Colombian Paramilitaries Extend Their Tentacles

BOGOTA – Local secretariats of finance, roads and health – "that’s where the money is, that’s where the show is run," a member of a paramilitary militia in Colombia can be heard saying in the taped telephone conversation.

The wiretapped conversation took place a few days after the October 2003 local and regional elections, and the two men were lamenting that the candidate for mayor backed by the paramilitaries in a town in the department (province) of Norte de Santander, on the border with Venezuela, was not elected.

The solution, they agreed, was to force the mayor-elect to name front men for the paramilitaries to the local government secretariats of finance, health, etc.

The recording was recently played to parliament by lawmaker Gustavo Petro, the head of the leftist Polo Democrático. It formed part of 80 hours of bugged phone conversations taped by the Central Directorate of the Judicial Police.

The tapes, for example, reveal meetings between paramilitaries and two senators. And another of the paramilitaries says he belongs to military intelligence. Yet another says he is a victim of persecution, but that he has taken refuge in the DAS (presidential intelligence service), and quips, "They won’t look for me here, ha ha."

"This is how ‘paramilitarism’ is expanding throughout the country, and not only in Norte de Santander, taking over state institutions, the police, DAs, military forces, and municipal and regional governments," said Petro.

The paramilitaries are "forging ties with the Colombian political class even here, in this Congress, while they kill people along the length and breadth of the country," he maintained.

"What is being built in Colombian territory are death clubs that kill opponents, and that are even about to start killing" people who support the government of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe, said the legislator.

Speaking for the opposition lawmakers, he urged the Supreme Court "to open legal investigations of members of Congress allegedly linked to paramilitary groups."

But the impunity enjoyed by the paramilitary militias was discussed in a late September seminar in Bogota organized by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and its local affiliates – the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, the Permanent Committee for Human Rights, and the Latin American Institute of Alternative Legal Services (ILSA).

To illustrate, Carlos Alberto Rojas, one of the heads of the National Association of Judicial Employees, said that not long ago, a judge in a remote region of this civil war-torn South American country had scheduled a public hearing in a case that involved the mass killing of 23 people, "presumably by the paramilitaries."

He said the 250 case files did not even fit in one room, and that the judge had to pay $46 out of his own pocket to transport them to court.

But although there were nine witnesses for the prosecution, only the prosecutor and judge attended the hearing in the end. According to a rumor circulating in the region, a "reward" was paid for each witness who did not testify.

"No witness showed up, as could have been expected. These are the true possibilities of administering justice in this country," said Rojas.

Journalist Luis Castaño, the director of the community radio station in El Líbano, a town in the central department of Tolima, fled to Bogota a few weeks ago.

"Get out of here quickly, because those two guys over there came to kill you," the local head of the public prosecutor’s office’s investigative team told Castaño one night, and he decided to leave town.

The radio station, which in the past few months reported on 19 murders committed in El Líbano, "can no longer report the news," said Tolima lawmaker Hugo Zárrate during the recent debate in Congress on the growing strength of the paramilitary militias.

Zárrate said the Centauros Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary umbrella, actually "purchased the ‘franchise’ for a section of the paramilitaries in Tolima for four billion pesos [$1.54 million]."

"You might wonder: who would pay four billion pesos for 200 bandits and murderers? Well, there are two reasons to do so: the first, because [those who purchased the franchise] are drug traffickers who want to blend into a process of supposed political negotiations in Santa Fe de Ralito," said the legislator.

He was referring to talks between AUC leaders and the Uribe administration in northern Colombia. In the negotiations, which began in May, AUC is offering to disband in exchange for an amnesty-like agreement.

The paramilitary commanders are currently staying in a 368 sq. km (142 sq. mi.) area in Santa Fe de Ralito, whose perimeter is guarded by the army.

The second reason, said Zárrate, is that "it’s a good business deal." Since AUC declared a ceasefire in December 2002 to engage in talks with the government, the paramilitaries have "only killed 56 people" in Tolima, he said. "They have already seized control of the territory through intimidation. Now they are into blackmail."

In each of the 36 municipalities in Tolima, the paramilitaries have lists of "1,000 or 2,000 citizens" whom they extort, said the parliamentarian.

Rice growers in the department "have to pay a very high tax by weight to the paramilitaries," he said.

And for each of the 700,000 head of cattle in Tolima, stockbreeders pay $3.80 in taxes to the paramilitaries, who take in around $3.28 million a year in Tolima from stockbreeders and rice producers alone, said Zárrate.

Although the security forces have a strong presence in Tolima (unlike in portions of the country dominated by the guerrillas), the paramilitaries control urban areas in the department, and from that base they extort "casual laborers, butchers, supermarkets, landowners, transport drivers, etc.," he said.

This kind of "paramilitary activity has increased and been strengthened since the second half of 2002," said Zárrate.

According to recurrent rumors, well-known drug barons are buying local paramilitary groups in order to pass themselves off as paramilitary leaders, who will be protected from legal action under an agreement similar to an amnesty when the groups demobilize.

The head of the Centauros Bloc, Miguel Arroyave, one of the 30 paramilitary commanders negotiating with the government, was murdered by fellow paramilitaries on Sept. 19. The police say he was the head of the network that trafficks the chemical products and inputs used to produce cocaine from coca leaves.

The Bogota daily El Tiempo reported that government documents show that Arroyave had bought the Centauros Bloc "franchise" from AUC for $6 million, which gave him the right to join the group of negotiators.

"Several mayors in Tolima were summoned to a town on the Magdalena River [in central Colombia] to tell them they had to take part in the political blueprint proposed by the negotiators in Sante Fe de Ralito," said Zárrate.

There is total impunity in Tolima, he added. "Investigations do not even get as far as a legal accusation, much less a conviction and sentence."

The prosecutors handling the investigations live in the municipalities where the crimes have been committed. "Given the intimidation from these people [the paramilitaries], how can the prosecutors possibly go after the perpetrators . . . who they know, anyway, just as the army and the police know them," he said.

In last month’s seminar in the capital, the FIDH and its affiliates complained that in the negotiations with the paramilitaries, the Colombian government had guaranteed them immunity from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"The work of the ICC cannot depend on the results of a peace process in any country or region of the world," said the human rights groups.

They also noted that there is no exception in the Rome Statute (which gave rise to the ICC) letting people off for "crimes against humanity," to which "no statute of limitations applies."

The seminar was attended by three representatives of the ICC, which is based in The Hague: Paul Seils, Didier Preira and Gabriela González Rivas.

In the transcript of yet another tape-recorded conversation, published by the magazine Semana, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo can be heard promising the paramilitary chiefs in the secret negotiations in Santa Fe de Ralito that the ICC "is not a danger. The government has introduced a draft law that will block the action" of that global judicial body, he tells them.

As a signatory to the Rome Statute, Colombia falls within the jurisdiction of the ICC, which was created to try cases involving crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, when national courts cannot or will not do so.

In September 2003, the Uribe administration signed a bilateral accord with Washington that exempts U.S. citizens in Colombia from ICC prosecution, after the U.S. government suspended $5 million in military aid to pressure Bogota to sign.

In November, the AUC proposed in the negotiations with the government "a similar accord" that would guarantee their members immunity from the ICC.

The United Nations and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch hold the paramilitaries responsible for the great majority of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s armed conflict.