Colombian militias live on as gangs
Omaira Arismendi’s assassin didn’t get very far. After he shot the grocery store owner, neighboring merchants pummeled the thug to within an inch of his life.
But the seeds of terror were sown in the ramshackle maze of shops called New Market, the largest outdoor bazaar in this city on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Arismendi, a retired bank branch manager who opened the store OK Groceries to keep busy, was killed this month after refusing to make extortion payments to the Black Eagles, the gang believed to control much of the commerce in Riohacha, prosecutors said.
The killing of Arismendi was a reminder that even after 31,000 fighters laid down their arms in a government-sponsored demobilization, much of Colombia is still infested with paramilitary gangs.
“The only thing that has changed is the name,” said one dispirited city official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Before, they were paramilitaries; now, they are Black Eagles. They act and behave the same.”
The right-wing militias were formed in the 1980s by farmers and cattlemen as self-protection forces against leftist rebels who have fought the government for decades. They later morphed into criminal organizations that looted government coffers, extorted money from local and multinational businesses and made massive land grabs.
Today, the bands lord over much of Guajira state, whose desolate flatlands and hidden bays are ideal for drug trafficking. But Guajira is attractive to the militias for another reason: It is dominated by the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest native tribe.
Many Wayuu reservations straddle the Colombia-Venezuela border, and tribal members are eligible for dual citizenship. As a result, Colombia and Venezuela levy only token customs duty on goods that Wayuu move from one side of the border to the other.
The Black Eagles and other gangs now control much of the cross-border trade that was once the exclusive province of the Wayuu, including incoming Venezuelan gasoline, groceries and dry goods and outgoing Colombian sugar and dairy products.
An attorney with the national public defender’s office here says paramilitary gangs’ ambitions encompass not just illegal trafficking of drugs and arms but legitimate commerce throughout Guajira state, including farming, construction and transport.
“Everyone pays them the ‘tax’ so they can work in peace,” said the attorney, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
Nearly everyone, that is. Arismendi, 54, a single Wayuu mother who put her son through medical school, was the third New Market store owner killed in two years. The others were also members of the tribe.
Extorting monthly payments from store owners such as Arismendi, whose inventory included Venezuelan dry goods, is a way for the gangs to “tax” the flow of goods.
“It has nothing to do with the Wayuu,” the city official said, trying to explain the gangs’ grip on the state, which has a 200-mile coastline and a shared border with Venezuela. “It has to do with geography.”
Earlier this decade, the Wayuu’s special trade status became an irresistible target for Rodrigo Tovar, alias Jorge 40, the brutal leader of the Northern Block militia. The plum: the deal the tribe signed with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that gave the Wayuu the right to import 3 million gallons of gas a month, for which they paid as little as 20 cents a gallon. These days, that gas is resold for 10 times that amount.
That meant multimillion-dollar profits for the taking. By 2004, Tovar had seized control of the Awatayacoop, a cooperative formed in the border city of Maicao to manage the Wayuu’s sale of imported Venezuelan gasoline, prosecutors say.
When the cooperative’s board of directors resisted Jorge 40’s control, one Wayuu board member was killed. Four others promptly resigned.
Tovar surrendered in the 2006 demobilization, but sources close to the cooperative say gangs are still in control of gasoline imports.
“The Wayuu never see any of the profits. They are paid salaries, and that’s it,” one cooperative member said.
Nearly as attractive to the paramilitaries were the enormous profits the Wayuu reaped by bringing in discounted Venezuelan grocery items intended for Chavez’s cut-rate Mercal retail chain. The Wayuu repackaged much of the items as Colombian goods, and sold them at huge markups. The militias get their piece of the pie by extorting money from store owners.
In testimony shortly before he was extradited to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges, Tovar admitted ordering the April 2004 massacre of 15 Wayuu at Bahia Portete; 600 were forced to abandon their homes, prosecutors say.
Tovar testified that the Wayuu were killed because they were leftist sympathizers. But prosecutors said they believed the massacre and others like it were ordered to clear the area of witnesses to drug-trafficking activities.
“Portete is still a ghost town,” said the official in the public defender’s office here.
Hopes raised by the demobilization, completed in 2006, have been dashed, several Wayuu merchants said. On the bustling streets of Maicao, one farmer said he still had to pay the paramilitaries a $3 tax on every goat or pig he sold, just as he did when Jorge 40 was in power.
Fear reigns among the merchants of New Market.
“Many of us still are daring not to pay,” said a shop owner and friend of Arismendi who was too terrified to give her name. “So we’re asking ourselves who will be next.”