EXCERPT | Colombia: The Paramilitaries’ Violent Order
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EXCERPT | Colombia: The Paramilitaries’ Violent Order

By Jacobo Grajales

EXCERPT | Colombia: The Paramilitaries’ Violent Order

Source: El Espectador

Home to more than six million people, Antioquia is the most populous province in Colombia [1]. Its capital city, Medellín, has over two million inhabitants and is the country’s second industrial and financial hub. But other areas of Antioquia are politically and economically marginalized. In these zones, political power is exercised simultaneously by precarious public institutions, local strongmen, and armed groups.

Because of their economic and geographic characteristics, several regions of Antioquia were at the core of the offensive launched by the FARC from 1993. At the same time, Antioquia was also one of the provinces where Convivir groups enjoyed their strongest support from the regional government and landed elites. Situated in northern Antioquia and bordering the province of Córdoba on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, Urabá – one of the most violent spots in the province and the cradle of paramilitary militias – illustrates the link between Convivir, the dynamics of the armed conflict, and the political economy of agribusiness.

Urabá exemplifies the notion of government through violence. In this region, as elsewhere in Colombia, Convivir created new opportunities for promoters of paramilitarism. Paramount to their strategy was the capacity to establish strong links with statutory institutions, especially the military. While a part of these networks was kept secret, Convivir provided the possibility to stabilize these collusive relations within a legal framework.

Convivir in Antioquia

By the time Convivir was created, Antioquia was experiencing high levels of violence. In the late 1980s, the conflict between the FARC and the paramilitaries in Urabá had subsided. The demobilization of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL) in 1991 did not
help to calm the situation, as former rebels were considered traitors by the FARC. Thus, in order to protect their lives, some of these former rebels created a new armed group called the People’s Commandos (Comandos Populares), which ended up being absorbed by paramilitary groups (Martin 1997; Ortíz Sarmiento 2007; Suárez 2007). The situation in Urabá was gradually becoming a national problem, particularly because of the constant flow of forcibly displaced people (desplazados), many of whom sought refuge in Medellín.

The FARC targeted all the symbols of the state’s presence, police stations in particular. Moreover, in order to finance their deployment, they intensified their racketeering and kidnapping activities, severely affecting rural entrepreneurs. The election of Álvaro Uribe as governor of Antioquia in 1994 coincided with this critical situation. Uribe, who belonged to a family of landowners, was a controversial individual: both he and his brother had been accused of participating in the training of paramilitary groups. Although the investigation was never fully conclusive, these accusations were often used by his political challengers. Despite his suspected collusion with paramilitaries, Uribe firmly committed himself to creating Convivir groups in Antioquia. His closest collaborator, Pedro Juan Moreno, who was the governor’s security advisor, was a divisive character who had been repeatedly targeted by censure motions in the Provincial Assembly and accused of supporting paramilitary groups. These accusations did not stop him from actively promoting the Convivir policy throughout the province. 

In late 1995 there were 48 Convivir groups in the province. Praising their effectiveness, Uribe advocated a legal reform that would allow vigilantes to use more powerful weapons and would transform some of these groups into civilian commandos acting in close collaboration with armed forces (Semana 1995b). The governor also promoted “active neutrality,” what he defined as the obligation for all citizens to actively collaborate in law enforcement by becoming informants of security agencies. These developments were severely criticized by other public officials, such as the local representative of the People’s Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), and both the conservative El Colombiano (the most prominent newspaper in Medellín) and the left-wing press. At the time, the left-wing Alternativa wrote: 

In Antioquia, practically anyone who has 80 million pesos [approximately USD 100,000 at the time] – whether it be a landlord, a businessman, a paramilitary, a drug trafficker […] – can go to a provincial government office, where an army colonel will explain how to create one’s own private army. (Alternativa 1996) 

How Did Convivir Work? 

During the first half of the 1990s, Urabá became a paramilitary stronghold. In 1994 Carlos Castaño, who had been an active drug trafficker and paramilitary promoter in eastern Antioquia and neighboring Córdoba province, created the Córdoba and Urabá Peasant Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU). Castaño had taken over the counterinsurgent endeavor from his brother, Fidel, who died in mysterious circumstances. The three Castaño brothers – Fidel, Carlos, and Vicente – played a key role in the history of paramilitarism in Colombia. Their efforts embody the convergence of counterinsurgency, organized crime, and the response of the landed elites – all of which were pivotal to the formation and development of paramilitary groups (Romero 1995, 2003; Grajales 2016a). Urabá became the center of a nationwide paramilitary network that had been structured by Castaño: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). This loose coalition consisted of a number of independent violence entrepreneurs and remained in Urabá and Córdoba at least until the mid-1990s. Most of the paramilitary chiefs that marked Colombia’s recent violent history had some kind of link to the region. While a sociological history of paramilitarism in Urabá exceeds the scope of this contribution, a finer understanding of the role of Convivir in the development of paramilitary groups would be conducive to better understanding security policies and the involvement of armed groups in state-led counterinsurgency strategies (Torres Bustamante 2004). 

Urabá was not initially supposed to be included in the Convivir policy due to the opposition of several mayors. However, Raúl Hasbún – a wealthy banana entrepreneur from Medellín and an influential member of Augura – played a key role in generating support for paramilitarism among plantation owners. The first vigilante groups were created as early as 1996; by 1997 there were 12 Convivir groups. Although administratively distinct, these groups functioned as a single organization and were headquartered next to the 17th Brigade military base. They maintained permanent relations with the local military, primarily collaborating on intelligence sharing. Convivir groups functioned as brokers between paramilitary groups and the military, allowing the latter to transmit information to the former. In this sense, Convivir was less a form of violence privatization than a readjustment of the relations between public and private actors, built upon a more forceful institutionalization of intelligence flows, that aimed at securing the positions of all parties, especially that of the military. 

With the support of the plantation managers, Convivir vigilante groups deployed a communication network that covered a large portion of the Urabá territory. According to Hasbún, up to a thousand radio sets were distributed among the plantations, linking them to Convivir patrols, the army, and the police. Antennas situated within the perimeter of two military bases provided coverage for the whole region. 

By passing information from the army to the paramilitaries, Convivir groups facilitated and indirectly controlled extra-legal violence, keeping it within a counterinsurgent strategy. In other words, Convivir played a part in the regulation of paramilitary violence, steering it towards objectives which were perceived as legitimate by the military. As Raúl Hasbún acknowledges:

We would have information from the army or the police […] they arrested someone but were not able to carry on with an indictment because the information was lacking. Then, if we had the chance, we immediately executed or killed [sic!] the person, because we knew that he was from the guerrillas, but the justice system did not have enough evidence to act. (Raúl Hasbún, statement was given to the Attorney General’s Office [Fiscalía General de la Nación], 20 August 2008)[2]

Uraba Convivir groups are the most prominent example of the instrumental character of Convivir in the development of paramilitary militias. In the mid-1990s leading characters of what would become the AUC set up a number of Convivir vigilante groups. One of them was Salvatore Mancuso, who is today serving a 15-year sentence in a US penitentiary for drug trafficking. In 1996 Mancuso created three Convivir groups that operated in the Córdoba province and secured licenses for the purchase of submachine guns, assault rifles, and other firearms. The same link between Convivir and paramilitarism in other parts of the country has been confirmed by former paramilitaries. Whenever the necessity to create a legal facade for fundraising or to share intelligence would arise, Convivir vigilantes were recruited by paramilitary chiefs themselves or by allies or frontmen, who were often members of the landed elite.

A sociological analysis of the composition of Convivir groups reveals the importance of multi-positioned actors. Convivir members and paramilitaries did not represent two distinct social groups; on the contrary, most vigilantes had previously acted within paramilitary groups. However, Convivir constituted a vector of professionalization and bureaucratization of the paramilitary milieu. For instance, the transformation of paramilitaries into legal vigilantes enabled paramilitary commanders to offer their rank-and-file member's employment contracts and social benefits. Plantation managers also operated as multi-positioned actors.

For instance, Arnulfo Peñuela was a former army sergeant who later became a storekeeper and businessman in Urabá and was elected mayor of Carepa in 2008, home to Convivir headquarters. A few months after his election, he was arrested and convicted for his links to paramilitary groups. At his trial, it was revealed that he had been a broker between the army, Convivir groups, and paramilitaries. There is also the case of Antonio Arboleda, a former EPL guerrilla who joined the paramilitaries after his demobilization and also became the manager of six banana plantations. Officially, he was a Convivir group member and in charge of one of the group’s “operative sectors.”

Peñuela’s and Arboleda’s dual roles as Convivir actors and plantation managers allowed them to keep strong relations with military officers. The social proximity between members of the army and representatives of the agribusiness elite structured their relations. In the words of a former military officer stationed in Urabá: 

The relations between military officers and local elites are considered to be a fundamental aspect of our job by the military institution. It is said that military officers must develop strong relations [with the elites]. That means having frequent contact with all those that matter locally: the large landowner [hacendado], the mayor, the businessman, the guys from the corporate associations [gremios]. (Interview, Bogotá, March 2011)

Consequently, people with elite profiles were in charge of maintaining Convivir links to security services and the military. Alberto Osorio, a key member of the Urabá Convivir, embodied the social characteristics required for this type of position: not only was he a successful businessman in the banana sector, he was closely acquainted with the military, having been awarded the Ayacucho medal for his “professionalism, complete devotion to the Colombian infantry and true sense of collaboration and solidarity” by the commander of the 17th Brigade.[3] Osorio was also invited by the 17th Brigade to be a panelist for a talk about the partnership between Convivir groups and the army.[4] This all clearly establishes Osorio’s role of broker. Brokers are instrumental in the functioning of Convivir groups as “screens” – statutory institutions that transmit information from one side of the legal gap to the other.

As such, individuals like Osorio were in charge of maintaining paramilitary networks, which contribute to the reproduction of criminal enterprises across time and space. Rocco Sciarrone’s (2000) analysis of the Italian mafia corresponds on every point to the organizational dynamics of paramilitary militias:

One of the mafia’s strong points is its capacity to obtain the cooperation of other social sectors which are situated outside its organizational core – in other words, its capacity to entertain relations of collusion and complicity with different spheres of the civil society and the institutions. (Sciarrone 2000: 36) 

The same analysis can be applied to the relations between Convivir groups and the agribusiness sector. I have established the importance of multi-positioned individuals and the links between the Convivir intelligence networks and plantation managers. Yet, the relation between agribusiness and Convivir groups was not only a matter of interpersonal relations, it was also institutionalized within the Convivir organization. The practical functioning of Convivir illustrates this argument.

In 2001 Urabá Convivir vigilantes became a single administrative entity. First called the Papagayo Security Association and later renamed Urabá Special Services for Security and Surveillance (SEVSP), this structure officially became a nonprofit organization. In 2006, at the SEVSP’s general assembly at the Medellín Country Club, 55 agribusiness corporations (owners of several hundred plantations in Urabá) came together to discuss various financial and organizational issues. The associates validated the financial report, which would then be presented to the Antioquia provincial government. The organization’s administrative management was entrusted with electing assembly members, who were typically senior managers of agribusiness corporations (minutes of the general assembly, 26 April 2006).

The networks supporting Convivir groups were not only composed of military officers and agribusiness actors from Medellín. The vigilantes also kept relations with foreign companies active in the region. The example of the US agribusiness corporation Chiquita finely illustrates these relations. In 2002 Chiquita’s board of directors ordered an independent audit of the payments made by its Colombian subsidiary Banadex to paramilitary groups. These payments, while apparently legal, fell under the scope of US anti-terrorist legislation, as paramilitary groups were considered terrorist organizations following an administrative decision issued on 10 September 2001. Chiquita’s lawyers advised the board to conclude a plea agreement with the US Justice Department. The terms of the deal included a USD 25 million fine and the delivery of several thousand documents evidencing the relations between Chiquita executives and paramilitary groups. A large share of those documents was released under the Freedom of Information Act following the intervention of the National Security Archive.[5]

This episode gives us a measure of the breadth of the collusion between transnational companies and paramilitary groups in Colombia (for another example, analyzed in great detail, see Gill 2007). The Chiquita documents recorded payments to paramilitary groups as far back as 1993, the year that marked the beginning of paramilitary activities in Urabá. At that time, Chiquita was also paying the FARC and EPL guerrillas. While the company argued that it was a victim of racketeering, internal documents suggest that the FARC provided the company with security services, such as protecting plantations from common criminals and even preventing strikes. An analysis of this issue would require further data, but the evidence presents a picture of unequivocal relations between racketeers and racketed companies.

The records show that in 1996 Chiquita paid USD 21,763 to Convivir groups and over USD 200,000 to the guerrillas. However, from 1997 the paramilitaries became the primary beneficiaries of Chiquita’s payments, with the rebels only receiving USD 80,000 and Convivir groups receiving USD 120,000 that year. At the end of the decade, the paramilitaries monopolized the funds and put in place a centralized system of collection. For each exported banana crate, Chiquita had to pay a “tax” of three cents. This system was very profitable, earning the paramilitaries USD 1.7 million from 1998 to 2002. The payments were made to Convivir groups and recorded in the company’s financial books as “security services.” Because the money was managed by Convivir groups, Chiquita and other companies could argue that they were ignorant of the links between Convivir vigilantes (legal) and paramilitaries (illegal). According to demobilized paramilitaries, other agribusiness multinationals such as Dole and Del Monte were also among the first contributors to Convivir groups. As a matter of fact, the three-cent tax applied to all exports, irrespective of whether they were managed by Colombian or foreign companies.

The links between these companies and Convivir vigilantes were not limited to the financial level. The companies’ facilities were also used by the paramilitaries. This kind of collaboration meant that companies were sometimes involved in clear-cut criminal activities. Chiquita’s subsidiary Banadex, for instance, allowed for its port to be used to unload and store 23 containers filled with arms and ammunition. An inquiry by the Organization of American States (OAS) revealed that the 3,000 AK47 assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition had been purchased from the Nicaraguan army by an Israeli arms dealer, Shimon Yelinek, claiming to represent the Panamanian police. However, after leaving Nicaragua, the shipment was diverted to Colombia and eventually delivered to paramilitaries, who were the actual purchasers of the arms and ammunition (OAS Secretary General 2003).

About the Author:

Jacobo Grajales (ORCID: 0000-0002-3543-9545) is an associate professor of Political Science at the Lille Center for European Research on Administration, Politics and Society (CERAPS), University of Lille, France. He is the author of Gobernar en medio de la violencia: Estado y paramilitarismo en Colombia (Bogotá, Editorial Universidad del Rosario, 2017. Original version in French, Karthala, 2016). His current research focuses on the link between postconflict situations and the political economy of rural land in Colombia and Côte d’Ivoire. Personal websiteEmail.

Cite this Article:

Grajales, Jacobo (2017), Private Security and Paramilitarism in Colombia: Governing in the Midst of Violence, in: Journal of Politics in Latin America, 9, 3, 36–43. 

Publication Details:


[1]  This case study relies heavily on documents retrieved from the trial archives of several Convivir promoters. Thanks to the support of the NGO Corporación Jurídica Libertad, I obtained access to the archives of the cases brought against Alberto Osorio, Arnulfo Peñuela Marín, and Rafael Emilio García – all three of whom were accused of promoting paramilitary groups. The three trials were conducted by the Special Prosecutor’s Office 29, Medellín (Fiscalía 29 Especializada de Medellín).

[2] All legal documents are part of the archives mentioned above.

[3] Letter from Brigadier General Rito Alejo del Rio to Alberto Osorio, 7 August 1997. 

[4] Letter from Brigadier General Rito Alejo del Rio to Alberto Osorio, 2 February 1998. 

[5] This is an initiative hosted by George Washington University. Thousands of unclassified documents can be retrieved at or


Martin, Gérard (1997), Violences stratégiques et violences désorganisées dans la région d’Urabá en Colombie, in: Cultures & Conflicts, 24-25, 195–238. 

Ortíz Sarmiento, Carlos Miguel (2007), Urabá: pulsiones de vida y desafíos de muerte, Bogotá: La Carreta Social.

Suárez, Andrés Fernando (2007), Identidades políticas y exterminio recíproco. Masacres y guerras en Urabá (1991–2001), Bogotá: La Carreta.

Semana (1995b), Mano dura, 11 November.

Romero, Mauricio (1995), Transformación rural, violencia política y narcotráfico en Córdoba. 1953-1991, in: Controversia, 167, 96–121. 

Grajales, Jacobo (2016a), Gouverner dans la violence. Le paramilitarisme en Colombie, Paris: Karthala.

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