Colombia: Paramilitary Commanders Address Congress

BOGOTA – Three senior paramilitary leaders wanted for mass killings of civilians and drug trafficking addressed a congressional hearing in Colombia Wednesday while protesters and supporters clashed outside.

Although previous Colombian governments have stuck to the official position of considering members of the paramilitary militias criminals who should be brought to justice, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe is following a different strategy, engaging in negotiations with the main umbrella group.

Salvatore Mancuso, Iván Roberto Duque and Ramón Isaza, three of the most wanted men in Colombia, spoke in Congress Wednesday in the midst of tight security, after receiving a safe-conduct pass.

Mancuso, the leader of the far-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) umbrella, lashed out against the leftist guerrillas and argued that the paramilitaries should not be thrown in jail because they have merely been fighting the insurgents.

The paramilitaries, who have waged a dirty war in which they have killed thousands of civilians (some, including women, cut up alive by chainsaws), want an amnesty-like agreement under which they would not go to prison. However, Mancuso conceded that “reparations” for the harm and damages caused by the militias would be in line.

He also asked for the creation of several safe havens like the one that has been set up in the town of Santa Fe del Ralito, in the northern province of Córdoba, where he and other paramilitary leaders are living while negotiating with the government the demobilization of around 13,000 fighters.

The paramilitary leaders also want to convert AUC into a legal political movement.

Mancuso held the state responsible for Colombia’s four-decade armed conflict, and called for a high-level commission, including representatives of Congress, the Catholic Church, the courts, and business sectors, to be set up to monitor the demobilization process.

Attending the hearing were officials from Algeria, Argentina, Bolivia, China, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Panama, Peru, Romania and Uruguay.

Some 2,000 protesters gathered in the Bolívar Plaza outside Congress demanding justice and reparations for the human rights crimes committed by the paramilitaries, who the United Nations and leading international rights watchdogs blame for 80 percent of the rights abuses committed in the conflict.

Meanwhile, 60 busloads of people came to the capital from Llano, to the south, to demonstrate in the same plaza in support of the paramilitaries. The riot police had to separate the two groups of demonstrators when skirmishes broke out.

Mancuso, Báez and Isaza were given permission by the government to leave Santa Fe de Ralito for 48 hours to speak in parliament, as agreed in the negotiations with Uribe.

When asked for his reaction to the paramilitary leaders’ controversial visit to Congress, historian Daniel García-Peña, a former government high commissioner for peace who was observing the demonstrations outside parliament, told IPS that “the sensation is one of sadness.”

Leaders of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties want parliament to participate in some capacity in the negotiations with AUC. But other political sectors question the way the government is handling the talks.

“I agree that Congress should play an active role, but I see the government improvising day to day, without having a clear plan,” said Senator Antonio Navarro of the leftist opposition party Independent Democratic Pole (PDI), according to the local newspaper El Tiempo.

The paramilitary leaders appeared in parliament a week after the Inter-American Court on Human Rights handed down a sentence against the Colombian state for its ties with the paramilitaries.

The Court held the state responsible for violations of the rights to liberty, integrity and life in the case of a 1987 massacre of 19 merchants by the paramilitaries, who dismembered the bodies and threw them into a tributary of the Magdalena River to eliminate evidence.

The 19 victims were transporting contraband merchandise and passengers from Venezuela.

The Court decision stated that the paramilitaries held a meeting – with the acquiescence of several army officers – in which they agreed to kill the merchants and seize their merchandise and vehicles, because the victims were not paying them “taxes” for traveling through areas under paramilitary control.

Several army officers agreed with the plan, said the Court, which added that there was evidence showing that some officers even took part in the meeting.

When the case was originally tried by a military court in Colombia, only three of the killers were convicted, and the four officers and non-commissioned officers implicated in the case – a colonel, major, sergeant, and General Farouk Yanine Díaz, then-commander of the second army division based in Bucaramanga, in the northeast – were let off the hook.

Rocío Bautista, president of the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared (ASFADDES), urged the government “not to continue negotiating with the paramilitaries, because that provides clear proof that they are backed by the military.”

A July 26 letter to President Uribe signed by 20 U.S. senators states that “The most urgent of UNHCHR’s [United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] recommendations is to cut ties between the army and paramilitary forces engaged in abuses, by suspending, investigating and vigorously prosecuting officials engaged in such collaboration.”

“The UN report released in March 2004 cites lack of compliance with this goal,” said the U.S. lawmakers, who included Senator John Kerry, the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate for the November presidential elections.

The UN reported “paramilitary operations with inexcusable knowledge of the security forces, undue contacts between civil authorities and paramilitary commanders… inaction on the part of the security forces in spite of the existence of fixed paramilitary bases close to military installations, and even the alleged provision of information to paramilitary groups by members of the police regarding possible targets,'” the letter states.

Although the senators said they were “encouraged by the decline in the level of homicides, massacres, kidnappings and forced displacement … we remain deeply concerned about the continued levels of violence directed at the civilian population.”

There are reports of increased violations, such as extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances, attributed directly to Colombian security forces.

“In addition, guerrillas continued their indiscriminate use of explosive devices against civilians while paramilitary forces carried out assassinations and massacres despite the existence of a cease fire,” they added.

The paramilitary phenomenon has deep roots, and “was not born with AUC, nor is it limited to its armed apparatus,” historian García-Peña recently wrote. “It forms part of an old tradition of the country’s elites to silence their opponents through the use of force,” and “enjoys significant social, economic and political support.”

Although there were armed militias in this South American country for decades, the first “paramilitary” group was created in 1981 by “drug traffickers, serving and retired members of the military, and powerful landowners, as attorney-general Carlos Jiménez Gómez denounced in 1983,” wrote García-Peña.

According to some interpretations, the paramilitary groups emerged to defend themselves from and fight the guerrillas. But other analysts say the phenomenon amounts to a policy of state terrorism.

The groups later took the name “self-defense forces,” to invoke the protection of a 20-year-old law that allows civilians to arm themselves and support the security forces in “anti-subversive operations” – an argument voiced by the military courts to explain the backing that the paramilitaries have received from authorities.

Dismantling the paramilitary militias was a central demand of the main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in its failed peace talks with the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

The day after the start of the peace talks between the Pastrana administration and FARC, on Jan. 7, 1999, the paramilitaries went on a killing spree, murdering a total of 140 people around the country.

“The main objective should not only be the demobilization and [social] reinsertion of AUC, but the elimination of ‘paramilitarism’ as a historical and structural phenomenon,” argued García-Peña.

(With contributions from Constanza Vieira in Colombia).