Armed militias continue to take ground positions along the Texas-Mexico border under the pretext of curtailing illegal crossings into the United States and protecting Americans from drug cartels. These masked militia members carry semi-automatic weapons and wear tactical gear.
This is a development even the most ardent proponent of border security should reject. A look at the history of paramilitary “militias” in Colombia provides an illustration of the terrible consequences that could follow if leaders in Austin and Washington allow this to continue.
Beginning in the 1960s, left-wing guerrilla rebels, primarily the Cuban-inspired ELN and Marxist-based FARC, controlled large parts of Colombian territory. By the late 20th century, some estimates showed that guerrillas groups were the de facto authority in as much as 40 percent of the country. In areas under their control, guerrillas used their military strength to demand “taxes” from their subjects. For example, they required ranchers to pay a fee for each head of cattle. For every fee that went uncollected, the guerrillas would kill one head from the herd.
Enter the militias. Colombian ranchers fed up with extortion recruited “self-defense” paramilitary militias made up of mercenaries, ranch hands, and employment seekers. They carried arms and protected land and cattle from the guerrilla groups. The purpose seemed innocent enough, and a diverse coalition of Colombians gave their acceptance, from empathetic property owners to the government that could not protect citizens and property. Emboldened by the initial acceptance, the paramilitary militias expanded from defending ranches to attacking guerrilla groups. The Colombian government, particularly the Armed Forces, turned a blind eye when the deadly clashes resulted in guerrilla casualties and sometimes even provided intelligence and support to the paramilitaries. The paramilitary militias were achieving where the government military had failed.
The paramilitaries’ audacity grew. More guerrillas were killed. Then the paramilitary militias started killing non-combatants under the pretext that the targets were guerrilla sympathizers. The paramilitaries massacred entire villages of peasants. It was murder. By the time reports of these atrocities in the countryside reached the urban population and public opinion turned against the paramilitary militias, it was too late for dissent alone to stop their inexorable rise to power. Eventually the paramilitary militias reigned supreme over territory once held by the guerrilla groups.
Unlike the guerrillas, however, who were at least constrained from astonishing excess because they needed to foster ideological sympathizers at home and abroad, the paramilitary militias had no concern with perception. With the power of the gun and the confidence of conquerors, the paramilitary militias flaunted their status: they levied taxes, took what they wanted, built up weapons stockpiles, and entered the drug trade. They splintered off from the role as protectors of ranch territory. They were a full-fledged extra-judicial fighting force with the benefit of handsome connections they had developed with the “legitimate” Armed Forces since their inception.
This is why the San Antonio Express-News’ report that includes photos that “show a Border Patrol agent providing directions to a vehicle of armed militia members,” should set off alarms in Austin and Washington.
What started as tacit acceptance of defensive militias in Colombia turned into full-blown complicity with a criminal organization. In the war against the guerrilla groups, the paramilitary militias became surrogates for government forces who were more than happy to take advantage of an extra-judicial force. They flourished on the margins of the law and ended up squarely in violation of the law. And it all began as an easy fix for protecting territory, the same justification we now hear from militias on the Texas border.
The problem is that non-governmental forces, such as militias, do not operate under the rules and regulations of a democratic society. They do not have a structure to control rogue members. They are not subject to the rules of war nor do they answer to an elected commander-in-chief.
The United States must control its border. There is no question of that. There are a number of options on the table to satisfy that responsibility. What should be certain is that armed non-governmental militias should not be one of them. The bloody lessons of Colombia make that indisputable.
*Featured/top image: The Three Percenters are one of the militias reported to be on the Texas border. In this screen shot of a promotional video (embedded above), they advertise their high-powered weapons and tactical gear.