A familiar scenario Antonio Navarro: “Fumigation?”
Feb 032005

The Colombian government’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 “to 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.”

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 Bogotá’s National University, where he was a respected professor). He is also a columnist for El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper.

In his column last Sunday, Pizarro called the Human Rights Watch recommendation “a very serious error,” adding that if donors follow HRW’s advice, the result could be “a new humanitarian tragedy in Colombia.”

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 society’s margins, without jobs or education. They ended up entering criminal or juvenile gangs (the “maras”) that are assaulting both countries. That is without even mentioning the thousands and thousands of weapons that remained available after the civil war’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 Salvador’s murder rate is twice Colombia’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 hadn’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 – including those who brought the mara phenomenon to El Salvador – 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 (Russia’s murder rate was also lower back when the KGB ran things).

Fifth, it’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 – including the United States – 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 – contrary to Pizarro’s argument – 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 – and the Uribe government’s likely proposal – 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. … 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 Wednesday’s El Tiempo by Senator Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and – except on this issue – a strong supporter of Álvaro 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 – a law that Colombia’s congress is under some pressure to pass quickly. The Pardo proposal is the main competitor to the Uribe government’s plan.

While far from perfect, the Pardo proposal does much more than the government’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 – and hardly stringent – 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.

HRW’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.

Let’s hope that other governments in Cartagena are not swayed, and stand firm.

10 Responses to “AUC demobilization: Eduardo Pizarro gets one wrong”

  1. David Holiday Says:


    This is a great post, and I’m glad I’m now reading this column. You’re right about donor involvement in El Salvador and Guatemala. Lack of donor support for demobilized does not at all explain the resurgence of crime in post-war El Salvador and Guatemala.

    However, your first point isn’t really fair–you should be comparing current Colombia with post-1992 El Salvador and post-1996 Guatemala. In that respect, Chuck Call (now at American University, by the way) wrote a good piece in 2003 Journal of Latin American Studies, in which he cites an UCA survey: “A 1999 survey sample of the country’s prison inmates found that 22% of them had been members of the armed forces or the old security forces, and 6% were ex-guerrillas. Of prisoners between 26 and 40 years of age, 44% were ex-combatants, even though only 6% of the general population had served in the war.”

    Those are facts you have to take into account, but to get to my main point, the reasons people like Bill Stanley and Chuck Call have attributed to the post-war crime wave have more to do with 1) the security gap caused by the transition from the old police to the new (indeed, the Guatemalan govt’s argument for not doing a wholesale revamping of their cops was based on the Salvador ’security gap’) and 2) the proliferation of arms in private hands, among a population accustomed to violence as a medium for resolving problems.

    I should also say that the first issue, lack of viable police (and judicial) bodies, was taken advantage of by criminal gangs of ex-FMLN and ex-military in the immediate aftermath of the war in El Salvador. This occurred to a somewhat lesser extent in Guatemala, and to a much greater extent in Nicaragua (recontras, revueltos which were ex-contras and ex-FSLN). In the latter case, lack of donor attention in addition to a greater situation of poverty, plus the above reasons, was probably more to blame.


  2. David Holiday Says:

    Adam, there’s the basis for a very good op-ed here–pointing out how US policy could be different on this issue–if you haven’t already written it.

  3. jcg Says:

    A pretty tough and messy issue here.

    While I definitely want the government to accept a truly adequate legal framework to govern demobilizations(just as Mr. Pizarro himself wants, btw, he’s mentioned it several times…and he just had a pretty interesting debate -though evidently a bit heated- with HRW’s own Mr. Vivanco yesterday on Colombian TV), and I can clearly notice that the Uribe’s administration’s evident and continuing lack of willingness to support the “Pardo-Borja-Parody et al” bill is rather shameful and surely counterproductive…

    …one also gets the feeling that, just like Mr. Pizarro’s being stressing, Colombia could get the worst of both worlds if there’s not enough money available AND the legal framework itself isn’t ready/good enough.

    Especially since Mr. Pizarro sees the situation in a more urgent light than most Europeans or other foreigners….who can afford to wait as long as necessary for every issue to be sorted out…after all, it’s not their problem but Colombia’s…yet that’s not stopping the demobilization from continuing and the time to get things right may be running out…yes, it’s probably the Colombian government’s own fault for doing things in such a sloppy and accelerated manner, but the problem is already there and persists.

    Hence everyone directly involved is in somewhat of a bind here.

  4. Chuck Call Says:

    Adam & David,

    I just wanted to say that David’s take is my own on some of your analysis, even though I agree with the position of Dr. Pardo.

    There are two crucial points here:

    Demobilization in the midst of an armed conflict, without a broader political settlement, is another technical solution to a broader political problem. Unless some severe penalty (extradition) still looms as a threat, demobilization & disarmament and even reintegration programs will not be sustainable unless the broader political conflict is addressed.

    Second, Colombia is no El Salvador … in terms of $$$. If the elites of Colombia wish to fund reintegration for paramilitaries, they can find the funds for it. External aid is NOT that crucial, as it was in Central American cases. If the elites choose not to fund the program in order to blame the int’l community for the failure of reintegration and the ultimate rearming of the ex-paras, then the political problem is so severe that the aid will be wasted anyhow. Either way: HRW & Dr Pardo’s position is supported by this analysis.


  5. Randy Paul Says:

    Excellent and thoughtful post, Adam. David, if I recall correctly, Guatemala has been a drug transhipment point for some time now. What role do you think that may have had in shaping the security situation there?

    I agree with David, here. There is an excellent start to an op-ed here. Go for it!

    BTW, what did you think of the New York Times editorial on the Cartagena meeting?

  6. Adam Isacson Says:

    Thanks to all for your comments. Including those from a couple of WOLA veterans whom I barely know – they’d left Washington before I arrived in the mid-90s – but whose names still come up often (in hushed, reverential tones of course) because of their expertise and experience. Nice to learn something from my own blog instead of just pontificating and debating people.

    David Holiday and Chuck Call have a good point about the outsized presence of ex-combatants in Salvador’s prison population. Former guerrillas and military definitely were the main reason behind the initial rise in crime in the 1990s, especially in the wild days when the new police force was just getting established.

    But it’s 2005 now, and common crime / citizen insecurity still seems to be one of the main things on most Salvadorans’ minds. Does today’s crime – led by the maras, whose offshoots have even killed several people here in the DC area – still involve a lot of war veterans? We’d be talking about a lot of grizzled, hardened criminals at this point. I suspect the demographic has shifted away from unemployed vets to unemployed youth, which means – as you all argue – there are other explanations.

    (Salvadorans, by the way, seem to have responded to crime by hiring thousands of private security guards – which, I fear, will probably be the number-one career path for Colombia’s ex-paramilitaries as well. It’s the sort of job that will allow them to remain “on call” should their former commanders need them.)

    I disagree with jcg’s argument that “Colombia could get the worst of both worlds if there’s not enough money available AND the legal framework itself isn’t ready/good enough.”

    There’s a simple response to that, and I’m surprised that so few in Colombia’s debate are making it: Stop the demobilizations! If there’s no donor money, and only a hasty, improvised plan for reintegration, then the Colombian government should have the spine to say no.

    Where does it say that the paramilitaries must start laying people off before they have an agreement in place? That’s doing it backwards. There’s supposedly a cease-fire already, so these guys shouldn’t be killing anyone at the moment – and if they are, then the cease-fire is being violated and the Colombian government should respond appropriately.

    Perhaps the real issue is that the paramilitaries no longer want to spend their ill-gotten funds to feed and equip all of these fighters who have presumably been idled by the cease-fire. If so, why not have them be idle in a place where the government can keep track of them?

    That is what the ELN had requested when it came tantalizingly close to a cease-fire agreement in early 2002: concentration in a cantonment zone, with their basic needs funded by the government at a fraction of what a reintegration program would cost. The security forces would guard the perimeter, and the OAS mission would verify that the rules are being followed. We would support U.S. aid for such an arrangement, and I imagine most other human-rights groups would as well.

    But Salvatore Mancuso is shrewd. He saw a divided Congress that actually wanted to take its time to debate and negotiate a deal that could end up with him in jail for a few years, forced to give back what he stole, and with his criminal network dismantled. He saw a donor community hesitant to get involved in a process that could lead to impunity or further injustice. And he saw a government seeking reelection and desperate to show some signs of progress in the negotiations.

    The demobilizations are not a show of good faith as much as they are a gun to the head of the Colombia’s congress and international donors. Intense pressure to come to a quick agreement could crumble the congressional opposition, steamrolling or fragmenting the Pardo-Parody-Borja-etc. alliance, leading the congress to adopt a weaker justice/reparations law. The donor community is now facing urgent calls from the Uribe government, the OAS cheerleading (oh sorry I mean “verification”) mission, and parts of the U.S. government (though not the Congress) to fund a process with which it is deeply uncomfortable.

    All of this time pressure is artificial, brought on by the AUC’s unilateral decision to demobilize a fraction of its fighters. Demanding immediate aid is like yelling “The house is on fire, don’t just stand there!” while holding a lit match in one’s hand.

    But it’s working all too well, as jcg’s argument (and those of Pizarro, Wood, Uribe, Restrepo, Caramagna, and Mancuso) indicates.

    Anyway… I enjoyed the op-eds in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, both of which make points I’ve been trying to make, only much more succinctly. I wish we could claim some credit for them – we sometimes can – but this time it appears that Human Rights Watch had most of the contact with the editorial-writers.

    At least as important was Wednesday’s letter from six powerful members of Congress, from both parties and both houses (including the very conservative Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the House International Relations Committee). The letter indicates support for U.S. aid only after passage of “an effective legal framework … that will bring about the dismantlement of the underlying structure, illegal sources of financing, and economic power” of paramilitary groups. An important support to donors in Cartagena who have held this same position.

    As for the idea of turning all of this into an op-ed: not a bad idea, and there may be some time this weekend to try to fit this into 600 words. Of course, the difficulty of getting a paper to publish something about this forgotten corner of the world (believe me, we try) is one reason why a blog has proven to be a good outlet.

  7. David Holiday Says:

    Yes, but I might suggest the Salvador tie-in, which has gotten more news in the last month (on a different subject, of course), and therefore might sound topical to editorial writers’ ears. Iraq isn’t the only place that has the benefit of the mis-learned lessons of El Salvador…

  8. jcg Says:

    “There’s a simple response to that, and I’m surprised that so few in Colombia’s debate are making it: Stop the demobilizations! If there’s no donor money, and only a hasty, improvised plan for reintegration, then the Colombian government should have the spine to say no.”

    And you’re quite right about that, in fact I even implictly considered it before. Hence my pointing out that the mess is the Colombian government’s responsibility. Nothing could be better than saying “no”, in such a scenario.

    But one also has to be realistic: it’s probably not going to happen that easily, the demobilizations are going to continue because the government and the AUC want them to do so….and I’m not stupid enough to not notice that the AUC’s not exactly doing this in good faith either, but that doesn’t change the previous fact and its ramifications.

    “All of this time pressure is artificial, brought on by the AUC’s unilateral decision to demobilize a fraction of its fighters. Demanding immediate aid is like yelling “The house is on fire, don’t just stand there!” while holding a lit match in one’s hand.”

    Nice analogy, but the fact that the pressure is artificial doesn’t change the fact that it’s there and, most likely, it could have real consequences, not just for the negotiating parties but for everyone else involved.

    It’s not like I *want* all these things to end up as merely damage control, but that’s where they seem to be heading. Hopefully they don’t get there.

    “But it’s working all too well, as jcg’s argument (and those of Pizarro, Wood, Uribe, Restrepo, Caramagna, and Mancuso) indicates.”

    Except that, once again, it’s not that I (or, for that matter, most of the others) *want* things to turn out this way or that I’m totally aloof of your concerns, but rather that I’m seeing that things may be already heading in that direction, thus, if the worst comes to pass, it’s best to make the most out of a bad situation. One shouldn’t completely close the door on that and say “either things have to be done perfectly or they should go to hell”.

    If the government doesn’t have the balls (sic) to stop things, then at least the train shouldn’t go totally off the track.

    Now, this is evidently a pessimistic assessment, and I have to clearly state that there may (or may not) be enough time left to apparently resolve the issues with the legal framework, which is what I *want*: I want the paramilitary structures to be dismantled properly and for the victims to get their proper doses of reparation and truth. Nothing could be better than that.

    But sometimes you can’t get everything you want in this world. And I see nothing wrong with pointing that out and taking cover. That’s all.

  9. jcg Says:

    For what it’s worth: I also have to state that I *do* sincerely hope that the efforts of CIP, you and all the other NGOs, governments and individuals involved actually manage to pressure the Colombian government into properly shaping up, putting a stop to the nonsense and doings things the right way.

    In no way, shape or form am I saying that your efforts are wrong, useless or unnecessary. Nor am I making you directly responsible for whatever might end up happening. You’re doing your job and you’re defending a worthwhile set of principles, which, at least partially, I also share.

    All I’ve done is to just contemplate some of the things that might lead to another scenario.

  10. Adam Isacson Says:

    No worries, jcg, I think we agree more than we disagree. Two points though:

    - A peace process that’s in constant damage control mode is very, very unlikely to bring peace. (The word “Caguán” comes to mind.) Best to pause and go back to the drawing board.

    - Remarkable, isn’t it, how nobody in Colombia’s debate (at least as reflected in the local media) is saying that the paras should stop demobilizing people for now? Now _there’s_ an op-ed that needs to be written, for the Colombian press, not a U.S. paper…

Leave a Reply