Smoke and mirrors: Colombia's demobilization of paramilitary groups

Originally published


I. Summary and Recommendations
The demobilization... is a farce. It's a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from another side. -- Demobilized paramilitary fighter, April 2005.

Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups are immeasurably powerful. Through drug trafficking and other illegal businesses, they have amassed enormous wealth. They have taken over vast expanses of the country's territory to use for coca cultivation or as strategic corridors through which they can move drugs and weapons. In recent years, they have succeeded in expelling left-wing guerrillas and strengthening their own control of many parts of the country. And thanks to this power, they now exert a very high degree of political influence, both locally and nationally.

Paramilitaries accrued their power and influence by force. "It is stipulated that there are borders and you have to win people's respect, and so we had to kill people to show that you could not come in or go out of certain areas," a demobilized paramilitary told Human Rights Watch. "It was not a fight for Colombia. It was a drug trafficking war," said a former squad commander, discussing his experience as a paramilitary.

Considered terrorist organizations by the United States and Europe, over the last two decades paramilitaries have killed thousands of civilians; tortured, kidnapped, and stolen from tens of thousands more; and threatened and otherwise disrupted the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of Colombians, with almost no consequences for the perpetrators. To the contrary, paramilitaries have historically enjoyed the collaboration, support, and toleration of units of the Colombian security forces, a fact that has led many to refer to the paramilitaries as a "sixth division" of the army. Today, paramilitaries have made major gains in consolidating this impunity, along with their economic and political power, with the collusion of the Colombian government.

Two years ago, paramilitary commanders initiated demobilization negotiations with the administration of President Álvaro Uribe in the hope that they could obtain a deal that would allow them to avoid extradition and potentially lengthy prison terms in the United States for drug trafficking. Since the start of negotiations, thousands of paramilitaries have started to turn in weapons and enter government reintegration programs. This trend accelerated towards the end of 2004, when five paramilitary blocks entered the demobilization process by turning in weapons. The process is poised to accelerate much more rapidly: on June 21, 2005, the Colombian Congress approved a demobilization law that gives paramilitaries almost everything they want.

The Colombian government has mounted an enormous media and diplomatic campaign to build up domestic and international support for its law, with visits from President Uribe and senior officials to Europe and the United States. President Uribe has been defending the law as a compromise between competing goals of justice and peace, stating that his goal is to "reach peace without impunity; apply justice without surrender."

But while a genuine demobilization of paramilitaries is obviously an important objective, the process as currently structured is unlikely to achieve its aims. To the contrary, it is likely to compound the country's problems.

Under the newly approved law, which is theoretically applicable to both guerrillas and paramilitaries, the government will drastically reduce terms for investigation of these groups' crimes and grant enormous sentence reductions to members responsible for atrocities. It will also give up its leverage -- the threat of extradition -- over their commanders, but it will demand almost nothing in exchange.

The new law does not ensure that paramilitaries confess their crimes, disclose information about how their groups operate, or turn over their illegally acquired wealth. Nothing in the law effectively disbands these mafia-like groups. Disarmed troops can be easily replaced through new recruitment and promises of high pay. Commanders convicted of atrocities or other serious crimes, such as drug trafficking, will get away with sentences little longer than two years, probably in agricultural colonies. When they reenter society, their wealth, political power, and criminal networks will be intact.

As detailed in this report, the government's record to date gives no reassurance that the defects in the new law will be overcome. To the contrary, the new law merely codifies many aspects of the approach the government has been applying in recent demobilizations. This report, which is the first to document the government's practices in recent demobilizations, drawing on interviews with recently demobilized paramilitaries, shows that such demobilizations have yielded virtually no truth or reparation for victims and have failed to hold most paramilitaries accountable for atrocities. With the economic power of these groups intact, they remain capable of continued violence even while their forces have partially disarmed. Their already substantial political control, backed by intimidation and bribery, is not only intact but also gaining new vigor.

This dismal record is the logical outcome of the Colombian government's ineffective and poorly conceived and implemented demobilization policies. In implementing the demobilizations, the government focuses almost exclusively on disarming and giving benefits to paramilitary troops. But it does not make a real effort to determine whether these troops are responsible for serious crimes, to uncover the truth about past abuses, or to provide reparation to victims. And it completely ignores the difficult -- yet crucial -- problem of how to dismantle the underlying structures and financial power of these groups.

The current demobilization process in Colombia is not comparable to the demobilization of other armed groups after conflicts elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere, "successful" demobilizations have usually been conducted in the context of a political transition from conflict to peace, in which disarming fighters was an important symbol and step to secure the peace.

But in Colombia there is not merely a risk that conflict will be reignited; conflict is ongoing. And the country's paramilitaries and guerrillas are far more than a collection of armed individuals fighting for a political cause. They are extremely sophisticated and powerful mafia-like organizations, largely motivated by profit. The paramilitaries have well-entrenched networks that increasingly exert local political control through threats and extortion, and they continue to have close ties with units of the Colombian security forces, which the Colombian government has yet to make meaningful progress in breaking.

In this context, simply disarming paramilitary or guerrilla troops will do little, if anything, to put an end to the violence and abuses of these groups. As long as these groups keep their wealth and power intact, it will be very easy for them to purchase new guns, and replace demobilized fighters with new recruits.

To be effective, demobilization of Colombia's paramilitaries must advance the larger goal of dismantling the political power, underlying criminal structure, and wealth of these groups. To put an end to their activity, the government needs effective tools to find and seize their wealth and investigate the financing streams and criminal networks with which they may hire new killers. Recent developments described here confirm that the Uribe government has not even sought these tools, let alone put them to use.

At the same time, the demobilization process has profound implications for human rights. The deal offered to the paramilitaries in the June 2005 law (and which is, presumably, applicable to the guerrillas as well) will have a direct impact on accountability for abuses, insofar as it severely limits the scope of investigations and offers dramatically reduced sentences for individuals responsible for atrocities. The Colombian government has obligations under international law to provide effective remedies -- including thorough investigation, prosecution, and punishment of perpetrators, truth, and reparation -- to victims of rights violations. Current demobilization practices and laws make it virtually impossible for the government to provide such remedies in most cases.

This report is based on interviews with numerous demobilized paramilitaries, officials from various branches of the Colombian government, and victims of paramilitary atrocities, among others, conducted in the Colombian cities of Medellín, Cali, Montería, and Bogotá between March and May of 2005. The report also uses copies of recordings of negotiations between Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace and the paramilitary leadership, leaked to the media in September 2004.

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