I apologize for the delay in posting this continuation of the paramilitary
talks discussion. Blame Bush’s visit to Cartagena, which proved to be a bit
of a distraction.
Between now and December 31, at least 3,000 of the AUC paramilitary group’s
approximately 20,000 members are to hand in their weapons and re-enter civilian
life. In other words, a massive demobilization process â€“ larger than what happened
in Colombia over a decade ago, when the M-19, EPL, and several other guerrilla
groups turned in their weapons â€“ is to occur in a timeframe of just over two
This would be an amazingly good piece of news if the demobilization were part
of a reasonably well thought-out, well-funded process. But it isn’t. The coming
AUC "layoff" leaves the impression that thousands of unemployed young
men with violent backgrounds are being thrust upon a Colombian government that
has little more than a hastily thrown-together plan for dealing with them, and
probably doesn’t have the resources even for this plan.
In all, ten or eleven paramilitary fronts from eight parts of the country are
to demobilize between now and the new year.
- The Self-Defense Groups of CÃ³rdoba, commanded by Salvatore Mancuso;
- The Catatumbo Bloc, commanded by Mancuso â€“ this bloc is the largest to demobilize,
with approximately 1,400 members;
- The UrabÃ¡-based Bananero Bloc, commanded by "HernÃ¡n HernÃ¡ndez,"
which is to be the first to demobilize formally, starting tomorrow (November
- The Valle del Cauca-based Calima Bloc, commanded by "HernÃ¡n HernÃ¡ndez";
- The Pacific Bloc, commanded by "Don Berna";
- The Cundinamarca Bloc, commanded by Luis Eduardo Cifuentes ("Ãguila");
- The Sucre-based Mojana Front, commanded by "RamÃ³n Mojana";
- The Southeast Antioquia Front, commanded by "John SantamarÃa"
(this 50-man front recently indicated it may not in fact be ready to demobilize
by the end of the year);
- The Self-Defense Groups of Southern Magdalena and San Fernando Island, commanded
by "Chepe Barrera";
- The Self-Defense Groups of Meta and Vichada, commanded by Guillermo Torres;
- The Vichada Front of the Central BolÃvar Bloc, commanded by "Javier
MontaÃ±ez" and "JuliÃ¡n BolÃvar" alias "Macaco."
Right now, and for several more weeks, top paramilitary leaders like Salvatore
Mancuso have their arrest warrants suspended and can travel throughout the country
without fear of detention or extradition to the United States, in order to "coordinate"
the demobilization. As columnist MarÃa Isabel Rueda wrote in Semana magazine,
"It won’t be long until we see Mancuso sitting down to eat in northern
BogotÃ¡’s best-known restaurants."
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â A compressed "cronograma"
The process began on November 3. Members of the Bananero Bloc, the first to
turn itself in, have been trickling into their concentration zone, a Â¾-square-kilometer
ranch in the municipality of Turbo, Antioquia, in anticipation of a November
25 kickoff ceremony.
There is a plan, or "
target="_blank">cronograma," in place, although it is remarkably
rushed in comparison with demobilization efforts carried out in other countries
and contexts. A first phase, covering roughly the month of November, has involved
educating citizens and local governments in affected areas about what is to
come, compiling lists of those who will turn themselves in, and concentrating
the paramilitary fighters in the zones where they will hand in their weapons.
A second phase â€“ beginning November 25 for the Bananero Bloc, later for others
â€“ will include several challenging tasks; incredibly, all of the following is
to happen in only two to ten days. Fighters will turn in their weapons. Their
identities will be verified. Minors will be sorted out and sent into the government
family welfare system (ICBF). Fighters will be interviewed to determine if they
have any marketable skills useful for future civilian employment.
All will undergo a background check to uncover allegations of past human-rights
abuse. It is not clear how thorough this check will be, though, since Colombian
authorities will be performing hundreds of them in less than ten days. Existing
Colombian law ("Law 782" and "Decree 128") will allow most
rank-and-file paramilitaries to benefit from amnesty for their crimes. Paramilitary
leaders, and members accused of committing larger-scale crimes against humanity,
will not be amnestied. Currently, there is no law in place to determine what
will happen to these leaders and top abusers (they have made clear that they
will not turn themselves in at all if they must enter Colombia’s regular criminal-justice
system); until this legal framework exists, these "unpardonables"
will be concentrated in a special zone, probably the demilitarized area in San
JosÃ© de Ralito, CÃ³rdoba, where negotiations have been taking place.
In a third and final phase, which the "cronograma" compresses
into eight days, ex-fighters will return to their places of origin. The Colombian
government will set up four regional "centers of reference" to serve
a variety of needs: legal status, education, health, psychological adjustment,
and a legal way to make a living. Each ex-fighter who participates in job-training
or microenterprise programs will be entitled to 300,000 pesos ($125) per month
for up to two years. Many will be given short-term employment performing tasks
like manual eradication of coca, while local businesses will be given tax breaks
for hiring ex-paramilitaries.
All of this is to be carried out in two months by a Colombian government that
is so cash-strapped and inefficient that displaced people in many areas must
wait months to have their status "verified," people who have had their
legal crops fumigated must wait months or years to have their compensation petitions
resolved, and rural communities country-wide are still awaiting fulfillment
of years-old promises to maintain roads, build schools or formalize land titles.
What, short of a miracle, will guarantee that BogotÃ¡ has the political will
to see this ambitious new commitment through?
And are the resources on hand? If done right, this will be a very expensive
undertaking. The Colombian Treasury Ministry claims to have set aside 410 billion
pesos (about $160 million) for the AUC’s disarmament, about $8,000 per fighter.
In a country that already has a ballooning fiscal budget deficit, it is not
clear where Colombia’s government plans to find even this extra 0.2 percent
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â A poor precedent: the 2003 BCN demobilization
The experience of the first AUC demobilization, which happened a year ago tomorrow,
gives further cause for skepticism. Last November 25 in MedellÃn, 874 members
of Don Berna’s Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN) turned in 200-plus weapons in a ceremony
that received a good deal of media attention in Colombia and some favorable
coverage in the United States. The ex-fighters were whisked off for three weeks’
"reorientation" at a recreation center outside MedellÃn; quick background
checks there found 214 under suspicion of having committed past crimes, and
fourteen have been detained.
Those demobilized have entered poorly funded education, job training and job
placement programs, run largely by the MedellÃn mayor’s office. Though the programs
have certainly helped some ex-fighters, the overall result of the BCN process
is far from encouraging. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which
has done the most thorough follow-up on this process,
target="_blank">found in August that efforts "made on a limited budget,
with little central government support and against the backdrop of a partial
demobilization process" have failed to address key issues like "bringing
offenders to justice, compensating victims or dealing with drug trafficking
and other illegal activities," leaving a "long-term risk â€¦ that paramilitary
power in MedellÃn will be strengthened by institutionalizing it."
Worse, the ICG and other observers have pointed out that many of those who
demobilized â€“ somewhere between 30 to 70 percent â€“ were not even AUC members
in the first place. It appears that, in the days before the weapons-handover
ceremony, the BCN recruited hundreds of gang members, common criminals, and
aimless young men from MedellÃn’s slums to pose as paramilitary members and
enter the process as free-riders. It is not clear why Don Berna would have felt
a need to pad his group’s numbers, since a BCN "political coordinator"
MedellÃn’s El Colombiano in March 2003 that his group had 4,000 members.
Today, many ex-BCN members have returned to their former activities, dominating
their marginal MedellÃn neighborhoods and controlling common crime and the local
drug trade. The ICG reports that many "appear to remain in close contact
with the AUC through a cellular phone network, to consult their commanders on
important decisions, and to operate according to their strict hierarchy."
Some, according to Colombia’s human rights
target="_blank">ombudsman, have joined other paramilitary blocs like the Antioquia-based
"Heroes of Granada." As of August, the OAS verification mission
target="_blank">reported, seven demobilized fighters had been murdered. Less
than fifty have found work in the private sector, according to
target="_blank">El Tiempo. Even the Colombian government’s peace negotiator,
the ever-optimistic Luis Carlos Restrepo, has called the BCN process "an
Restrepo and other Colombian officials insist that the upcoming demobilization
will not be a repeat of what happened in MedellÃn last year. Lists of those
turning themselves in are to be handed over beforehand, instead of demobilizing
anybody who shows up. Many of the weapons are being turned over beforehand as
Measures like these are not enough, though, to head off many likely consequences
of a partial, largely improvised demobilization. The current plan does little
to guarantee that the demobilized individuals will truly be removed from the
paramilitary orbit. Most of the blocs about to turn themselves in co-exist geographically
with other AUC groups. The Bananero Bloc, for instance, operates in UrabÃ¡ alongside
Don Berna’s "Heroes of TolovÃ¡" bloc and the venerable Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas
bloc, headed by "AlemÃ¡n," which is not participating in peace talks.
(Don’t miss the bizarre "Farcman and Elena" flash-animation story
on the Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas bloc’s website.)
Will such active groups absorb, or at least exercise strong influence over,
those who demobilize? Or as El Tiempo’s
target="_blank">editorial-writers put it, "What are the mechanisms foreseen
to avoid a situation in which, two years from now, these zones are under the
control of pro-’para’ political movements, NGOs or cooperatives, this time legalized
and legitimized?" Re-recruitment has certainly happened after past peace
processes; in fact, dozens of those likely to be demobilizing from the Bananero
Bloc are former members of the EPL guerrilla group that dominated UrabÃ¡ in the
1980s, and who participated in demobilization programs over a decade ago.
Meanwhile, there is little way to tell whether those being demobilized are
paramilitaries, or whether all of the paramilitaries who belonged to a particular
bloc are demobilizing. Colombian prosecutors and intelligence agents note that
paramilitary blocs’ sizes fluctuate wildly, depending on needs â€“ it is not unusual
for a bloc’s membership to range between 50 and 500 over the course of a year.
At the same time, few are convinced that Colombia’s military and police have
either the resources or the strategic plans in place to fill the "security
vacuum" left in zones where paramilitaries are disappearing. (This topic
will be covered in our next posting.)
A pattern of improvisation
These are just some of the consequences of a peace process that, for two years
now, has consistently adopted a cart-before-the-horse, "let’s see what
happens next" approach. Post-mortems of President AndrÃ©s Pastrana’s failed
1998-2002 attempt to negotiate with the FARC almost uniformly note that a major
reason for failure was the lack of a coherent plan. With both negotiating teams
wildly improvising, the talks careened from topic to topic, commitments were
made hastily and without consultation (such as agreeing to cede five municipalities
to the FARC), other commitments were ignored, and the talks often ran aground
on fruitless discussions of procedural details.
The critics were right. While some improvisation is necessary â€“ negotiators
have to be flexible in a very fluid situation â€“ something as serious and risky
as a peace negotiation cannot be made up as one goes along. Without a plan and
a timeline in place, consideration of the thorniest, most difficult issues â€“
and there are many â€“ gets delayed and put off; delay and foot-dragging in turn
deteriorate confidence in the process and sharpen divisions on both sides about
how, and whether, to proceed.
In the case of the paramilitary talks, we can even discern a troubling pattern
resulting from over-improvisation. The talks have shown a tendency to flounder
for months with no breakthrough, until a crisis takes them to a potential breaking
point. At that point, an ultimatum is issued and both sides take a small, very
public step that is intended to show "progress." Then the talks go
back to their previous floundering.
For instance, this spring the talks were going nowhere, then were thrown into
crisis by reports of continued cease-fire violations and the disappearance /
murder of Carlos CastaÃ±o. On April 27, President Uribe issued a strongly worded
target="_blank">statement demanding that the paramilitaries concentrate themselves
in special zones and progress toward demobilization. By late June, the AUC leadership
had relocated to the San JosÃ© de Ralito zone. The latest "breakthrough"
â€“ the upcoming demobilizations â€“ came after several more months with no progress,
followed by numerous crises, such as the September killing of paramilitary leader
Miguel Arroyave, reports of narcotraffickers entering the paramilitaries (the
press coverage of increasing paramilitary influence over Colombian politics,
and Mancuso’s leak of controversial recordings from the peace negotiations (discussed
below). The Uribe government reacted by agreeing to extradite a mid-level paramilitary
leader; only Mancuso’s October announcement of a big new demobilization was
able to break the impasse.
An elusive legal framework
Improvisation has led to a situation in which combatants are demobilizing,
but there is no law in place to deal with those who stand accused of crimes
against humanity. Those accused of war crimes who turn themselves in over the
next five weeks will enter a legal limbo, confined to sites like the Ralito
zone while they await passage of legislation.
Though the Uribe government has introduced two "alternative punishment"
bills in Colombia’s Congress â€“ the first calling for only "symbolic"
punishments and payments â€“ these have gone nowhere, with opposition coming even
from some of President Uribe’s strongest supporters. Nearly two years into the
process, the government has failed to develop a consensus proposal that major
political factions, as well as victims’ groups and the human rights community,
Senator Rafael Pardo, a leading opponent of Uribe’s first legislative efforts,
has worked with members of other parties â€“ including congressman Wilson Borja
of the left-of-center Democratic Alternative party, who was wounded in a 2000
paramilitary assassination attempt â€“ to craft a new "justice, reconciliation
and reparation" law. This bill hasn’t been introduced in Colombia’s Congress
yet, but it proposes to resolve some of the thorniest issues with five to ten-year
jail sentences for the worst violators and an effort to compensate victims,
both through paramilitaries’ return of stolen assets and government compensation
for damages. The latter commitment could carry an enormous price tag. A special
tribunal, a new branch of the inspector-general’s office (ProcuradurÃa),
and a new National Reparations Council would take on most of these responsibilities.
The legislation should undergo a few modifications â€“ so far, for instance,
anyone who aided, abetted, or funded the paramilitaries remains untouched â€“
but it is a significant improvement over past attempts to create a legal framework
for this demobilization and possible future processes with guerrillas. However,
it has not been introduced yet, the Uribe government has not yet signaled its
support, and it remains to be seen whether all major paramilitary leaders will
agree to spend up to ten years in jail. (While Salvatore Mancuso has indicated
he might accede to this, some of those who have spent more time in Colombia’s
drug underground, like "Don Berna," may refuse.) Even after being
introduced, the bill could take months to pass, and will probably undergo a
Constitutional Court challenge afterward. So a legal framework for demobilization
could be lacking for some time to come.
Colombia has a good deal of experience now with demobilizing armed groups,
but few examples of success. Past "forgive and forget" peace processes
have left behind seething hatreds among survivors. There has also been a failure
to address the poverty and lack of opportunity that led fighters to join armed
groups in the first place. Desire for revenge in an atmosphere of few economic
options is a recipe for another generation of conflict.
These are difficult challenges to overcome, and they require of the Colombian
government not only a deep reserve of political will, but a clear plan and lots
of resources. Not only are justice and opportunity impossible to improvise,
they are also expensive. And for the moment, it is far from clear how BogotÃ¡
plans to pay for them.
Even if Colombia’s government can indeed carve $160 million out of its existing
revenues to demobilize the AUC, this is unlikely to be anywhere enough to help
rebuild lives, livelihoods and communities in the zones the paramilitaries have
dominated. Colombia is obviously counting on the international community to
step in and help. But the international community has so far proven reluctant:
the United States, Sweden and the Netherlands have offered modest support for
logistical aspects of the negotiations, but nobody has paid for demobilizations
yet. The European Union is typical: it has sought clearer human rights guarantees
â€“ nobody wants to fund amnesty for war criminals â€“ but is also holding off until
a clearer plan is in place.
Like any investor, they are unwilling to put their money down without having
a better sense of the details. The continued reliance on improvisation is deterring
them. This is, of course, a bit of a vicious circle: it is difficult to craft
a workable plan until one knows what level of resources one can expect to have
on hand â€“ but donors are unwilling to grant resources until they see a plan.
The way out of this circle is to craft a plan in close coordination with the
donor community, something that has not been done systematically for the paramilitary
The U.S. government shares some of the EU critique. The House-Senate Conference
Committee’s final version of the
foreign aid bill, which may be signed into law at any moment, includes in
report the following concerns about the lack of well-thought-out safeguards.
The managers [the bill's primary authors] believe that the costs of demobilizing
illegal armed groups should be borne by the Colombian Government, not the
United States. The managers are concerned that the demobilization process
is being undertaken without adequate safeguards to ensure the dismantling
of such FTOs, to deter members of such groups from resuming illegal activities,
or to prosecute and punish those involved in drug trafficking and human rights
Since it is non-binding, this language does not make it illegal for the United
States to fund the demobilization of rank-and-file paramilitaries, something
that many in the executive branch would like to do after receiving repeated
entreaties from the Uribe government.
What does make it illegal, remarkably, is the 2001 USA-PATRIOT Act.
Section 803 of this
controversial law makes those who "harbor or conceal" terrorists
subject to fines or up to ten years in jail. The Justice Department has advised
the State Department that this provision could make it a jailable offense to
fund the demobilization even of those who have renounced membership in terrorist
groups (the AUC, FARC and ELN are all on the State Department’s list of international
terrorist groups). So no U.S. money for demobilization will be forthcoming even
if Colombia comes up with a detailed, foolproof plan â€“ at least until a legislative
fix is made to Section 803 of the PATRIOT Act.
Compounding the sense that the talks are occurring in an atmosphere of improvisation
and disorganization â€“ that they are going around in circles â€“ is the high level
of secrecy in which they are taking place. It is difficult to gauge what progress,
if any, emerges from the periodic meetings between negotiators, or how close
or distant agreement on key points may be.
This shield of secrecy is in part a reaction to the Pastrana government’s talks
with the FARC, which took place amid heavy media coverage in the CaguÃ¡n demilitarized
zone. Every minor setback was amplified, and both sides set the process back
by posturing in the press.
The current talks have gone to the other extreme. Without transparency, confidence
in the talks is damaged â€“ especially when the talks are taking place between
a government and an armed group that happens to be pro-government. The AUC’s
many victims and other stakeholders are denied opportunities for meaningful
input into the negotiations as well, adding to a sense of outrage that was perhaps
most palpable when three AUC leaders addressed Colombia’s Congress in July.
Suspicions of foul play are magnified when scandalous pieces of news do penetrate
the barrier of secrecy, such as the recordings of negotiation sessions leaked
to the media by Salvatore Mancuso in September. In the tapes, government peace
negotiator Restrepo assures Mancuso that he is trying to keep reports of paramilitaries
murdering civilians in the Ralito demilitarized zone out of the media. Restrepo
also tells the paramilitaries that they have nothing to fear from the International
Criminal Court, even though Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute.
Make a plan and stick with it
Defenders of the paramilitary talks in their current form often acknowledge
the negotiators’ reliance on improvisation, but respond that the situation is
too complex to demand adherence to a fixed strategy. But nobody is calling for
a rigid, subpoint-by-subpoint timeline â€“ confidence in the talks would suffer
every time they ran behind such a detailed schedule. Of course flexibility is
important. But the current level of improvisation may end up being worse than
no talks at all.
Without plans and mechanisms to keep the talks on track and to verify gains,
the Colombian government is forced to depend heavily on the paramilitaries’
goodwill. For instance, we are required right now to trust that the AUC is indeed
demobilizing eleven blocs and truly reducing its presence in the affected zones.
There is no way to verify this, especially when the timeframe is compressed
to two months and the international community is hardly participating. "Trust
but don’t verify" is a poor guideline.
Colombia has improvised its peace processes before, and it has nearly always
gone badly. Simply taking a leap into the unknown and hoping for the best is
not a strategy. It is a recipe for future neglect of the demobilized fighters,
future resentments in affected communities, and future violence as Colombia’s
conflict drags on.
Coming soon: (4) The post-demobilization security vacuum