Rural Defence Groups / Convivir (Colombia)

Country: Colombia
Details of Formation: In response to growing guerilla activity, the government launched a national program of cooperative neighbourhood watch groups, which were created by a Defense Ministry’s decree on February 11, 1994, and a law passed in the Colombian Congress. Although legalised during Gaviria’s presidency, the PGM was mainly developed during the administration of Ernesto Samper Pizano (Wikipedia “Convivir”) in August 1994. Some Convivir groups were formed by paramilitary leaders (Human Rights Watch 2002). According to news sources, individuals asked for a license to provide their own security in order to form a convivir (Human Rights Watch 2009). According to a news source, regional governor and later president Uribe helped establish Convivir groups.
Details of Termination: In November 1997 the Constitutional Court stated that Convivir members could no longer gather intelligence nor employ military grade weapons (Wikipedia “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”). They were also increasingly legally supervised. In early 1998 dozens of former Convivir groups had their licenses revoked because they had not turned in their weapons. As a consequence, some turned in their weapons and phased themselves out (Wikipedia “Convivir”). Other Convivir groups joined up with the paramilitary AUC (Wikipedia “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”) or became criminal gangs (Human Rights Watch 2002). When Pastrana took over presidency in August 1998, he stripped the Convivir of their power and government officials stated that they no longer legally exist.
Purpose: The main purpose of the Convivir was to provide security against guerillas in areas where there was no need for a large military force or illegal paramilitary presence (Wikipedia “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”). Another purpose was to gathering intelligence on guerilla and criminal activities and provide it to security forces. Civilian opposition say the real purpose was to legitimize underground paramilitary groups and harness their terror tactics to the army’s fight against rebels. According to then-regional Governor Uribe, Convivir helped to cut crime and violence sharply. A relative benefit was their local presence, as they substituted government forces to provide security in some regions where the state did not guarantee public safety (Human Rights Watch 2009).
Organisation: Convivir was supported by the regional governor of Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe Velez (Wikipedia “Convivir”). Convivir worked alongside the Colombian military and illegal paramilitary groups in counterinsurgency operations (Wikipedia “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”). In general, Convivir groups were poorly supervised and regulated (Human Rights Watch 2002). Convivir groups received government licenses but their members remained anonymous even to local authorities (Human Rights Watch 2009). A news source reports that they were to be financed by rural surveillance and security funds; another news source says they received funds by landowners. The Colombian Constitutional Court declared the group legal, and regulated what they were legally allowed to do.
Weapons and Training: Convivir groups were authorized to use weapons banned for private ownership, such as machine guns, mortars, grenades and assault rifles (Human Rights Watch 2009). A news source says that Uribe, then a regional governor, provided long-range weapons to the Convivir. Another news source mentions that they were trained by soldiers.
Size: Estimates on PGM size differ significantly. There were over 500 Convivir groups, and membership is estimated in the wide range from 10,000 to 120,000 (Wikipedia “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”). A news source estimated that at their peak, there were at least 15,000 people involved in Convivir groups.
Reason for Membership: Some paramilitary members transitioned to the legal Convivir, where they were joined by victims of guerrilla aggression. Existing Convivir groups threatened individuals that rejected joining htem. The regional governor Uribe, who supported the group, was motivated by the memories of his father who had been killed by the FARC during a kidnapping attempt in 1983. (Wikipedia “Convivir”). A news source reports that landowners set up Convivir groups to protect their land against guerilla attacks.
Treatment of Civilians: Convivir achieved results in providing security to communities. However, members committed abuses against civilians, without serious oversight over their operations and organisation. It threatened to kill those it considered as guerilla sympathizers o which rejected to join their groups (Wikipedia). They were also linked to a series of killings in 1996 and 1997 (Human Rights Watch 2002). New sources report killings of alleged guerilla supporters by Convivir. Another news source reports that one Convivir member took part in kidnap in extortion and was subsequently captured.
Other Information: Convivir was the acronym for Servicios Especiales de Vigilancia y Seguridas Privada (“Special vigilance and private security services”). Convivir helped the AUC paramilitaries by functioning as a legal intermediary through which the Chiquita Brands International fruit company could fund the AUC. (Wikipedia “Convivir”; Human Rights Watch 2009)
References: Human Rights Watch. 2008. “Breaking the Grip? Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in Colombia.” ISBN: 1-56432-385-4

Human Rights Watch. 2002. “Colombia: President-Elect Uribe Visits Washington.” June 17.

Wikipedia. “Convivir”.

Wikipedia. “Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia”.