US Supervision of Colombian Paramilitary Demobilization Becomes Evident

BOGOTÁ – Just a few days into Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s second term in office, the close U.S. supervision of his government’s negotiations for the demobilization of the ultra-rightwing paramilitary militias became evident.

Fourteen of the heads of the paramilitary umbrella, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), were arrested this week, nine of whom are wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Against Washington’s will, Uribe had suspended all U.S. extradition requests in exchange for a promise from the paramilitary chiefs to stay out of criminal activity and demobilize their militias, which are blamed by United Nations agencies for 80 percent of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s long civil war, in which leftist guerrillas have been active since 1964.

But the agreement between the Uribe administration and the paramilitary leaders does not appear to have been respected.

Since AUC declared a ceasefire in December 2002 as a condition set by Uribe for the start of the demobilization negotiations, paramilitaries have committed more than 3,000 murders, according to human rights groups. In addition, a portion of the fighters who supposedly laid down their arms have continued to engage in violence.

On Monday, before his conversation with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator Karen Tandy, Uribe unexpectedly stated in a communiqué that he would extradite the AUC chiefs if they did not immediately comply with the peace agreement and the Justice and Peace Law, which offers legal benefits to 3,000 paramilitaries who face charges of crimes against humanity.

He said that if they did not turn themselves in to the authorities and confess their crimes – which they are bound to do by the Justice and Peace Law – they would lose the benefits like shortened sentences offered under the demobilization agreement.

Alirio Uribe, head of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, an internationally respected human rights group, said that another 28,000 demobilized paramilitary fighters have obtained legal benefits precluding investigations or prosecutions, or pardons, without having confessed to their crimes, and are living freely.

Tandy visited Colombia early this week to pay homage to the 10 members of Colombia’s elite antinarcotics police who were shot down in May in the town of Jamundí by soldiers who were allegedly protecting drug traffickers.

On Wednesday, the police clarified that the AUC chiefs had turned themselves in or had been picked up in a “friendly” manner, although radio stations reported secret raids and round-ups.

The unusual operation was apparently agreed with the government by some of the AUC leaders, who demanded that the terms “capture” or “prison” not be used when announcing the detentions.

Other AUC chiefs turned themselves in later, although as of Friday several powerful leaders were still at large, and the government had set no deadline for compliance with Uribe’s orders.

“I have come to turn myself in to comply with a presidential order, which I respect and am obeying. We will continue the peace process from here,” said a smiling former AUC spokesman, Salvatore Mancuso, as he entered a police station in Montería, capital of the northwestern province of Córdoba. Mancuso, one of the leaders whose extradition has been requested by the United States, also faces accusations of being responsible for appalling massacres.

Another AUC spokesman, “Ernesto Báez,” revealed that he had taken part in a lengthy meeting with the police brass. “This process continues to enjoy the total backing of the government, and is obviously still accepted” by the AUC, said Minister of Interior and Justice Sabas Pretelt.

The content of the three-year negotiations with the paramilitary forces, which were created in the early 1980s by drug traffickers and have worked in complicity with the army, has not been divulged. However, the talks have been closely supervised by the U.S. embassy, a high-ranking government official told IPS.

Nor is the identity of all of the top AUC chiefs known. According to the press, several of them are druglords who joined the negotiations by acquiring an AUC “franchise” in order to present their gangs of thugs as paramilitary fighters. Their aim was to benefit from Uribe’s promise not to extradite participating leaders to the United States, where many of them are wanted on drug charges.

The controversial Justice and Peace Law, which was passed 13 months ago but has not yet been implemented, has drawn criticism because it is seen as tailor-made for the paramilitary leaders.

After the Constitutional Court strengthened the Justice and Peace Law in May, the AUC chiefs complained that the ruling eliminated the legal guarantees that they were offered in the negotiations, and that as a result they would not comply with the law.

The court ruling required that the demobilized paramilitaries make a full confession of their crimes in order to qualify for the legal benefits extended by the law, which set an eight-year limit on prison sentences. The court also ordered that reparations to the victims of paramilitary human rights crimes be paid through the assets – whether legally or illegally obtained – of the paramilitary leaders, many of whom are among the richest men in Colombia.

Critics of a decree being negotiated by the government for the implementation of the Justice and Peace Law, which has been partially revealed by the press, say it is aimed at keeping the AUC leaders from losing their benefits as a result of the Constitutional Court decision.

Two days before Uribe’s second term began on Aug. 7, the U.S. Embassy leaked to the local magazine Cambios its reservations about the decree, which it termed a “judicial pardon.”

On Thursday it was revealed by the Caracol Radio station that on Aug. 11, Minister Pretelt and Deputy Minister of Justice Ximena Peñafort had consulted AUC leaders about the decree, which has been under negotiation for the last five months.

On Monday, when Uribe ordered the paramilitary chiefs to turn themselves in, he said it was necessary to give the demobilization process “credibility at the national and international levels.”

The Colombian press has reported that a number of paramilitary leaders drive luxury cars, surrounded by dozens of bodyguards, frequent exclusive shopping centers, social clubs and restaurants, and can be seen rubbing elbows with senior Uribe administration officials and political leaders at public events.

Washington has provided Colombia with 4.7 billion dollars since 2000, mainly in military aid through the Plan Colombia anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy, in a failed attempt at reducing cocaine supplies for the U.S. market – the world’s top market for drugs – and at diminishing the power of the guerrillas.

The United States has also supported the paramilitary demobilization process with 15.5 million dollars, including backing for the Organization of American States (OAS) mission to support the Colombian peace process, which is about to present its seventh quarterly report in Washington.

The Justice and Peace Law has been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for its failure to respect international norms on the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations.

While government and AUC spokespersons argue that the truth about the human rights crimes committed by the paramilitaries will not lead to peace or reconciliation in Colombia, activist Alirio Uribe (no relation to the president) says the experience of other countries shows that laws that promote impunity tend to be overturned.

If that were to occur in Colombia, many members of the AUC would be subject to extradition or to investigation by international courts, he said.

So, he argued, if the paramilitaries are so concerned about legal guarantees, the negotiators should pay close attention to what has happened in other countries in similar situations.

Furthermore, he said, the international community, the victims and survivors of human rights abuses, and society at large would likely tolerate shorter sentences, even if they are out of proportion with the gravity of the crimes that were committed by the paramilitary units.

But in order for that to occur, said the activist, full confessions and the resultant “truth” would not suffice.

Alirio Uribe says that what is necessary is the total dismantling of the paramilitary structures, and a new public outlook that stigmatizes paramilitary groups that do the dirty work of the state. Such groups have been used in Colombia since the mid-1940s to murder community leaders, trade unionists and opposition politicians, and to deprive poor farmers of their land, to the benefit of powerful economic interests and organized crime.