After a sputtering start at the beginning of the year, several more demobilized paramilitary leaders have begun appearing before prosecutors to give their confessions. This is part of the “Justice and Peace” process established by law in 2005 and modified by Colombia’s Constitutional Court in 2006. Some 2,812 paramilitaries accused of crimes against humanity must admit to their crimes, detail their ill-gotten wealth, and reveal their structures of command and support.
This process is not going well at all. In fact, it is rapidly becoming a perverse caricature of what it should be.
After six months, only 40 of the 2,812 have appeared to give confessions. Authorities don’t even know the whereabouts of about 700 of them. One of the first leaders to testify, Salvatore Mancuso, began his process last December. He has made a handful of appearances, and is not scheduled to report again until September.
At least Mancuso has confessed to crimes and named some names. (Whether he is telling “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” remains to be determined.)
Instead, some of the more recent paramilitary defendants have chosen to stonewall. They are admitting to almost nothing.
In late May, IvÃ¡n Roberto Duque (”Ernesto BÃ¡ez“), the nominal head of the AUC’s powerful Central BolÃvar Bloc, insisted that he committed no serious crimes because his role in the group was little more than that of a spokesman and ideologist. An exasperated representative of the government’s Inspector-General’s office said to him, “SeÃ±or ‘BÃ¡ez,’ if you are not going to confess to any crime covered by the Justice and Peace Law, then you are in the wrong place.”
HernÃ¡n Giraldo, whose Tayrona Bloc carried out a reign of terror over northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, insisted that his crimes were very few. He said that his role was largely political after 2000, and blamed others for most of the murders and massacres attributed to him. Giraldo, a prominent and long-wanted narcotrafficker, said he only owns a few “finquitas” (small farms) with which to raise money for reparations to his victims. Asked about the locations of mass graves where his victims’ bodies can be found, Giraldo said that he knows of nothing in particular, “but I can ask around.”
His hair in a ponytail and his shirt unbuttoned halfway to his navel, Freddy RendÃ³n (”El AlemÃ¡n“), whose Ã‰lmer CÃ¡rdenas Bloc dominated much of the violent UrabÃ¡ region, also denied nearly all responsibility. St. Petersburg Times reporter David Adams was in MedellÃn during the trial; his account is a must-read.
In court, Rendon admitted only to ordering the assassination of a local mayor whom he accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. He also admitted to kidnapping and murdering four peasant leaders in Rio Sucio in late 1996.
Other than that he was vague on details. “You can be certain that they are dead,” he told the court. “What I can’t be precise about is with how many bullets, two, or three or five.”
One of the most feared of all the paramilitary leaders is Carlos Mario JimÃ©nez (”Macaco“) of the Central BolÃvar Bloc. Macaco is widely believed to be up to his elbows in paramilitarism and narcotrafficking to this day. The account of his confession in El Tiempo, then, is amazing.
It’s as though the more than a decade that Carlos Mario JimÃ©nez spent as head of the Central BolÃvar Bloc was a blank. … JimÃ©nez announced that he would compile information with imprisoned AUC members about the location of 78 bodies, but he denied any direct participation in the deaths. Nor did he speak of massacres or the mass graves atrributed to him in Putumayo, Barrancabermeja and southern BolÃvar.
Meanwhile RamÃ³n Isaza of the eastern Antioquia paramilitaries – one of the oldest AUC leaders, who reportedly organized his first militia back in 1978 – claimed that the early stages of Alzheimer’s were keeping him from remembering his hundreds of alleged crimes. Isaza actually called on his victims to come forward to “help him remember” the abuses he committed. El Tiempo columnist MarÃa Jimena DuzÃ¡n noted that Isaza had no problem remembering the names of local candidates he was endorsing in a recently taped telephone conversation.
Soon to testify is Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna“), MedellÃn’s dominant paramilitary leader. To the consternation of many, Don Berna was absolved last week of charges that he plotted the 2005 murder of a CÃ³rdoba departmental legislator. For this crime, committed well after the paramilitaries declared a cease-fire, Don Berna was the first top paramilitary leader sent to prison. The case against him fell apart this month, however, after the main witness suddenly retracted his testimony.
The content-free confessions are only part of the reason why the paramilitary process is going so badly. Even more galling have been the huge pep rallies that some of the paramilitary leaders have organized outside the premises while they testify. Outside the closed-access confessions, observers are treated to a grotesque, “only in Colombia” scene: hundreds of bused-in, banner-waving supporters, with loud music and raucous chanting, singing the praises of a drug-running warlord on his way to face questioning about mass murder. The supporters’ displays easily overwhelm the few dozen victims who have dared to appear, holding pictures of murdered loved ones.
El Tiempo described the scene in MedellÃn outside the confession of Freddy RendÃ³n (”El AlemÃ¡n”): “Since dawn, buses had been arriving with 350 of RendÃ³n’s sympathizers, who formed an honor guard and tossed white and red carnations at the INPEC [prison agency] motorcade that transported him.” Added the St. Petersburg Times’ David Adams:
[O]utside the justice building more than 300 banner-waving Rendon supporters arrived in buses, complete with musicians and dancers to hail the man they call El Lider, the leader.
At one point Rendon appeared at a sixth floor window to salute them and shake his hips to the music below. …
When Rendon left the building in a police sport utility vehicle with heavily tinted windows, his fans showered the vehicle with blue and yellow confetti.
Not exactly Nuremberg or The Hague, is it?
Outside HernÃ¡n Giraldo’s confession in Barranquilla were assembled nearly a thousand people, including hundreds of Kogi and Arhuaco people in traditional dress. (The Kogi and Arhuaco are two of four indigenous ethnicities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the region that Giraldo came to dominate.) Meanwhile Giraldo was inside confessing to the 2005 murder of Kogi leader Gentil Cruz, and little else. The Kogi population, battered by violence, is half what it was fifty years ago.
El Tiempo explained how the indigenous supporters came to be outside the confession of a man who caused their communities so much suffering.
Asked about how the indigenous people came to Barranquilla, [indigenous governor Juan Mamacatan] could not say for sure: “They convinced them with little gifts. They don’t know how to read or write, and some don’t even speak Spanish.”… Alfonso Vacuna, an indigenous spokesman, said that they were financed by one of HernÃ¡n Giraldo’s sons-in-law.
“Macaco” brought 500 of his followers along too. They provided him an honor guard as well, though authorities tried to minimize their imposing presence by requiring them to remain in a park across the street from the courthouse.
Here is an account from the Popular Training Institute (IPC), a MedellÃn-based human-rights organization.
“Carlos Mario, Caucasia supports you,” they shouted in chorus. And one resident of that Antioquia town explained their support: “He brought a lot of aid to the barrio, especially food, because we are very poor,” said Libardo, a blue-collar worker. At his side, JosÃ© Luis justified this act: “He has collaborated a lot with the town and the people, he served us and we have to help him, he is like our father.”
The demonstration included a liturgical ceremony, celebrated by the priest DubÃ¡n Agudelo, of Santa Fe de Antioquia, who argued that he celebrated the Eucharist “to ask the Lord for peace.”
El Tiempo offered a hint as to who was footing the bill for this display.
A resident of Bajo Cauca (northern Antioquia) confirmed that people close to “Macaco” offered the fully paid trip plus 100,000 pesos (US$50) to each one of the people who participated in the event, though the demobilized say that they paid for it out of their own pockets and on their own initiative.
And what of the paramilitary leaders’ victims, who had also come to these events in the hope of learning what happened to their husbands, wives, parents and children? The IPC account of Macaco’s confession is shameful.
Omitting her name for security reasons, a member of the Regional Victims’ Movement, who attended the confession of alias Macaco, criticized the victims’ families’ relocation to a room in the MedellÃn Convention Center.
“Why do we have to pay the price for this? It is not our fault that others have come to celebrate the crimes against humanity that these men committed,” the woman said with a tone of rage in her voice.
She added: “To prohibit the victims from carrying out our demonstration not only ignores a legitimate right that comes from our pain and suffering, it also makes us invisible. The saddest thing of all is that it seems like the country doesn’t care about the victims’ pain, but it does allow others to toss flowers at murderers.”
The “Justice and Peace” confession process, we all were told, would offer the paramilitaries’ victims a chance to know the truth, and to hear the victimizers express contrition for what they did. Instead, over the past month the confessions have mutated into something far uglier: another chance for the paramilitary leadership to give their victims the finger.
Victims who have organized to seek redress from the paramilitaries are having a very tough time. “160 of those who have attended the ‘Justice and Peace’ hearings have dared to report to the Prosecutor-General’s office (FiscalÃa) and to the National Reparations and Reconciliation Commission (CNRR) that they are being persecuted,”El Tiempo reports. “Those who are harrassing them ask that they stop making their demands or risk being killed. In some cases they are offered ridiculously low sums of money in exchange for desisting.”
The highest-profile recent attack on a victims’ leader was the January murder of Yolanda Izquierdo, who had organized a group of families in CÃ³rdoba department to press for the return of stolen land. Colombian authorities’ investigation of Izquierdo’s case led to the arrest of a triggerman, but has otherwise gone absolutely nowhere despite international pressure. El Tiempo reports that fear has caused most of those who struggled alongside Izquierdo to give up and stop pressing their claims.
With silence before prosecutors, gaudy displays of support, and threats against victims, the paramilitary leadership is once again getting away with outrageous behavior. So where does this leave those who want justice?
As is the case with much in Colombia right now, all roads go through the Fiscalia, the Prosecutor-General’s office.
The confessions are so far in their first stage, the “versiÃ³n libre,” in which the paramilitary leader voluntarily confesses to what he did. The prosecutors have hardly begun their cross-examinations and their investigations into whether the paramilitary defendant is lying or omitting grave crimes. If evidence points to lies or deliberate omission, the “Justice and Peace” law states that the defendant loses his right to a brief, 5-to-8-year jail sentence, and will face decades in prison.
But it is up to the prosecutors to take the step of challenging the paramilitary leaders’ testimonies. They will have to do so even though their institution is overwhelmed, underfunded, infiltrated and threatened. The Justice and Peace Unit of the FiscalÃa has only 23 prosecutors and 150 investigators to handle 2,812 defendants. The unit’s chief, Luis GonzÃ¡lez, says he needs 70 more prosecutors.
With long odds like these, is Colombia’s justice system up to the task? It is far from clear, and there is a strong likelihood that the paramilitary leaders’ repugnant strategy – stonewalling in court plus intimidating victims – just might work.
A lot depends on the prosecutor-general himself. Mario IguarÃ¡n says he wants to dismantle paramilitary power, and has occasionally sounded like a crusader. But he is politically weak and some doubt his resolve.
Washington can help here. The U.S. government must improve the odds by regularly demonstrating public, unequivocal support for IguarÃ¡n and his efforts to weaken paramilitary power, both through the “Justice and Peace” process and the “para-politics” investigations.
The foreign-aid bill that just passed the House of Representatives, which roughly doubles aid to the FiscalÃa, is a huge step in the right direction. But as the past month’s “confessions” make clear, the hard part still lies ahead.