Armed groups in this violence-fraught nation of 50 million are imposing new levels of control during the coronavirus outbreak, and enforcing some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world — with harsh penalties for violators. In the port city of Tumaco, a narco-trafficking hub in the Colombian southwest, guerrillas posted pamphlets declaring all curfew violators “military targets.” In a warning to all, a medical transport responding to a call after curfew was torched in early May, its driver and patient killed.
Paredes, driven by a friend, thought she might get lucky. Then she saw the roadblock.
Enforcers with shotguns and automatic weapons opened fire, piercing the SUV. Paredes felt stabs of pain as three bullets struck her leg. Her friend, hit in the face and arm, nevertheless managed to pull over, where the pair begged for their lives. They were released with a warning, to seek assistance on their own.
“Absolutely no one helped us,” Paredes, a prosecutor in Tumaco who handles domestic abuse cases, said from the safety of a neighboring city. “One person approached us, because I screamed. I begged for help because my friend was bleeding out horribly. He came close to the window of our car and told us, ‘Hey, quiet, because here, it is prohibited to help.’ ”
Human rights groups, community leaders and government officials say a toxic slate of leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug cartels are using the outbreak to consolidate control over parts of a country still reeling from the aftermath of five decades of armed conflict. The increasingly violent competition shows the power of the pandemic to deepen preexisting societal challenges and loosen the grip of government in fragile states.
“For these groups, this isn’t a health issue,” said Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s about exerting social control on the population.”
While the government of President Iván Duque is focusing on a worsening coronavirus outbreak — the country has reported more than 204,000 infections and nearly 7,000 deaths — the draconian measures imposed by armed groups are serving at least two purposes: to expand control over roads and communities central to narcotrafficking and illegal mining, and to reinforce their standing as the absolute rulers of their territories.
The conditions here echo a global trend of armed groups moving to supplant weak governments during the pandemic. The Taliban in Afghanistan, Comando Vermehlo in Rio and MS-13 in El Salvador, among others, have imposed their own curfews and, in some instances, distributed food, masks and disinfectant in areas they control.
But the Colombian groups have distinguished themselves in the level of violence they’re applying to enforcement. Observers fear they’re accelerating an already dangerous drift away from the 2016 peace accord that ended the 52-year conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.
Critics blame Duque, who opposed the peace accord before he became president in 2018, for the slow pace of promised land reform and faltering efforts to reintegrate former FARC fighters into society. They say his conservative administration has not done enough to stop the killings of leftist community leaders and ex-rebels.
Now, FARC dissidents — guerrillas who have taken up arms again, or never put them down — are among the groups solidifying their hold on hot spots that never completely cooled. Human Rights Watch this month reported that armed groups had imposed coronavirus lockdowns in 11 of Colombia’s 32 states, leading to at least eight deaths and 10 injuries since the outbreak began.
“I think they are seriously concerned about their own ranks,” said Juan Pappier, Human Rights Watch’s Colombia researcher. “They know the towns they’re operating in don’t have serious health facilities and are without a significant number of doctors.
“But they also see this as an opportunity to show that they are in charge,” he continued. “They see these lockdowns as helping give them some sense of legitimacy.”
The penalty for violating the rules can be death. In the troubled western state of Cauca, Human Rights Watch documented six killings by armed groups to enforce coronavirus restrictions. They included the shooting of a local farmer by the National Liberation Army after he allegedly violated lockdown rules by meeting friends in a nearby town. Another group targeted four Venezuelan migrants for drinking alcohol in public.
In Tumaco, FARC dissidents forced a local family out of their home because one member tested positive for the coronavirus. Now residents are terrified to get tested themselves. They say they must seek permission for even basic activities, such as shopping for groceries.
“They've practically taken total control with coronavirus,” said Leticia, who declined to give her last name out of fear for reprisal.
A senior security official investigating the Paredes shooting said armed groups have been able to solidify their grip because police and soldiers have withdrawn during the outbreak. The groups, as dangerous as they are, have filled the void left by the absent state.
“In a way, they do what the national government has done, but they’re threatening,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. “If they see you out [after curfew], they’ll attack.”
The Duque administration has said little publicly on the armed groups’ lockdowns. The Presidential office for Human Rights and International Affairs said this month that the government was moving to counter an attempt by irregular groups “to gain more control.”
Emilio Archila, Duque’s special adviser on the peace accords, insisted the attempts by armed groups to expand control would not derail the peace process. He denied that the government had pulled back from communities.
“There is no area of the country in which the position of the government is just to leave the criminals to go ahead,” he said. “That is definitely not the case.”
A group that calls itself the Unified Guerrillas of the Pacific says a harsh curfew is necessary because the region has been “forgotten by the Colombian state.” In a pamphlet that circulated in a small community outside Tumaco, the group listed rules including a prohibition on boats arriving from elsewhere, a stay-at-home order for all but grocery shopping, and a ban on any social or recreational activity.
Anyone seen on the streets after 2:30 p.m. “will face the consequences,” the group warned. “We are not playing.”
Armed groups have frequently changed curfew times with little notice, and the sheer number of different groups controlling abutting territories and issuing different rules has left residents dangerously confused. Paredes, for instance, thought the curfew in the zone of Tumaco in which she was traveling that May evening was 6 p.m. She didn’t know the group had moved it up to 4 p.m.
Either way, she was late. She’s now recovering in a nearby city with the help of her family. She is struggling to walk again. Her friend faces multiple surgeries to recover vision in one eye and reconstruct his nose, broken by a bullet.
The Colombian government, she said, has completely lost control in Tumaco.
“I'm terrified just thinking about the idea of having to return,” she said. “And when I have to return, I’ll have to do it on the same road.”
Faiola reported from Miami.