The sincerest form of flattery A new military-aid “slush fund”?
Oct 292005

On October 13, armed men kidnapped Hernando Cadavid from his flower farm in Ríonegro, Antioquia, not far from Medellín’s airport. Nine days later, Cadavid’s body was found, and seven men were arrested for the crime.

This sounds like the sort of thing that happens all too often in Colombia: yet another botched kidnapping ending in tragedy. But Cadavid’s murder deserves special attention for at least two reasons. First, Cadavid has a powerful neighbor – his farm is “three blocks” from one belonging to President Uribe, according to Colombia’s daily El Tiempo – so one would expect him to be living in one of the safest places in the entire country.

Second, it was soon discovered that those responsible for the crime were all ex-paramilitaries, members of the “Heroes of Granada” paramilitary bloc, which was headed by “Don Berna” – Diego Fernando Murillo – a longtime drug figure-turned paramilitary leader who, though currently residing in the Itagüí jail near Medellín, remains one of the most powerful people in Colombia. Over 2,000 members of the “Heroes of Granada” turned in weapons at a ceremony in early August, but – as with nearly all other AUC blocs that have turned in weapons – their demobilization and reintegration have since been troubled, improvised, uncoordinated and poorly funded.

Those accused of Cadavid’s kidnapping and murder are among many members of the “Heroes of Granada” who may be slipping through the cracks. The vast majority of the bloc’s members remain unemployed and see few opportunities. Some may be re-joining the paramilitaries; a former deputy of “Don Berna” named “René” is known to be recruiting in the zone where the “Heroes of Granada” formerly operated. Others may be freelancing, engaging in crimes ranging from theft and drug-dealing to attempted kidnappings like that of President Uribe’s neighbor.

Columnist León Valencia, a former ELN guerrilla, told El Tiempo that the Cadavid case is “a clear demonstration that the reinsertion process is out of control, even in a zone where the demobilized supposedly continue to maintain ties to their old structures.” This assessment applies to the whole country. In the past three years, about 11,000 paramilitaries have “demobilized” and 8,000 low-ranking guerrillas and paramilitaries have deserted, while another 11,000 or so paramilitaries are to turn themselves in by sometime next year. That adds up to roughly 30,000 people – nearly all of them young, nearly all of them unemployed, and nearly all of them skilled in the use of weapons and little else.

It has become a cliché in the local media to refer to this cohort as a “time bomb” about to explode in Colombian society. This is an apt metaphor. The demobilization and reintegration of 30,000 ex-fighters will require of the Colombian government a demobilization and reintegration effort of historically ambitious proportions. Unless this effort benefits from generous resourcing and almost superhuman energy and diligence, Colombia is likely to suffer from a wave of violence at the hands of frustrated, unemployed ex-paramilitaries – whether they become common criminals, members of expanding organized-crime mafias, or members of re-formed paramilitary groups.

So far, overwhelming evidence indicates that no superhuman effort is underway. Much to the contrary, the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) efforts of the Colombian government – particularly those of the central government – are far too small, too slow, and too unplanned.

Colombia’s media have done a decent job of documenting the DDR programs’ serious problems. On September 20, El Tiempo devoted much of a Sunday issue to this topic. The paper sent reporters to seven regions where demobilizations had taken place months earlier, to find out how the disarmaments had proceeded and what had become of the former paramiltaries in the zone.

The news was mostly grim. Here are a few highlights from that series.

  • Only 65 percent of demobilizing paramilitaries have turned in any weapons. As of September, of 10,383 demobilized paramilitaries, only 6,636 had been armed at the moment of demobilization. Of these 6,636 weapons, thirty percent were unusable or in poor condition, according to the Inter-Institutional Anti-Terrorist Analysis Group (GIAT) of the OAS. The 3,747 unarmed paramilitaries claimed that their work had to do with intelligence and policy. The greatest discrepancy between the number of demobilized and the number of weapons handed in occurred when Don Berna’s “Heroes of Granada” demobilized 2,033 combatants in August, while turning in only 1,120 weapons.

    It is quite possible that the paramilitaries have chosen to hide their best weapons. (Indeed, authorities have discovered hidden arms caches belonging to the “Heroes of Granada,” Mojana, and “Liberators of the South” blocs.) Another explanation may be that many of the demobilizing individuals were not paramilitaries at all, but common criminals who were “recruited” at the last minute to swell the paramilitary ranks at demobilization ceremonies.

  • Demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas are being paid generously for information. Colombia’s Defense Ministry reports that it paid 9.24 billion pesos (about US$4.2 million) to 1,419 demobilized combatants (roughly US$3,000 each) between January 2003 and July 2005, in exchange for additional military equipment or useful information. Many have served as “guides,” accompanying the security forces on operations and helping them to find arms caches or encampments, or to identify suspected armed-group members.

    This is a situation that other demobilizations – such as those in Central America in the 1990s – did not face, since they occurred after the conflict was over. Many have expressed concern about using former combatants as elements in a conflict that they have sought to escape. Former government peace commissioner Daniel García-Peña, who heads the non-governmental group Planeta Paz, told El Tiempo, “The idea of ‘reinsertion’ is based on the premise of taking people out of the war and establishing them in the civilian population. What we are doing is a perversion of this idea – instead of removing them we are getting them to change sides.”

  • Nearly one of every 100 demobilized combatants is already dead. One of the worst cases is the Catatumbo Bloc, which demobilized in December. Throughout Colombia, as of September, 177 out of roughly 19,000 demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas had died, most of them murdered. Twenty-four of the dead are members of the AUC’s Catatumbo Bloc, which demobilized 1,425 members last December: within nine months, one out of every 59 of the bloc’s members was lost.

    This demobilization – one of the largest, in a highly conflictive, strategic, coca-rich area along the Venezuelan border, which the paramilitaries had taken from the guerrillas with much bloodshed in 1999-2000 – would have been difficult under any circumstances. But the Catatumbo experience has been particularly disappointing. In the nearby city of Cúcuta, the “Reference Center” designed to serve ex-paramilitaries went through three directors in nine months. The center’s current director told El Tiempo that “the reinserted combatants are paying the consequences for a process that had no prior planning and which was not effectively linked to the region’s economic base.” As of September, the Catatumbo effort included only one productive project, employing only a few dozen ex-combatants.

    The security situation in Catatumbo remains extremely precarious. Active paramilitaries are present in Cúcuta; while they claim to be protecting the demobilized combatants, they are in fact believed to be recruiting for the “Black Eagles” and the “Red Eagles,” two new paramilitary units which have recently appeared in the region. Meanwhile, El Tiempo claims that the FARC’s 33rd Front has taken advantage of the demobilizations by re-taking control of most of La Gabarra and Tibú, two of Catatumbo’s most notorious coca battlegrounds. The paramilitaries, however, still maintain control of the main narco-trafficking route through the region into Venezuela.

  • The influence of large-scale narcotraffickers in and around Cali has made the “Calima Bloc” demobilization particularly disastrous. Since they demobilized in December, members of this bloc – responsible, among other crimes, for the horrific 2001 Alto Naya massacre – have suffered an even higher death rate than the Catatumbo Bloc. Thirty-six out of 553 members – one in fifteen – were killed in nine months.

    The bloc’s leadership had promised that 800 of its members would report for demobilization, but 243 did not show up. “30 percent did not appear, and it is very likely that they are with the narcos,” a “high-level functionary” of the Colombian government’s ombudsman’s office told El Tiempo. Indeed, the department of Valle del Cauca, where the Calima Bloc operated, is afflicted by a heavy presence of large-scale drug traffickers, particularly the remnants of the North Valle cartel, whose leaders’ internal disputes have claimed thousands of lives in the past few years.

    The Calima Bloc demobilization is a shambles. The ombudsman’s office claims to know the current location of only twenty-seven of its members, while El Tiempo reports that the guerrillas are taking advantage of the bloc’s absence by increasing their presence in rural Valle del Cauca.

  • The government of Medellín, not the national government, has paid nearly all the cost of the first demobilization. In November 2003, Don Berna’s Medellín-based Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN) was the first to turn in its weapons, in a nationally televised ceremony. Once the cameras left, however, the central government failed to follow through. The Medellín city government was left holding the bag, with 868 ex-paramilitaries – many of them in fact gang members and street criminals rounded up at the last minute to pose as demobilizing BCN fighters – essentially in its custody.

    Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo and his Secretary of Government Alonso Sálazar, an expert on youth gangs and crime, decided to use the city’s budget to reintegrate these individuals. Though they recognized that many were not in fact ex-paramilitaries, they took advantage of an opportunity to rehabilitate individuals who were likely to continue contributing to violence and criminality in Medellín. El Tiempo reports that the Medellín city government has since spent almost 8.9 billion pesos per year (US$4 million, about $4,500 per ex-BCN member) on reintegration efforts.

    Two years later, the ex-BCN members have made the most progress in terms of education and employment, and Medellín’s murder rate has dropped precipitously. The news isn’t all good, though: 27 of the 868 demobilized – one in 32 – had died in the first 22 months after the demobilization. Ex-BCN members meanwhile have achieved disproportionate political clout, winning control of neighborhood advisory councils and fielding candidates for the March 2006 legislative elections, while maintaining a close relationship with their former commander, Don Berna.

  • Nationally, the bill for demobilization and reintegration will be very high. Colombia’s Defense Ministry estimates that the cost of demobilizing the paramilitaries will run between 20 and 25 billion pesos (roughly US$9 million to US$11 million). Their subsequent reintegration into society will carry a far higher price tag. For its (rather flawed) efforts as of September, Colombia’s Interior Ministry claims to have spent 200 billion pesos (about US$90 million) and expects to spend double that amount (US$180 million) in 2006. It expects three-quarters to come from the Colombian government’s budget, and the remaining 25 percent from international donors. Given a general lack of donor enthusiasm due to the lenient “Justice and Peace” law governing the paramilitary demobilizations, this US$45 million donation goal for 2006 might not be easy to attain.

These difficult facts hardly even scratch the surface of what is already proving to be a tremendously complicated and expensive demobilization and reintegration process. Cost, scale, logistics and security all pose enormous challenges, as do questions like seizure of paramilitaries’ stolen assets, reparations to victims, and the need to verify that paramilitary networks are truly being dismantled.

In order to address these challenges, the Colombian government must seize the initiative to a degree we have not seen before. If the Bogotá government makes evident, through actions and investments, that it is serious about the DDR process, donor nations will start writing checks. If, however, the process continues to be improvised and poorly funded – if the many disturbing problems in the El Tiempo series continue to be well documented – then not only will few foreign governments want to devote resources, but episodes like the murder of Hernando Cadavid will become even more frequent.

2 Responses to “The demobilization “time bomb””

  1. jcg Says:

    A pretty comprehensive review of some of the greater flaws and worries in the demobilization process. Improvisation continues to be one of the main issues at work here, even if it’s effects are not always consistent nationwide.

    I’d add that the process of reintegrating guerrillas and others who have deserted also shares a number of the mentioned problems, and probably would also have to be be dealt with in a similar manner (if and when that ever happens…).

  2. Paquita Says:

    Uribe needs the AUC to be re-elected.
    If he is, he AUC would be safer regarding impunity and may avoid extradition, they know Uribe’s directions for use and are extremely powerful, drugs, 5.000.000 hectares of stolen lands, economy, politics, they are racketing everybody, even the poor streets vendors are…
    Demobilization process should end December 31st. This is not possible.
    There will not be foreign aid if the so-called law “Justice and Peace” stays as it is. I hope.
    In 2006, the US government should impose the extradition of at least 10 tops of AUC leaders.
    If Uribe agrees for extradition, politically he is a dead man.
    The negotiations will be interrupted.
    In Latin America, Uribe is US Government best ally, USAID gave 4 billion dollars to Colombia since 2000, 80% of the money is going to military purpose. The official army is deeply involved with the AUC and some US officials have meetings with their leaders.
    Uribe is bind hand and foot by the AUC and by the US Government.
    An inextricable situation…

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