Developing specialized units was one of the hallmarks of the third phase of Colombian paramilitary groups, as they evolved from the death squad operations of the 1970s and 1980s to private armies.
Unlike the death squad operations in other Latin American countries, the paramilitaries benefited from the spectacular resources provided by Colombia’s most lucrative industry: drug trafficking. As the owners of vast haciendas (the result of money laundering and efforts to buy their way into the landed gentry, known as the “reverse agrarian reform”), drug traffickers needed protection from the guerrillas, whose primary fundraising techniques involved boleteo (extortion), vacunas (“vaccination” against guerrilla attack), and increasingly, kidnapping of the rural elite.
Paramilitary leaders created a national coordinating body of paramilitary groups, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Following a summit in July 1997, the AUC issued a statement announcing an offensive military campaign into new regions of the country “according to the operational capacity of each regional group.” Newly created ‘mobile squads’— elite training and combat units—carried out these operations, which included numerous massacres targeting the civilian population in these areas.
These units were specially trained and equipped, with distinctive insignias and higher pay.
Among the many massacres during the paramilitary expansion: July 15, 1997, Mapiripán, Meta , 40 people killed; May 16, 1998 Barrancabermeja, Santander, 11 killed 25 disappeared; January 9, 1999 El Tigre, Putumayo, 26 killed, disappeared 14; February 18, 2000, El Salado, Bolivar, more than 70 killed and disappeared; October 15, 2001 in Buga, Valle del Cauca, 24 people killed; April 12, 2001, Alto Naya, Cauca, 40 people killed; January 17, 2001, Chengue, Sucre, 36 people killed.
These numbers are probably higher, as in many cases, bodies were dismembered and scattered.