“Peace” plan or roadmap to impunity?
A plan to demobilize paramilitaries raises win support and criticism.
A polemical government proposal aimed at removing Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries from the civil war between the country’s security forces and leftist rebels has won important international support, but critics say the plan is ill-conceived and smacks of impunity.
Under a pact signed with the government last July, the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — the umbrella organization for most paramilitary groups — agreed to demobilize all its fighters by the end of 2005. About 850 members of AUC, mainly belonging to Cacique Nutibara Block, have disarmed so far. Those concentrating in the special zones eventually would also put down their arms.
In late January, the process gained momentum when the Organization of American States agreed to monitor the demobilization. Around the same time, the United Nations mission in Colombia, said its office would back peace efforts. The Council of Catholic Bishops has also declared its support.
On Feb. 10, the European Union (EU) gave its tentative support for the demobilization effort, providing that immunity is not offered to paramilitary troops before all the facts are in.
Nevertheless, for many the current process remains controversial and ambiguous.
Wide sectors of Colombian society and the international community maintain that Colombia’s military helped to create and foster paramilitary factions during the past three decades and continues to maintain close links with these irregular forces, estimated to number some 12,000.
Paramilitaries are estimated to have committed 77 percent of political killings in recent months, raising another concern: the failure to honor the ceasefire the AUC declared in December 2002 to jumpstart the talks.
According to statistics presented by Congressman Antonio Navarro Wolf, the AUC authored at least 600 murders in 2003.
The BCN, which operates in Medellín and in neighboring regions, made history this past November as the first group of AUC forces to officially disarm after signing a peace agreement with the government. But of the troops to lay down their arms in an official ceremony in Colombia’s second city, three BCN commanders failed to participate.
Community leaders from Medellín’s Comuna 13 district report that paramilitaries continue operating in that part of the city despite the ceasefire. They say these activities persist to the present day even though the BCN have allegedly disbanded.
“They’re still there in the sector, but now they identify themselves as AUC members — just AUC and no longer the Cacique Nutibara Bloc,” a community leader from the Comuna 13 said.
A leader of a women’s organization that operates in the Comuna 13 said self-defense forces, including those who’ve allegedly disbanded, have drawn up a “blacklist” of young women to be targeted for having relations with suspected guerrilla and militia members when they maintained a presence in the zone.
Carlos Posada, president of the National Union of Public Service Workers (SINTRAENDES) said such information comes as no surprise. various paramilitary factions, including BCN, have continually besieged members from his union, he said.
“(The BCN) continues operating normally. They’ve supposedly demobilized, but the truth is what the media is showing us isn’t real,” said Posada, a victim himself of a paramilitary attack 10 years ago in which he nearly lost his life.
Paramilitary assassins often target trade unionists. Posada said that since the government proposed the idea of alternative sentencing, attacks against trade unionists actually increased because “they know they can act with absolute impunity.”
Posada’s union seriously doubts the authenticity of the reinsertion process and suspects that darker motives lie behind it, he said.
“We believe the national government is trying to legalize state terror developed in the carrying out of what’s known as the dirty war,” he said.
Jesús Balbín, director of the human rights and social justice program for the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (IPC), said that many Colombians want to believe in a peace process with the AUC and want it to succeed, but “there are a lot of concerns and a lot of questions.”
He said that a government normally negotiates peace agreements with those who have taken up arms against the state — insurgent groups such as the FARC and Army of National Liberation (ELN) — not those who fight alongside the armed forces to defend it.
“Neither academically nor politically can you say there is a peace negotiation because the self-defense forces form part of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy,” Balbín said.
Talks currently underway aim to create conditions for the concentration of AUC forces in to-be-determined geographic areas; ensure they abandon illegal activities such as drug trafficking and extortion and define alternative judicial sanctions to make an eventual peace accord possible.
Balbín said that while the IPC backs initiatives to remove any armed actor from the conflict through dialogue, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s demobilization package lacks clarity of purpose and fails to address the political, military and economic forces that helped give rise to and sustain the self-defense forces.
One of the more contentious aspects of the demobilization process is the “alternative sentencing” law proposed last year by the Uribe government.
Although its final form remains to be seen, it will likely involve concentrating paramilitaries in specific geographic areas and restricting their movement for a period of up to five years. The suspected authors of crimes against humanity might get off with paying a fine or performing community service work.
Amnesty International, in a statement issued in response to the visit of Uribe to Brussels to address the EU, warns that “the process is being used to draw up contracts of impunity for those responsible for an escalating human rights and humanitarian crisis.”
Statements made by some self-defense force commanders seem to confirm such worries. Diego Fernando Murillo, better known as BCN commander Adolfo Paz of the AUC, said in an interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo that: “Aldolfo Paz isn’t prepared to spend a single day in jail.”