Colombian context behind the “Facebook hit list”

Word of the murder of 3 Colombian teens whose names were recently posted on a Facebook “hit list” has attracted a great deal of attention from English language news outlets. Certainly much more than usual for Colombia, where drug-related violence between rival gangs, security forces, paramilitaries, and leftist guerillas has been raging since the early 1980s.

According to CNN, multiple lists of names appeared on Facebook in mid-August along with a message to the victims that they had should leave the southwestern town of Puerto Asis. Authorities initially interpreted these lists as a joke of some sort. But now word of the killings have created panic in the town with many of the listed teenagers now leaving.

CNN goes on to quote a “federal defender of the public” named Volmar Perez Ortiz in claiming the presence of two main armed groups in the region: the Los Rastrojos criminal gang and the leftist guerillas of the FARC. Los Rastrojos is singled out for “executing violent actions, resolving community conflicts, imposing living and conduct norms, intimidating and meting punishment against … drug sellers and consumers, sex workers, people with criminal and unlawful histories and threatening social leaders, business people, taxi drivers and motorcycle taxi drivers.”

A report by Human Rights Watch released earlier this year on the reincarnation of paramilitaries as various drug gangs featured a short profile of the Rastrojos:

According to multiple reports received by Human Rights Watch, the Rastrojos were an armed wing of the North of the Valley drug cartel, who have historically been tied to Carlos Mario Jiménez (also known as “Macaco”). The group attempted to participate in the demobilization process but ultimately was not allowed to do so because the government considered it a criminal organization. Official documents state that the Rastrojos now operate in 10 departments and 50 municipalities, have 1,394 members, and are commanded by Javier Antonio Calle Serna (also known as “El Doctor”).

The International Crisis Group went into greater detail on the group’s origins in a 2007 report:

The Rastrojos are the armed wing of an NDVC faction led by Wilber Varela (“Jabón”),112 for whom the U.S. has an extradition warrant and offers a $5 million reward. NDVC is the successor of the Cali Cartel, and many of its leaders began under the Cali drug-trafficking organisation of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, Gilberto and Miguel, who are now in a U.S. prison. The NDVC fragmented after the death of its leader, Orlando Henao, in 1998, with Varela and another clan leader, Diego Montoya (“Don Diego”), who created a private army (the “Machos”), fighting an all-out turf war. During the Santa Fe de Ralito negotiations, the NDVC tried to integrate the Rastrojos and the Machos into the AUC to portray them as paramilitary rather than criminal but the government rejected the move after harsh criticism. […] The Rastrojos were born in 2003 out of the break-up of the Cali Cartel and the surge of strongmen Wilber Varela and Diego Montoya. The new private armies were forged through alliances between local Traquetos and local armed units. They fought for control of cocaine production labs and commercial routes. (p. 12)

The group is one of the apparent successors to the AUC (the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) which was an umbrella group of various right-wing paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries were initially formed with the stated intent of combating leftist insurgents of the FARC and ELN and were often linked to massive human rights violations such as assasinations and massacres as well as criminal acitivities such as drug trafficking and extortion. Their activities peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the Uribe administration’s “demobilization” process getting credit for credit for reducing–but by no means eliminating–their presence. HRW and other human rights groups have criticized the demobilization process as being “fundamentalled flawed.” The process failed to adequately punish the paramilitary leaders responsible for some of the worst atrocities and also refrained from seizing their assets and blocking their financial sources of support. This “may have allowed groups to hide assets, recruit new members and continue operating under new guises.”

As mentioned earlier, Los Rastrojos were never a part of the AUC but instead an armed wing of the North of the Valley drug cartel. There are many reports that the group collaborates with the leftist ELN in drug trafficking activities. Despite this, it appears that the gang is taking on a socially and politically reactionary role as of late. This past April, they sent out “threatening emails and letters to over 60 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), senators and human rights activists.” Even the United Nations Development Program was targeted. The threats warned its victims to “leave behind subversive, archaic discussion which favors the rights and ideologies of the ‘narcoterrorists,’ from the FARC and ELN to all their accomplices from the past and present … we reserve our right to fight for a country free of scum like you, the only thing you do is to deceive the people, teaching them communist doctrines.”

A recent article from Colombia Reports suggests that Los Rastrojos and other Colombian criminal gangs are taking on a new role as  social cleansers:

Paramilitary group “Aguilas Negras” and drug gang “Los Rastrojos” have recently started threatening large numbers of people in the southern Putumayo and Nariño departments, in the central Cundinamarca department and the north-eastern Antioquia department. In the north of Antioquia, the Aguilas Negras threaten citizens they accuse of supportingr rival group “Los Paisas.” In Caucasia, Los Paisas imposed a curfew and threatened to kill alleged prostitutes and drug users, and Los Rastrojos prohibited any parties. The threats have forced dozens of people to flee their homes in the affected departments, which are all of great importance for drug traffickers.

“It is the same pattern the [demobilized paramilitary organization] AUC used in the 1990s to consolidate in the regions; a ‘social cleansing’ to justify their presence in the towns and capture the local economy,” an anonymous investigator told newspaper El Tiempo. “The only difference with what you see now is that the AUC initially tried to end subversive influence in certain regions,” Mauricio Romero of left-leaning think tank Corporacion Arco Iris told the same newspaper.

Indeed, the recent Facebook “hit list” incident appears to fit in with this. The Economist notes that those mentioned in the hit lists are mostly accused either of being drug dealers or of having links to prostitution. Los Rastrojos apparent fondness for “social cleansing” makes them a likely suspect. While it should be noted that FARC is also mentioned as a possible perpetrator of the hit lists, it appears there is no reason to come to the conclusion that they were behind them other than the fact that they operate in the general area. All signs currently point toward Los Rastrojos as being the ones behind the hit lists.

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