Of all illegal armed groups in Colombia, the Aguilas Negras is arguably the most mysterious, the most elusive and the most political.
The group is not directly involved in drug trafficking, but has violently defended illegal gold mining and land theft operations.
Both authorities and independent experts assume the Aguilas Negras have no central leadership and are mainly a name used presumably by far-right extremists in politics, the private sector and the security forces to impose terror.
While the group first appeared in the northeastern Catatumbo region, it is now active throughout Colombia.
Vicente Castaño’s orders
The Aguilas Negras were formed after the late AUC founder Vicente Castaño ordered paramilitaries to rearm in response to the 2006 order of then-President Alvaro Uribe to arrest the paramilitary leadership after its disarmament.
Castaño considered the arrest warrant a violation of the 2005 peace deal between the AUC and the government and a betrayal by the president who in the 1990s had promoted the formation of regulated armed militias similar to that of Castaño.
Consequently, paramilitary mid-level commanders loyal to the AUC founder formed dissident paramilitary groups throughout Colombia to resume control of abandoned AUC territory and criminal enterprises.
The Aguilas Negras were first heard of in 2006 in Catatumbo, a lawless region in Norte de Santander, a province in the northeast of Colombia bordering Venezuela.
With its manifestation so briefly after the demobilization of the AUC, the Aguilas Negras became the first publicly known of approximately 60 post-AUC paramilitary groups, most of whom disappeared within years.
Within a year of its first appearance, Aguilas Negras factions emerged throughout Colombia, often linked to death threats and other forms of political violence.
However, Castaño disappeared and was allegedly assassinated in early 2007. Since then, the Aguilas Negras have not shown any signs of a centralized leadership or common purpose and its factions are possibly controlled by local warlords.
The Aguilas Negras became most active in the apparent defense of interests of former paramilitary commanders and their civilian, military and political allies.
Since its foundation, the name — believed to only be involved in minor, local drug trafficking activities — appeared on death threats aimed at both Colombian and international NGOs, and defenders of displaced families trying to reclaim land stolen by the paramilitaries.
Curiously, several of the groups have claimed to combat “Castrochavismo,” a term invented and frequently used by the hard-right former President Alvaro Uribe, who in the 1990s promoted the formation of anti-communist civilian militias.
In spite of the group’s recent concentration of violent political activity in the capital Bogota, Colombia’s Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo in 2015 claimed “the Aguilas Negras don’t exist.”
The Aguilas Negras increased their activity after the demobilization of the FARC in 2017, threatening social leaders, politicians and journalists alike.