Colombia’s Paramilitaries to Disarm?

BOGOTA – The Colombian government hopes to demobilize 14,000 right-wing paramilitary fighters by late 2005 – 95 percent of the combatants that the paramilitary leaders sitting down at the negotiating table in a remote village in northwestern Colombia claim to represent.

The government of hard-right President Alvaro Uribe set up a 368-sq-km safe haven for the heads of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary umbrella group, in Santa Fe de Ralito in the northwestern department (province) of Córdoba.

The area where the talks were formally launched Thursday is guarded by 400 armed paramilitaries, while Colombian army troops patrol the perimeter. The negotiations will be monitored by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Under the agreement, which paved the way for the negotiations, the paramilitaries must live up to a cease-fire, and their commanders are to remain on farms in the safe haven. In exchange, the government has given them promises of safe-conduct, and they are protected from Colombian arrest warrants as well as U.S. extradition requests.

Several of the AUC commanders who began the negotiations face extradition requests from the United States, where they are wanted on drug trafficking charges, including leading paramilitary spokesman Salvatore Mancuso.

Twenty-two years after the first paramilitary militia was created, ostensibly to fight leftist guerrillas, the outlawed groups have lost relevance and “do not even form part anymore of a counter-insurgency strategy, but respond to legal or illegal private interests like drug trafficking, or to the interests of local politicians,” activist Alirio Uribe told IPS.

Uribe (no relation to the president) is the head of the internationally respected José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, a local human rights group.

Historian Eduardo Medina commented to IPS: “These drug traffickers have accumulated huge amounts of capital. They are enormously powerful men, from an economic point of view as well, and they need to launder that money.”

Alirio Uribe said, “The paramilitaries have not attacked the guerrillas. They have killed the civilian population in crimes against humanity, and have committed assassinations of important people, as well as huge massacres.”

The leftist guerrillas see the paramilitaries as an illegal branch of the state, protected by sectors of the armed forces.

In the peace talks between the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the requisites that the insurgents insisted on was progress towards dismantling the paramilitary militias. The talks collapsed, largely over that point, in early 2002.

Meanwhile, the government’s High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, applauded the formal start of the talks with the paramilitaries: “The creation of the safe haven and the concentration there of the AUC negotiators is a step towards peace, a step forward in the right direction.”

But U.S. Ambassador in Bogota William Wood told the Miami Herald on June 16 that he did not see the start of negotiations as a transition in favor of peace, but as a move in favor of drug trafficking.

The OAS representative monitoring the talks in Santa Fe de Ralito, Sergio Caramagna, played a similar role in the demobilization of the Nicaraguan “contra” fighters, the U.S.-financed group that fought the government of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the 1980s.

No United Nations or European Union delegates accepted invitations to attend the ceremony for the launch of the talks Thursday. The U.S. ambassador sent his military attaché William Greiff.

The United Nations blames the AUC for 80 percent of the crimes against humanity committed in Colombia’s civil war, which began over 40 years ago with the appearance of the first leftist insurgent group.

The paramilitaries are widely recognized as the most brutal of the factions involved in the armed conflict, and are known for the torture, forced disappearance and mass killings of civilians, selective assassinations of opposition and community leaders and labor and human rights activists, and theft of land and other property.

In addition, they have forced huge numbers of rural Colombians out of their homes. This country of 44 million now has one of the largest populations of displaced persons in the world, totaling around three million.

The UN, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and leading rights watchdogs like Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have documented that many of the gross human rights violations are committed with the tolerance of the armed forces.

A special report published by the New York-based HRW in 2001, titled “The ‘Sixth Division’: Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia,” stated that “the paramilitaries are so fully integrated into the army’s battle strategy, coordinated with its soldiers in the field, and linked to government units via intelligence, supplies, radios, weapons, cash, and common purpose that they effectively constitute a sixth division of the army.”

“For many Colombians, the existence of a ‘sixth division’ translates into a daily terror that is impossible to evoke in these pages,” said the rights group.

Although AUC declared a unilateral cease-fire in December 2002, human rights organizations say the paramilitary militias are responsible for at least 70 percent of the deaths of the 1,440 people murdered in mass killings since then, and for 80 percent of the 3,313 political assassinations.

“Far from demobilizing, the paramilitaries continue to consolidate their territorial control and the process of legalizing (laundering) the land and capital they have gained through drug trafficking,” a group of more than 40 human rights groups and political leaders told Caramagna.

Although Washington has included AUC on its list of international terrorist groups, Caramagna stated in Santa Fe de Ralito that it is clear that “the U.S. government supports the peace process and OAS monitoring mission.”

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out on Thursday that the aim of the negotiations is to put an end to paramilitary activity in Colombia, and that the talks should not give rise to general amnesties or de facto impunity.

He said the victims’ right to know the truth, their right to justice, and their right to reparations should be respected.

The EU presidency expressed its support for a “credible and global” peace strategy, and underlined the urgent need to begin to implement such a strategy.

Peace Commissioner Restrepo said Thursday that “effective and real compliance with the cease-fire, as well as the abandonment of drug trafficking-related activities are necessary to give the negotiations legitimacy and credibility.”

“AUC has committed itself to abstaining from carrying out illicit activities, recruiting people, exercising pressure or threats on local residents or visitors, carrying out weapons training, or ordering and coordinating illegal activity from the safe zone,” he added.

Paramilitary leader Mancuso said that if the Uribe administration’s security policy continues to restore “faith in Colombia’s institutions,” the AUC will have to “recognize ourselves as unnecessary as an armed organization.”

He announced a plan to create “a grassroots political movement through which the social base of the Self-Defense Forces can become a democratic alternative that defends, guards and protects the interests, rights and demands of our communities.”