By The Economist. HAD Joaquín Tordecilla, a leader of a community of displaced peasant farmers, been at home on the afternoon in February when armed men rounded up the group, stripped them of their mobile phones and forced them to watch the murder of another of their leaders, he would have probably been gunned down as well. But Mr Tordecilla was in the city that day, filing a complaint about threatening demands they had received to vacate their land. He, his wife and 12 children are now crowded into a small home with a dirt floor in Montería, the capital of the northern department of Córdoba.
His fate is a familiar one in Colombia. Over the past three decades between 3.5m and 6m hectares (8.6m to 15m acres) of farmland have been seized by armed thugs, according to estimates by officials. The chief villains were right-wing paramilitary groups, whose motive was in part to wrest territory from the left-wing guerrillas of the FARC.
When a security build-up under Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, reduced the FARC to smaller bands in remote areas, some 30,000 paramilitaries demobilised, formally at least. So who evicted Mr Tordecilla? He rattles off the names of several armed groups, new and old. “Who knows?” he concludes.
Their nebulous character does not diminish the threat that such outfits pose to Colombia. But it does underline that the country’s security problems are changing. The number of murders has fallen steadily, to two-thirds its level of 2003, but parts of Colombia’s cities and countryside remain violent. The FARC has reorganised into much smaller units, continues to inflict casualties on the security forces and is making widespread use of landmines. But the perpetrators of some 40% of the killings are now what the government calls “new criminal bands”. The government of Juan Manuel Santos, who replaced Mr Uribe last August, sees these outfits as the biggest security threat it faces.
Two of these groups, the Rastrojos and the Urabeños, are now involved in a murderous turf war in southern Córdoba and north-east Antioquia, an important route for exporting cocaine and importing the chemicals needed to make it. This fight left 600 people dead in Córdoba last year. The victims include civilians caught in the crossfire (such as two visiting students from Bogotá shot by the Urabeños.)
Some of the government’s critics call the bands “neo-paramilitaries.” Human-rights groups suggest that the murders of community activists, occasional indiscriminate massacres of a dozen or more villagers, and land evictions are designed to exert social and political control over territory, just as the paramilitaries used to do. The bishop of Montería, Julio César Vidal, says that the leaders of some of the new bands have told him they want to negotiate with the government, implying they have political aims.
But the government insists that there is nothing to negotiate about with groups that are purely criminal. General Óscar Naranjo, the police commander, says the bands are simply the latest iteration of the drug trade in Colombia, and their quest for territory an effort to control smuggling routes or take back mafia land expropriated by the government. He says there are seven separate groups, totalling up to 4,000 members (others put the figure at up to 10,500).
The new bands are indeed partly made up of former paramilitaries, President Santos says. But he stresses that they behave as mafias. In many areas of the country they have reached accommodations with the FARC, which is also heavily involved in drug-trafficking. Rather than deploying military bombardments against them, the new bands must be fought “with intelligence, like other criminal organisations,” Mr Santos says. And the government needs to establish firm control over territory where this is lacking.
Its efforts to do so take two forms. In urban areas, the police have adopted a new scheme of community policing, marking out 1,500 areas that are crime hotspots and assigning a permanent police presence to them. In rural areas, the government has embarked on an ambitious plan to seize land stolen by the mafias and return it to its original owners. A bill under debate in Congress will give it firmer powers to do so. This law can be expected to face violent resistance as well as a rearguard action in the courts. Officials say that success will turn in part on another planned reform, of the judiciary, the details of which they are discussing with the judges.
It will also require more police in the countryside. The carabineros, a special rural police force, are only 47,000 strong. General Naranjo says they can do the job if they work together with the army. That in turn will require vigilance against corruption. More than 1,000 members of the security forces are under investigation over claims of links to the criminal bands.
León Valencia, a former guerrilla turned political analyst, says that the greater emphasis Mr Santos’s team is placing on fighting the neo-paramilitary mafia, and on agrarian reform, could have another benefit. It could allow the FARC to claim vindication for their 45-year war and finally seek peace, he says. A decade ago very public peace talks collapsed because the guerrillas used them as a propaganda exercise while continuing to kidnap and recruit. No government could risk a repeat. This time any talks are likely to be private and discreet, at least at first.