An update on the ELN talks The victims’ movement and the view from San Onofre, Sucre
Dec 072006

Yesterday Colombia’s top paramilitary leadership, from their new quarters in the Itagüí maximum-security prison south of Medellín, declared that they were pulling out of their talks with the Colombian government.

It’s impossible right now to know if this is the final word, or what will happen next. Will there be an outbreak of violence? Will the Colombian government begin extraditing paramilitary leaders to the United States? Will the paramilitaries open up and identify everyone who ever helped them? All of the above? Or will they find a way to paper over this crisis and allow the process to continue limping along?

It’s anyone’s guess right now. Here is some of the coverage in this morning’s news.

The most thorough of today’s pieces was the "Durante tres horas" article in El Tiempo. Here is a translation.

December 7, 2006

For three hours, the "paras" did not allow Commissioner [government peace negotiator] Luis Carlos Restrepo to speak

He had not unloaded his papers in the dining area of cell block 1 in the Itagüí maximum-security prision, when the shouting of half a hundred paramilitaries stunned him.

They "fired" words of all calibers at him, reproaching him for a supposed treason against the agreements with the self-defense groups.

The walls spoke to him as well. They were papered with posters with messages like "The government will not be able to silence the truth" and "No more falsehoods."

Restrepo tried to impose his voice but, one by one, the ex-heads of the AUC exited, leaving him speaking by himself. "It was the tensest moment. Perhaps the most tense of the entire peace process," a person who has been close to the dialogues told EL TIEMPO.

Only four "ex-paras" remained, before the surprised eyes of the Commissioner, as well as those of the chief of the OAS mession, Sergio Caramagna, and Monsignor Julio César Vidal, the bishop of Montería, who accompanied him.

Little by little, seeing that the dialogue had begun with the four who stayed, the "rebels" approached again. But it was not the end of the high tension that had even alerted the guards.

"Ernesto Báez," the former head of the "Central Bolívar Bloc," who during the process was characterized as the most vehement of the paramilitaries, used all of his verbal artillery to express his anger with what they considered a breach of the agreements that led to their demobilization.

Over and over, in a tone that always sounded threatening, he shouted, "We are going to tell all of the truth, all of the truth, here or wherever." He said that the process was "formally broken off."

The ex-commanders of the "Central Bolívar" were the "para" hardliners at the meeting. "Macaco, without the verbal spewing of Báez, but with equal belligerence, said that they are not going to allow justice to punish only them for crimes that had the collaboration of important sectors of the establishment.

"Don Berna," who has been in Itagüí since October of last year, and Salvatore Mancuso tried to calm their infuriated prison companions.

But challenging words continued to be heard. Even that the possibility of extradition did not matter to them as much as telling the country about how far "para" infiltration has reached.

Others asked to be returned to Ralito [the site in rural Córdoba department where negotiations had occurred] and given five days to "return to the jungle."

What provoked them?

The conditions in the Itagüí jail, much different from those they had in the La Ceja recreation center, fed their anger. The situation of Ramón Isaza, a man they consider to be the symbol of self-defense groups, is one of their pretexts.

Isaza, head of the Magdalena Medio paramilitaries, is not only affected by Parkinson’s disease, but by the cold of the jail. "And they didn’t even let him have the poncho with which he covered himself in La Ceja," said a person close to him.

The relative freedom they had there to receive visitors, which they lost in Itagüí, where a penitentiary regime reigns, has also exasperated their spirits.

During the three hours that the heated encounter lasted, there was not a moment of calm. Restrepo, in the barely five minutes in which he could talk to them, insisted on President Álvaro Uribe’s message: that the benefits for those who stay in the process will be respected.

But they argued that the government "believed in gossip" (rumors of escape plots) to order their confinement in a jail, something that they only expected after being judged by the Justice and Peace Law.

They waited for him in the Itagüí jail with a cacophony of shouts. "Báez" headed the verbal offensive, and repeated several times that they were going to tell all the truth wherever they are, in reference to the possibility of being extradited. Some requested time to return to the jungle.

Even before the meeting was finished, the rumor had circulated in the Capitol, in Bogotá, that the process had broken off.

The Commissioner, Caramagna and Monsignor Vidal, whom some saw in tears, left the jail with long faces. There remained, however, the possibility that the Church and the OAS might extend some bridge to keep the process alight.

Last night, while a security operation took place in former zones of "para" influence to avoid disorders like those caused by the jail transfers last weekend, the ex-AUC prepared a declaration. This newspaper knew that, despite the crisis, the government will not modify its position.

The truth: the paramilitaries’ secret weapon?

The possibility of a rupture of the peace process with the paramilitaries, or at least of its suspension by the demobilized self-defense group leaders, raises a big question: with what can the AUC heads pressure at this point in the process?

The declaration of two weeks ago in which the same "paras" made a call to those who supported them from all sectors – businessmen, industrialists, political and economic bosses, government employees, regional and local leaders, and members of the security forces – can be a key clue. At this point in the process, the only weapon remaining for them is the threat of telling the truth.

Why? The negotiation with the government finished when all of the demobilizations were fulfilled and when the decree regulating the Justice and Peace Law was promulgated. And now, after President Álvaro Uribe’s decision to move them from the La Ceja recreation center to the Itagüí maximum-security prison, the self-defense groups’ heads are imprisoned, and the process, as several government spokespeople have said, is in the hands not of the executive branch, but of the attorney-general and the judges.

It is clear that at no moment during the process did the AUC ever consider the possibility that its leaders would be taken to a jail. Special centers like that in La Ceja were spoken of, and the "paras," then, interpreted Uribe’s decision as a breach of the agreements and they fear, in some cases, that their extraditions are imminent.

On the other hand, the revelation of Senator Miguel de la Espriella, a few days after visiting the La Ceja center, about the [2001] meeting of Atlantic coast political bosses with Castaño and Mancuso, and their invitation to all politicians who attended this and other meetings to tell of their participation, was without a doubt a first taste of what might come and a first threat.

In addition, it does not seem certain that if the "paras" will lose their benefits under the Justice and Peace Law if they fail to ratify their willingness to abide by that law before February 13. At least that is the view of Luis González, director of the attorney-general’s Unit for Justice and Peace, who assured that the Law does not establish terms for how people may begin the process, and that the second article says that this norm is for those who wish to collaborate (voluntarily) with justice.

This part of the Law gives them, then, certain room for maneuver so that they may use the weapons for pressure that they have left: the truth.

One Response to “The end of the paramilitary negotiations?”

  1. jcg Says:

    The crisis is still ongoing so things are rather confusing right now, definitely. Whether this’ll take days, weeks or months is absolutely up to debabte.

    Btw, I doubt that, whatever the ultimate outcome of this crisis is, the paramilitary leaders will ever reveal the names of everybody that has helped them.

    What’s more, I don’t dismiss the possibility that they’ll intentionally omit and add names here and there according to their own political and judicial benefit, not out of any real obligation with the “Truth” or with “Justice”.

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