Colombia's Facebook Hit List: Drug Gangs 2.0

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The messages, spread via e-mail and Facebook, warned dozens of youths in the southern Colombian town of Puerto Asis to clear out within three days — or die. At first, residents thought it was a joke. But on Aug. 15, two of the blacklisted teenagers were gunned down while riding a motorcycle; a third was shot dead on Friday. Meanwhile, the number of people on the death list, believed to have been compiled by one of a new crop of drug trafficking gangs, expanded to 69.

Fear and paranoia are spreading through the town of 70,000. Several families have pulled their children out of school, put their houses up for sale, and fled, according to Andrés Verdugo, the No. 2 official in Puerto Asis, located in the remote jungle state of Putumayo on the Ecuadorian border. "These criminal groups want to sow panic and take advantage of the chaos," Verdugo told TIME. "And that's what they've achieved."

They are also turning into a major headache for Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was elected in June on a platform that included continuing the hard-line security policies of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. Uribe's war strategy reduced kidnappings and severely weakened the Marxist guerrilla group known as the FARC. But amid the single-minded focus on crushing the rebels, a new set of bad guys has taken root.

Well, not exactly new.

With names like Black Eagles, Cobras and Los Rastrojos — the group that authorities believe is responsible for the deaths in Puerto Asis — many of these organizations are the mutant offspring of right-wing paramilitaries. Until recently, the paramilitaries worked in cahoots with government troops to battle FARC guerrillas — and along the way became heavily involved in the cocaine trade. Between 2003 and 2006, about 31,000 paramilitaries turned in their weapons in exchange for job training and other benefits. But the militias never really went away.

It turns out that many of the paramilitaries who disarmed were bottom-rung fighters or impoverished civilians outfitted with weapons at the last minute to fool the government. True, more than a dozen top paramilitary chieftains were extradited to the United States on drug charges. However, many mid-level commanders remained in hiding and allied themselves with traffickers — and even some guerrilla units — to expand their drug-smuggling networks. These new criminal organizations "are the product of a demobilization process that was full of lies," according to one police officer quoted in a recent Human Rights Watch report on Colombia. "Those guys tricked all of us... The ones who killed did not demobilize."

Today, these gangs are made up of anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 members and operate in 24 of Colombia's 32 states. At times they cooperate with each other but more often they clash over smuggling routes. The resulting combat is one of the main reasons why more than 548 Colombians per day have been uprooted from their homes this year, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. By bribing police officers, bullying politicians, and threatening homeowners, these groups have also penetrated urban areas, like the slums surrounding Medellín. "These groups have a lot of money so it's very easy for them to buy people off," says Ariel Ávila of Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogotá think tank.

Once in place they demand protection payments from business owners and residents and take over local drug sales, prostitution and gambling rings. They often try to add a political sheen to their criminal ventures by targeting demobilized rebels and undertaking campaigns of social cleansing. In the cattle ranching town of Caucasia in northern Colombia, for example, a drug-trafficking group called Los Paisas has targeted thieves and declared a curfew. "Parents: do not allow your children on the streets after 10 p.m," says one of the group's leaflets. "We will not be responsible for the deaths of innocents."

Dotted with fields of coca — the raw material for cocaine — the state of Putumayo has long been an epicenter of the cocaine trade and a coveted base of operations for both the FARC and the paramilitaries. But the rebels are in retreat due to a long-running military offensive while paramilitary units were left in disarray following the demobilization process. That's allowed gunmen for Los Rastrojos to establish themselves in Puerto Asis. According to Bogotá security analyst César Restrepo, the wave of threats and attacks was a way of announcing they're now open for business.

That they did so through Facebook and e-mail rather than phone calls and leaflets was surprising because Internet penetration in the area is relatively low. Still, threats via social media have increased dramatically in Colombia over the past two years, Ávila says. The most brazen case targeted the son of former President Uribe. Last year, a Facebook group appeared called "I will kill Jerónimo Uribe." It's alleged creator, a university art student, was arrested but released in March after the legal deadline for his trial expired.

With the Facebook angle bringing some extra attention to the gangs, President Santos recently promised to confront them head on. But for too long it's been too easy for the Colombian government to ignore the new generation of thugs. Unlike the guerrillas, they are not a direct threat to the state. And unlike the old-style paramilitaries — who made headlines by slaughtering thousands — they are disorganized, less violent, and more discreet. But in Colombia, small, localized irritations have a way of infecting the entire system. The paramilitaries got their start as bodyguards for drug traffickers. And it's worth remembering that the FARC, which started out a half-century ago as a band of shotgun-toting farmers and malcontents, grew to become largest guerrilla army in South America — and one that's still fighting.