The best-laid plans of presidents and war criminals: The unintended outcome of Colombia's demobilization process

by Garry Leech

It was supposed to be simple, a straightforward process of re-inserting the leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) into Colombian society, thereby allowing them to enter the political arena. The original plan involved paramilitary leaders revealing the locations of mass graves and naming a few dead or jailed "rogue" politicians and military officers who had collaborated with them. Such "revelations" would be passed off as confessions and with the years spent on a farm in northern Colombia during negotiations considered as "time-served," the AUC leaders would spend less than two years in prison, most likely at a semi-luxurious country estate. But from the perspective of the Uribe administration, the much-heralded demobilization of Colombia's largest paramilitary organization has gone terribly wrong. In fact, the entire process now threatens to provide Colombia with its most far-reaching political cleansing ever and offers the possibility of making a serious dent in the impunity traditionally enjoyed by the country's political and military elites.

In June 2003, the Uribe administration announced that it had reached an agreement with the AUC to begin peace talks intended to lead to the group's demobilization. The ensuing talks took place on a farm in Santa Fe de Ralito in northern Colombia. After receiving almost $3 billion in US military aid over the previous three years, the Colombian military was significantly stronger and had taken the offensive against the country's two leftist guerrilla groups. Simultaneously, state security forces had become more directly engaged in Colombia's "dirty war" against the political left, targeting the political opposition, unionists, community leaders and human rights defenders. Meanwhile, the paramilitaries portrayed themselves as "heroic patriots" whose services were no longer required as a result of the strengthening of the Colombian military, thereby setting the stage for the AUC's demobilization.

The demobilization process was intended to re-integrate into society AUC leaders such as Salvatore Mancuso who had become wealthy through drug trafficking and other criminal activities and whose ambitions had shifted away from the battlefield and towards the political arena. For President Alvaro Uribe, the demobilization of the AUC would represent a peace feather in his cap and make it easier to point to the guerrillas as the principal perpetrators of violence in the country. The stated goal of the demobilization was to offer the AUC leaders reduced prison terms in return for demobilizing all their forces, confessing all of their crimes and completely dismantling their criminal organizations, including their drug trafficking networks. However, the actual agenda called for providing the AUC leaders with a virtual amnesty in return for creating the illusion of demobilizing their forces, revealing the location of mass graves and providing information about "rogue" politicians and military officials who were either dead or already in jail.

Under Law 975, known as the Justice and Peace Law, which was finally approved in June 2005, the maximum sentence that AUC leaders engaged in the demobilization process could receive was eight years. The Uribe administration allowed the years that the paramilitary leaders had spent negotiating with the government to be considered "time served," which meant that in conjunction with time off for good behavior the AUC leaders could serve as little as 22 months in jail despite being guilty of crimes against humanity. Moreover, the 22 months would most likely be served on a country estate rather than in a maximum-security prison. The paramilitary leaders would then be free to re-enter Colombian society, enjoy their wealth and launch political careers.

Meanwhile, the UN issued a report in 2005 revealing that the AUC had killed hundreds of people during the previous year in violation of the cease-fire that the paramilitaries had agreed to in order to participate in the demobilization process. President Uribe ignored the UN report as well as repeated protestations by Colombian and international human rights groups that the AUC was not abiding by the cease-fire and that the process amounted to little more than an amnesty for war criminals. The Uribe administration was determined that the demobilization would proceed according to the original plan. By February 2006, some 31,000 paramilitaries had supposedly laid down their weapons and re-integrated into society while the AUC's leaders were poised to receive their virtual amnesty.

But in May 2006, things began to unravel as the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that certain sections of the Justice and Peace Law were unconstitutional. From the point of view of the architects of the demobilization process, the most damaging aspect of the court's ruling was the disallowance of applying the time spent in negotiations towards the sentence. In other words, the court's ruling meant that the eight-year sentence would not begin until negotiations and the demobilization had been completed and the AUC leaders had testified and confessed their crimes.

The AUC leaders complained about the court ruling and threatened to withdraw from the demobilization process. At the same time, the "para-politics" scandal, which was in its early stages, was already beginning to reveal links between pro-Uribe politicians and the paramilitaries. In an attempt to distance himself and his administration from the paramilitaries, President Uribe toughened his stance towards the 59 AUC leaders and ordered them transferred from their country retreat to the Itagui maximum-security prison in December 2006. The court's ruling and Uribe's decision to imprison the paramilitary chiefs represented the beginning of the end of the demobilization alliance forged between the AUC leaders and the president.

The para-politics scandal has its roots in allegations following the March 2006 congressional and municipal elections that paramilitary leaders had worked closely with right-wing pro-Uribe candidates in northern Colombia to ensure their victory at the polls. The scandal escalated dramatically following the seizure of a laptop belonging to AUC commander Rodrigo Tovar, also known as "Jorge 40." The laptop was not delivered to authorities as part of the demobilization process; it was discovered in the possession of Tovar's right-hand man when he was arrested in early 2006.

According to Colombia's attorney general's office, the laptop contained evidence that unemployed peasants in northern Colombia were paid to impersonate paramilitary fighters and to participate in the demobilization process while real paramilitaries continued committing crimes. These crimes, according to information on the laptop, included the killing of 558 individuals in just one region of northern Colombia during the cease-fire. The laptop also contained evidence of paramilitary links to local and national politicians as well as to state security forces. It is the information found on Tovar's laptop that spawned the para-politics investigation, not confessions or evidence obtained under the Justice and Peace Law.

Despite the evolving rift between the Uribe administration and the paramilitary leaders caused by the para-politics scandal, Mancuso continued to play by the original script when he was called to testify in early 2007 under the Justice and Peace Law. The AUC leader only revealed paramilitary collusion with dead or imprisoned politicians and military officers, thereby protecting active representatives of the state. The testimony of other paramilitary leaders primarily focused on revealing the whereabouts of mass graves containing the bodies of the thousands of victims of paramilitary massacres. This strategy was intended to create the illusion that the AUC leaders were confessing to all their crimes and to appease human rights and victims rights groups critical of the demobilization process.

The para-politics scandal, however, continued to evolve. By May 2007, more than 50 national and local elected representatives were under investigation by either Colombia's attorney general's office or the Supreme Court for ties to paramilitaries. More than a dozen had been charged with crimes, most of them close political allies of President Uribe. The fact that the para-politics scandal was beginning to tarnish President Uribe's reputation and undermine the credibility of his administration became apparent when the Colombian leader received a hostile reception on a visit to Washington, DC in early May. Congressional Democrats were outspokenly critical of the Colombian leader and his country's political and human rights crisis.

In mid-May, AUC leader Mancuso promised to reveal in his upcoming testimony the identities of active politicians and military officials who had collaborated with the paramilitaries. Why would Mancuso suddenly change his mind about revealing official collusion with the paramilitaries only four months after concealing it during his initial testimony under the Justice and Peace Law? Perhaps Mancuso believed that his interests, and those of the other paramilitary leaders, would be better served by coming clean since the para-politics scandal was beginning to threaten the viability of the original objectives of the demobilization process. For example, if investigators heard the truth about collusion from people being targeted by the para-politics investigation then it would become evident that the imprisoned AUC leaders had not confessed everything as required under the Justice and Peace Law. As a result, they would lose their right to reduced sentences and would instead face 40 years in prison for their crimes.

Two days after Mancuso had announced his intention to reveal names of paramilitary collaborators, Colombia's leading newsmagazine, Semana, published transcripts of wiretap tapes that it had received from unknown government sources. The tapes of cell phone calls made by imprisoned AUC leaders and their right-hand men, which were from wiretaps carried out by the National Police's intelligence unit, showed that the paramilitary leaders were continuing to operate their criminal organizations from behind bars. The transcripts confirmed claims made by many critics of the demobilizations that the process was more of a "restructuring" than a "demobilizing" of the AUC. In 2006, Colombian NGO Indepaz had revealed that 43 new paramilitary groups were established over the previous two years in 22 of the country's 32 departments. Furthermore, former mid-level AUC commanders headed many of the new death squads, thereby making evident the continuity between the old AUC and the new generation of paramilitaries.

But why would government sources reveal the existence of the wiretaps? It is possible that members of the National Police leaked the wiretaps as a way to punish Mancuso for his promise to publicly identify politicians and military officers who had collaborated with the paramilitaries. Whatever the reason, it appeared that certain members of the Uribe government and the AUC leaders no longer trusted each other and the former allies had been reduced to sabotaging one another in a desperate attempt to save their own skins. Meanwhile, an investigation into the leaking of the tapes led to yet another problem for the embattled Uribe administration as it revealed that, not only was the National Police bugging the imprisoned paramilitary leaders, but also opposition politicians and journalists.

Several days after Semana published the wiretap transcripts, Mancuso testified that more than a dozen military officers and politicians including the current Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Vice-President Francisco Santos, who are cousins, had conspired with the AUC. Mancuso claimed that he had met personally with the current vice-president, who was an editor for Colombia's largest daily El Tiempo at the time, on four occasions in the late 1990s and that Vice-President Santos had sought to establish a paramilitary bloc in the country's capital Bogotá. The declarations further diminished the credibility of the Uribe administration and effectively terminated the alliance between the AUC leaders and the government.

The initial objective of the demobilization process was to provide a virtual amnesty to AUC leaders and to give the illusion of a paramilitary demobilization without revealing links between active state representatives and the death squads. The para-politics scandal has destroyed any remaining hopes for a successfully whitewashing of the crimes perpetrated by both paramilitaries and state officials. It is important to note that the para-politics scandal did not result from the demobilization process as many Uribe supporters claim. In fact, to the contrary, it evolved independently as part of a separate criminal investigation and has undermined the very objectives that the Uribe administration and the AUC leaders had hoped to achieve with the demobilization process.

Meanwhile, as a result of the Constitutional Court's ruling, the paramilitary leaders now face at least eight years in prison, and possibly as many as 40 years depending on the final outcome of the para-politics investigations. Consequently, the AUC leaders now have real incentive to come clean in their testimonies under the Justice and Peace Law. Meanwhile, the Uribe government is scrambling to distance itself from the paramilitaries and is desperately clinging to what little credibility it has left.

What started out as an alliance between the Uribe administration and the AUC leadership with the intent of continuing Colombia's long history of impunity and official ties to right-wing death squads has evolved into the two protagonists turning on each other and potentially initiating the most extensive political house cleaning in Colombia's history. It is an outcome that neither intended nor desired at the outset of what initially appeared to be a carefully constructed process.