The Colombian governmentâ€™s talks with the AUC paramilitary group are high on the agenda at a meeting going on right now in Cartagena with representatives of 24 donor nations and international lenders. The Uribe government is expected to give a strong push for international funds to pay for the demobilization and reintegration of paramilitary fighters.
While this sounds reasonable, most non-governmental organizations, including CIP, are urging donors to hold back their contributions for now.
This, after all, is not a post-conflict demobilization. Not only is a peace agreement with the AUC far off, the Colombian government has not even passed a law to determine what will happen to the more than 3,000 paramilitaries who have already turned in weapons. This leaves serious human-rights abusers with a huge opportunity to avoid punishment. It also means that paramilitary networks of violence, intimidation, command and financing may remain intact.
Human Rights Watch, in a January 18 memo, called on donors at the Cartagena meeting â€œto withhold demobilization aid unless Colombia enacts a law that can effectively dismantle paramilitary groups and hold their members accountable for massacres and other crimes against humanity.â€
This position is very reasonable, and CIP supports it. But Eduardo Pizarro, an influential Colombian political scientist, thinks it is tantamount to murder.
The brother of Carlos Pizarro, the assassinated head of the M-19 guerrillas, Dr. Pizarro is no ideologue and is a harsh critic of all armed groups (in fact, he was wounded in a 1999 paramilitary assassination attempt just outside BogotÃ¡â€™s National University, where he was a respected professor). He is also a columnist for El Tiempo, Colombiaâ€™s most-circulated newspaper.
In his column last Sunday, Pizarro called the Human Rights Watch recommendation â€œa very serious error,â€ adding that if donors follow HRWâ€™s advice, the result could be â€œa new humanitarian tragedy in Colombia.â€
Tomorrow, when the AUC demobilizations have culminated and ex-combatants are drawn to criminal gangs due to a lack of resources to reinsert them into productive life, HRW will have to answer to Colombians for its wrongheaded and unhelpful recommendations.
Pizarro bases most of his very forceful argument on one nightmare scenario: the post-conflict experience in El Salvador.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, after the signing of peace accords, former combatants were left at societyâ€™s margins, without jobs or education. They ended up entering criminal or juvenile gangs (the â€œmarasâ€) that are assaulting both countries. That is without even mentioning the thousands and thousands of weapons that remained available after the civil warâ€™s end.
During the [Salvadoran] civil war (1980-1992) an average of 6,250 murders per year took place in the country. In 1998, the number of murders had jumped to 8,281, making this small nation the most violent in Latin America, even above Colombia. Today, El Salvadorâ€™s murder rate is twice Colombiaâ€™s.
Eduardo Pizarro knows better than this. The El Salvador comparison is specious for many reasons.
First, most of the gang members committing crimes today hadnâ€™t even reached puberty by the time formal hostilities ended in El Salvador, thirteen years ago. Second, several Latin American nations that had no civil wars have seen crime rates and gang activity similarly skyrocket: Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela to name a few. Third, many of the worst criminals â€“ including those who brought the mara phenomenon to El Salvador â€“ were not combatants; they were among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans with criminal records whom the United States began deporting after 1992. Fourth, it shouldn’t be surprising that crime rates were lower during the years of war, death squads and military rule: extremely repressive regimes almost always have low crime rates (Russiaâ€™s murder rate was also lower back when the KGB ran things).
Fifth, itâ€™s a huge stretch to portray El Salvador as a country whose post-conflict rebuilding and reintegration process was stiffed by international donors. Well over a dozen countries and international organizations gave El Salvador well over a billion dollars in aid in the years after 1992. (See this PDF file.) Over $100 million went to ONUSAL, a UN mission that oversaw the demobilization of 11,000 guerrillas (who eventually handed in more than 10,000 weapons, 74 missiles and 9,000 grenades) and three times as many soldiers, verified a cease-fire, observed elections, and much else. Though international donations were often delivered too slowly and there were some shortfalls (problems that Colombia will also face), donors â€“ including the United States â€“ carried out ambitious and (for their time) innovative efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants, including distribution of land to nearly all ex-combatants who wanted it.
Of course it’s possible that the El Salvador scenario could play out in Colombia. However, if it does â€“ contrary to Pizarroâ€™s argument â€“ it will have little to do with donors deciding, with NGO encouragement, to condition demobilization funds on the approval of clear rules for justice and dismantling.
In fact, the argument works the other way. Pizarro needs to respond to a concern that his column only mentions briefly: that the current scheme â€“ and the Uribe governmentâ€™s likely proposal â€“ will fail to dismantle the paramilitaries, leading to an entirely different, but perhaps scarier, nightmare scenario.
The reality is that the essence of paramilitarism is not being dismantled. Those disarming in the [televised demobilization] ceremonies are still under the hierarchy of those who are still armed and are in Ralito [the zone where AUC leaders have congregated for negotiations]. These leaders still have more than ten thousand men in arms, and their structures remain in place. Re-mobilizing the demobilized would be relatively simple: just give them new weapons. â€¦ This negotiation will define the type of democracy we are going to have. From their encampments, the paramilitaries are assembling a political project. They are already deciding whom to support in the next elections. And, more ominously, whom they will keep from running: in the past few days, two congresspeople have told me that they had been notified that they may not run for reelection.
The paragraph above comes from a column in Wednesdayâ€™s El Tiempo by Senator Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and â€“ except on this issue â€“ a strong supporter of Ãlvaro Uribe. Pardo, along with legislators from across the political spectrum, has proposed (but not submitted) legislation to fill the urgent need for a legal framework to govern demobilizations â€“ a law that Colombiaâ€™s congress is under some pressure to pass quickly. The Pardo proposal is the main competitor to the Uribe governmentâ€™s plan.
While far from perfect, the Pardo proposal does much more than the governmentâ€™s version to ensure that those accused of crimes against humanity spend some time in a real jail. It would also offer relatively generous reparations and do much to return property that paramilitaries have stolen.
Just as importantly, the Pardo bill would at least try to dismantle paramilitary structures by requiring all who demobilize to reveal what they know about their commanders, their supporters, the location of weapons caches and similar information. For some reason, the Uribe government has been unwilling to take this simple â€“ and hardly stringent â€“ step toward dismantling paramilitarism. Donor countries should view with extreme skepticism any law that does not include a measure like this.
Unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. government is leaning more toward Pizarro than Pardo. In a wide-ranging interview with El Espectador on Sunday, Ambassador William Wood also played the Salvador card.
HRWâ€™s position, as I understand it, is that the international community should not contribute to the process until the congress approves a law to regulate it. But we already have 4,500 demobilized. How many more months must Colombia wait for this judgment from outside the country to end? For example, in Central America, after the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua there was peace and demobilization, but no programs, so armed gangs formed, there was no legal orientation, there was nothing.
This is simplistic, ahistorical, and just plain wrong. It is perfectly reasonable for governments to insist that their money support a process that actually seeks, through force of law, to dismantle the armed group in question. They should not be swayed by flawed analogies to a fictionalized Central American experience.
Letâ€™s hope that other governments in Cartagena are not swayed, and stand firm.