In the past few months, a number of threatening pamphlets, signed by the paramilitary group “Aguilas Negras”, have been seen in a number of neighborhoods in Bogota. The targets of these threats all share many commonalities. They all belong to progressive political groups, denounce human rights violations or carry out humanitarian work in various communities.
Is this just a coincidence? According to human rights lawyer, Alberto Yepes, member of the Coordination - Europe - United States, these pamphlets are used for a specific function of
“Discipline and social control, through the use of terror against sectors of society that express their lack of conformity with current public policies, with the government’s decisions and with the goals of the conservative and authoritarian sectors of society”
A fact that for Alejandro Nieto, a leader of the Humanitarian Refuge in Ciudad Bolivar, was exemplified by the recent threats he received on November 15th. In this most recent pamphlet, many social leaders, including members of the Bogota city government, were threatened.
The Humanitarian Refuge is made up of 25 organizations that represent indigenous communities, campesinos and victims of Colombia’s 53-year armed conflict. At the moment, there are more than 3,600 families occupying the land in Villa Gloria, Ciudad Bolívar.
The idea to create a permanent Humanitarian Refuge came in order to protest the lack of guarantees in the protection of life, dignified housing, and access to land. Three major issues exacerbate these problems for the inhabitants of Ciudad Bolívar; widespread drug abuse and the lack of access to healthcare, control by neo-paramilitary structures and internal displacement caused by real estate interests and gentrification.
For Nieto, the threats are a consequence of his leadership in creating the Humanitarian Refuge. For him, the “Aguilas Negra” or “Black Eagles” could be at the service of construction companies or local criminal groups. According to Nieto, any one of these groups would benefit from the dismantling of a process that not only has the backing of the community, but is also evidence of the possibility of successful popular mobilization.
As a tool of social control, as Yepes points out, these kinds of terror tactics are also part of a broader counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, that use para-legal mechanisms, through clandestine and undercover operations, that according to Yepes, makes them even more effective.
“It can be said that this group “Aguilas Negras” has a nationwide presence, from la Guajira to Putumayo and from the Amazon to Choco. With the capacity to identify who are the social leaders, what are their email addresses, their phone numbers” said Yepes.
To this day, it is unknown how the "Aguilas Negras" operate, what their chain of command looks like or their basic organizational structure. Furthermore, the head of the National Police, General Atehortua, claims this group simply does not exist, due to the lack of information of any crime committed by them.
The Colombian authorities also claim that there is very little probability that the threats mentioned in these pamphlets will actually be carried out. However, for Yepes, the threats in fact do come true, but only in more clandestine ways.
“The Black Eagles carry out their function of identifying who will be the targets. Once these targets are identified, there is a second step to eliminating these targets when they say they were executed by unknown men, or intermediaries, hitmen…. For example, all the threats that were made before the mobilisations in October and the stigmatization, ended up taking place on October 20th, when two members of Colombia Humana, Gustavo Herrera and Eduardo Alarcon, were assassinated”
The Government and the Black Eagles
The response by the Colombian government to these threats is usually to conduct a security analysis and sometimes provide leaders with schemes including panic buttons, bullet proof vests, and even armed bodyguards. But, for Nieto, this does not answer the most important question, who is behind the threats and assassinations?
According to the report “La Ceguera” by the Colombian NGO, Somos Defensores, during the year 2019, there were at least 347 threatening pamphlets, of which 117 were signed by the "Aguilas Negras". This makes the Aguilas Negras the second biggest culprit of death threats in the country. The first being the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) with 157.
Despite this fact, there has not been a single person held responsible for these threats. Making the impunity rate for death threats essentially 100% in Colombia.
For this reason, various community-led initiatives, including the Humanitarian Refuge, put in place their own guards; legacies of the decades of struggle by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. However, the community continues to demand an effective answer to these threats.
On the other hand, in Soacha, a pamphlet by the "Aguilas Negras" threatened a number of social and political leaders, including council member, Jose Alcides Alba. According to those mentioned in the pamphlet, the Mayor of Soacha has refused to activate protective measures for members of the political opposition including Colombia Humana and Union Patriotica.
How do the Black Eagles Fly?
The timing of these pamphlets should be taken into account. As Yepes highlights “these structures are very functional in moments in which authoritarianism is at its peak and seek to impede the continuity of social protests”. The timing, according to Yepes, demonstrates how the structure activates or deactivates depending on the political moment.
Moises Cubillos, a youth leader and member of the Usme Social Platform and School for Popular and Public Art, was recently a victim of death threats by the "Aguilas Negras" along with other local leaders. Cubillos says there is a relationship between the state institutions, the mainstream media and the actions of groups like the "Aguilas Negras".
According to Cubillos, the media began stigmatizing popular organizations claiming they were infiltrated by guerrilla groups that forced people to participate in social protests. A clear infringement on the right to peaceful protest.
Shortly after these reports by mainstream media outlets, pamphlets by the “Aguilas Negras”, in which they announced a period of “social cleansing” and declared members of popular organizations official military targets, began to appear.
“By participating in alternative, communal, and popular movements, we begin to become transgressors of the oficial logic. In this sense, we become the flank of attack by state institutions, both legal and illegal. Precisely because through our community work, we promote the defense of human rights, taking away the youth from the grips of the war on drugs” says Cubillos.