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Colombia: Entire villages flee as drug gangs move in

Paramilitary fighters have regrouped as drug gangs and are terrorizing villagers.

MONTELIBANO, Colombia — On a November morning, several drug runners sat down at a bar in the quiet hamlet of El Palmar. They had told the bar’s owner, Pedro Tapias, who doubled as an operator of the town’s boat, not to allow river crossings after 6 p.m.

The armed men demanded music and beer, said several residents. Shortly after 3 p.m., they got up, and pumped Tapias with no fewer than 13 bullets. Then, they slit his throat, turned up the music, locked the door and left town. The song played on. It was a vallenato — a traditional ballad often about loss and longing.

The next day, Tapias’ wife and 16 other families fled. In three months, El Palmar had lost a quarter of its population. “This was a big village, but now many houses are alone,” said Marelis Tapias Lopez, a niece of the murdered boat operator.

Across the northern department of Cordoba, residents are leaving en masse as drug gangs murder villagers and issue death threats. Drug violence is growing across the country, and has reached particularly alarming levels in Cordoba.

This latest incarnation of drug-trafficking groups has emerged following the demobilization of paramilitary soldiers. Between 2003 and 2006, after striking a peace deal with the government, more than 32,000 fighters belonging to the paramilitary group called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) put down arms.

But many mid-ranking paramilitary commanders either never demobilized or slipped back into drug trafficking, starting up new gangs and recruiting ex-AUC fighters.

By 2006, the national police estimated these paramilitary successor groups numbered 4,000 across Colombia. Today, that number is about the same, despite 2,765 arrests of their members last year alone — a sign that their ability to replace killed or arrested members is outpacing increased police efforts.

“These groups are constantly renewing themselves,” said Col. Luis Eduardo Herrera, police commander of anti-drug gang operations for a wide swath of Cordoba. The Nuevo Arco Iris research organization estimates they number at least 10,000.

Perhaps nowhere is their presence more acutely felt than in Cordoba, a key battleground for several drug gangs fighting for control of trafficking routes to the Atlantic Ocean on Cordoba’s coast. Last year, the number of homicides in Cordoba reached 575, more than double from 2006.

Towns on the border of contested territory are often the worst off, such as El Palmar. It sits in Los Paisas’ turf, but on the other side of the San Pedro river lies the territory of the Black Eagles. Los Paisas’ men started coming here last year. Murders and disappearances followed.

They call town meetings to lay down rules. They offer residents $500 a month to snitch on a rival gang or the army. Anyone with a small business or several heads of cattle who fails to pay a “protection tax” can face death or expulsion. Anyone suspected of collaborating with their enemies can become a target — collaboration can be as simple as selling food to a rival gang or giving a boat ride to the military.