Last week, the demobilized paramilitaries’ leadership announced that they were freezing all of their required confessions and other participation in the “Justice and Peace” process. They would continue to withdraw, they said, unless the law was changed to allow their past crimes – other than crimes against humanity – to be characterized as “sedition,” a political crime.
Instead of insisting on the law being enforced, President Uribe shocked many – and engaged in a bitter public dispute with the head of Colombia’s Supreme Court – by taking the paramilitaries’ side, arguing that their crimes should be considered “sedition.”
This is a hard issue to explain to a U.S. audience, because the significance of this legal distinction is not immediately obvious. But everyone we’ve talked to in Colombia insists that it is of utmost importance.
For an idea of why that is, read this very brave column published in yesterday’s El Tiempo by columnist Claudia LÃ³pez, a Colombian journalist who deserves significant credit for breaking the “para-politics” scandal story in 2005 and 2006. Here is an English translation.
July 30, 2007
The President finally acknowledged the obvious: that he promised the paramilitaries he would treat them as political criminals, with all the impunity that goes along with it. And he continues on a personal crusade to comply with that commitment – even if he has to confront the courts, national and international opinion, to ignore the victims, to change jurisprudence and to obstruct justice.
It is not correct that the only way to guarantee legal benefits and reinsertion for paramilitaries who turn in their weapons is to declare them to be political criminals. There are other alternatives with less impunity, and with more consideration for victims’ rights and for all Colombians’ right not to see a mafioso regime legalized. But the President is not considering these options, because he has to deliver the impunity he offered, and not the reinsertion that is legally possible.
If treated as political criminals, the paramilitaries can be assured that they will not be extradited or judged for narcotrafficking in Colombia. This will allow them to keep trafficking drugs as they see fit, amassing fortunes and corrupting power, which is the weapon that works the best. As they have done so far, they will be able to keep participating in politics, with the advantage that they will no longer need figureheads or placeholders – if they wish, they can be candidates and officeholders directly. And they will legalize the entire political structure that they elected in the Congress, in municipal councils, departmental legislatures, governors’ offices, mayors’ offices and the Presidency. In all the elections of the past ten years, the paramilitaries had winning candidates thanks to the power of money, weapons and their association with – or displacement of – those who appeared to hold political and economic power.
To dismantle paramilitarism and avoid its repetition means dismantling this power structure, and guaranteeing that no government representative ever again sponsors or benefits from criminal groups with the excuse that they help attack the guerrillas. If legal and reinsertion benefits are granted under the legal category of conspiracy to commit crimes, the state and society will have better guarantees that this phenomenenon will be dismantled and will not reemerge. If impunity is given through treatment as political criminals, this structure will not be dismantled, it will be legalized.
The difference from the guerrillas is not in the cruelty of their crimes or the nobility of their motivations, but in the origin of their criminal activity, their penetration of public power and the alternatives for their reinsertion. The guerrillas are bandits, on the margins of – and against – the state. The paramilitaries are the children of power: armed and trained, in the majority of cases, by members of the security forces, protected by the politicians who represented the state, and illegally financed by economic powers who functioned legally. To substitute for violence and re-establish democracy, the guerrillas must be brought into the exercise of political power without the use of arms. The paramilitaries, on the contrary, must be ejected from the political power that they appropriated illegally, with the consent of state representatives, and that they continue to exercise as though it were legal. The difference is that the paramilitaries did take power, while the guerrillas barely control – ever more marginally – a few territories.
To comply with what was agreed, the President and many others defend their position by saying that it is just as political to attack the state as it is to defend it. There is no doubt that the guerrillas attack citizens and the state. But to accept that the paramilitaries’ criminal actions were in defense of the state is to twist the most basic logic to its foundations. Since when does defending the state mean massacring and chopping up Colombians, assassinating political opponents, union leaders, judges and investigators, displacing thousands of families, stealing money from the public treasury and land from the peasantry, creating a narcotrafficking, mafiosa structure, and imposing their candidates through force in order to take political power? Since when is such criminal behavior considered defending the state? Perhaps it has been that way ever since it was negotiated: in exchange for arms and silence, the impunity that is now being defended so vehemently.