Colombia: An unjust demobilization

by Garry Leech

Paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo demobilized more than 400 of his fighters in a ceremony in northern Colombia last week. At the ceremony, the man who ordered the killing of a Colombian congressman only two months ago had the nerve to declare: "Only a peaceful and constructive dialogue will make it possible to build a harmonious and prosperous country." He then returned to the ranch where he is being held "captive" by the government to await the outcome of a congressional debate on a government-sponsored leniency (virtual amnesty) bill.

When the Colombian government arrested Murillo for ordering the assassination of a congressman and his two companions in April, President Alvaro Uribe promised that the imprisonment of the accused would not be a repeat of the Pablo Escobar fiasco. In other words, he would not be imprisoned in a country estate. Lo and behold, the very next day Murillo was placed in a ranch in the northern department of Córdoba, the heartland of Colombia's largest paramilitary organization. Even more outrageous is the fact that he is being held there instead of a prison because the Colombian Congress is deciding whether Murillo and his fellow paramilitary leaders will benefit from a government-sponsored leniency bill.

If the bill passes, paramilitary leaders including Murillo could serve as little as 22 months in prison (most likely on ranches), not have to confess their war crimes, and be permitted to retain the wealth they have accumulated from drug trafficking. While such leniency for paramilitary leaders responsible for most of Colombia's human rights atrocities makes a farce out of any concept of justice, it is especially galling that it will also apply to Murillo.

Murillo has a long history of involvement in drug trafficking and criminal violence. He was formerly employed as an assassin for Pablo Escobar's Medellín cocaine cartel. The U.S. State Department has called him the 'top leader of one of the world's largest cocaine cartels.' In fact, until very recently, he operated as a criminal in the world of drug trafficking; he was not involved in Colombia's armed conflict.

Murillo represents everything that is unjust about President Uribe's paramilitary demobilization process. He only joined the paramilitaries one year before the demobilization negotiations began and yet, as a result, he will likely escape any serious prison time for two decades of violent criminal activities unrelated to the country's civil conflict.

Even more disturbing is the fact that President Uribe has permitted Murillo to continue in his role as a paramilitary negotiator after he blatantly violated a cease-fire by ordering the assassination of a Colombian congressman. That he wasn't immediately disqualified from the demobilization process and required to stand trial for his criminal act illustrates to what extremes President Uribe is willing to go to accomodate the country's worst human rights abusers.

Even more disturbing is the message that President Uribe is sending to other paramilitary leaders involved in negotiations: That they can kill Colombians with total impunity. Although, in reality, the government has been sending the same message throughout the negotiations by allowing paramilitaries to repeatedly violate the cease-fire by targeting of the civilian population with impunity.

Human Rights Watch recently proposed changes to the leniency bill that would only allow reduced sentences in return for confessions on the part of paramilitary leaders that are verifiable and with conditions that are enforceable. Essentially, any leniency bill must guarantee an end to the violent actions perpetrated by the paramilitaries and provide a sense of justice and closure for victims and their families. The five essential changes to the bill called for by Human Rights Watch are as follows:

First, entirely eliminate provisions that (1) force prosecutors to bring all charges within 24 hours after receiving statements from demobilized individuals and (2) limit the time for investigation to 30 days after charges are brought. Such limitations in the time for investigation will virtually guarantee impunity, as most cases will either be closed or will result in acquittals.

Second, in exchange for sentence reductions, paramilitary commanders should be required to give a full and truthful confession and to fully disclose their knowledge of their groups' operational structure, sources of financing and illegally acquired assets. Otherwise, it will be practically impossible for the government to obtain the necessary information to uncover the truth about atrocities and dismantle these groups.

Third, the bill should provide that paramilitaries will lose all their sentencing benefits if they are found to have lied to the authorities about their crimes, operations and finances, or to have kept illegally acquired assets. This provision is necessary to ensure that the requirements of turnover of assets, confession and disclosure of information are meaningful.

Fourth, top paramilitary commanders should be barred from receiving sentencing benefits through "individual" demobilization until the troops they command fully demobilize and cease engaging in atrocities. This provision is essential to ensure the credibility of the process.

Fifth, the time paramilitary leaders have spent negotiating should not be considered as time served on their sentences.

As the Murillo case illustrates, President Uribe has exhibited little desire to hold paramilitary leaders accountable for their criminal activities and war crimes. In reference to Murillo, also known as Don Berna, Colombian Senator Wilson Borja, a critic of the leniency bill, stated: "What Berna gets is no extradition and the same benefits he would have received had he not just assassinated someone." Clearly, there is a double standard in Colombia with regards to the Uribe administration's strategy towards the illegal armed groups: impunity for those ideologically aligned with the government; and the full-weight of the law for those opposed to the government.