, ”says García Peña. Congressmen from the Democratic Center, the movement of former president Álvaro Uribe, have sought through a bill to make the carrying of weapons more flexible, which on paper is prohibited in Colombia, but which, due to having some exceptions, makes compliance weak.
In the protests, according to official information, until the beginning of this week more than 1,300 firearms had been seized and at least 13 people have been killed by gunfire during the demonstrations. There are nine more cases under verification, according to a report in the newspaper Time, which also indicates that state records indicate that there are 690,859 firearms throughout the country. However, laxity in the face of other types of pistols, known as non-lethal -air and blank-, has opened a door for the smuggling of conventional weapons, the elaboration of magic or handmade weapons (made with non-lethal parts) and its use to commit crimes such as theft, intimidation, and even physical harm.
An investigation by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP) warned last year about the overwhelming increase in the import of air and blank weapons with a growth of up to 200% between 2014 and 2020. At least 380,000 pistols of this type have entered the country legally in the last two years. For the foundation, it is likely that this market has become one of the main access routes to the country for firearms. “There is no regulation for the commercialization and importation of all these other non-lethal weapons, it is as if soccer balls entered the country, but they are weapons and thousands arrive,” says Manuela Suárez, an FIP researcher.
“In Colombia there is no responsible culture in the handling of weapons, as has been demonstrated in what has happened in Cali. Even if it is not a lethal type, it is used to intimidate, to prove power, ”says Suárez, who also points out private security as a concern, which is supported by old legislation and whose monitoring by the authorities is not rigorous. In the investigation they carried out last year, Suárez says, they found records of pistols linked to the names of guards who were already dead or who were no longer part of the security companies. “We continue to be a society with broad access to the arms market. The control policy is very tough on paper, but ineffective in reality ”, says the researcher.
The use of weapons in Colombia by civilians has historical roots, it is stimulated by little state control, but also by impunity. “There is a long tradition of civilians who violently implement their form of justice and control, establishing the order they need for their businesses, for their finances, for their personal good. In our recent history it has been present since the legalization of armed civilian groups such as the so-called Convivir (private security and surveillance cooperatives) and later with the AUC (paramilitary group) ”, says Martha Nubia Bello, professor at the University Nacional, who has worked on historical memory projects on the Bojayá massacre (confrontation between the FARC and paramilitaries in 2002, which left 72 dead) and the El Tigre massacre (paramilitary incursion in 1999, with a balance of 28 deaths, 14 missing).
“Colombia has lived many experiences of paramilitarism and with the most absolute impunity, which allows it to be repeated over and over again. Many sectors have legitimized it as a necessity in the absence of state authority ”, recalls Bello. “Paramilitarism not only assassinates those who oppose its interests, but also intimidates,” explains Professor Bello. “Armed civilians exercising justice on their own account are paramilitaries or vigilantes, there is no other way to call them,” adds the expert in conflict.
The paramilitary culture has not only been stimulated by easy access to weapons, the violent past and impunity, but also because it has been legitimized from politics. At least 40 congressmen who supported the re-election of Álvaro Uribe (2006) were investigated and convicted for their links with these armed structures. The investigations by parapolitics, the biggest political scandal in the recent history of the country, also splashed the environment closer to former President Uribe. His cousin, Mario, was jailed for allying with paramilitaries and one of his brothers, Santiago, has been detained on suspicion of being the promoter of a paramilitary group that for years had control of rural areas of the country. The intimidation that is now seen in the cities has been daily in the peasant populations.
“The presence of the State in the regions has been so precarious that it has left the gangs and gunmen in control of the peoples, of their social life. There is no ethical authority that discourages and rejects the use of weapons ”, emphasizes Professor Bello.
The Condor, leader of Birds, died in 1956 assassinated without responding to justice for his crimes, but in the streets of Colombia it seems that his spirit is on the loose.
Subscribe here to newsletter from EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the current situation of the region