Ãlvaro Uribe can always be counted on to say whatâ€™s on his mind. Colombiaâ€™s president did it again last Thursday, while answering audience questions at Florida International University in Miami. Seeking to assure a questioner that paramilitary leaders would not be amnestied following peace negotiations, he took a swipe at an important past peace effort.
â€œIn the past, guerrilla atrocities were amnestied,â€ Uribe said. â€œThe M-19 burned down the Palace of Justice, in association with narcotraffickers, and was amnestied. Colombia cannot repeat these errors, whether in favor of paramilitaries or in favor of guerrillas.â€
With three sentences, Uribe slammed a peace process generally regarded as a success, probed the still-open wounds left by the 1985 Palace of Justice takeover, and failed to answer questions about what will happen to demobilized paramilitaries should their struggling peace talks with the government ever reach conclusion.
Between 1989 and 1991, the April 19th Movement (M-19), one of Colombiaâ€™s main leftist guerrilla groups, agreed to lay down its arms and participate in politics, in exchange for political reforms that included a redrafting of Colombiaâ€™s constitution. This peace process, which took place at about the same time as successful negotiations in El Salvador, brought the demobilization of over 6,500 fighters from the M-19 and six smaller groups. In 1990 elections of delegates to the Constituent Assembly that rewrote the constitution, the M-19 did so well that demobilized guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolff was able to serve as one of the assemblyâ€™s three co-presidents.
The M-19 became a political party. A few candidates were killed, particularly movement leader and presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro â€“ whose murder the rightist paramilitary leader Carlos CastaÃ±o (missing in action since April 2004, probably dead) claims credit for in his autobiography. The party ultimately failed to prosper in Colombiaâ€™s political system, but most of its leaders have indeed survived. Antonio Navarro and Gustavo Petro are now top vote-getters in Colombiaâ€™s Senate and House, respectively, and central figures in the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico, Colombiaâ€™s most successful left-of-center political party (its ranks include BogotÃ¡â€™s mayor, Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n, who does not have an M-19 background). Other former M-19 members, like Otty PatiÃ±o and Vera Grabe, are respected analysts of peace and conflict in Colombia.
The M-19 process was a rare hopeful moment for Colombia, observes PatiÃ±o: â€œThe peace processes of the early 1990s opened a new perspective on the possibility of a different country, one where changes could be made through peaceful means.â€
The M-19 deal did include an amnesty for â€œpolitical crimes,â€ which excludes both common crime and more serious crimes against humanity. Among guerrilla actions covered by amnesty was the M-19â€™s absurd November 1985 attempt to take over the supreme court building, the Palace of Justice in downtown BogotÃ¡, in order to carry out a â€œpublic judgementâ€ of then-president Belisario Betancur. The military counter-attacked, leaving searing images of tanks slamming into the front doors of the palace and flames licking out of its windows. The inferno took the lives of 95 people, among them eleven Supreme Court justices and most of the M-19 fighters involved.
With last Thursdayâ€™s comments, Uribe made allegations about the incident that either arenâ€™t true or, at least, are very much in dispute. Senator Navarro, the former top M-19 leader, did not mince words, calling Uribeâ€™s statements â€œan offensive and untruthful aggression.â€ The guerrillas â€œmade a profound, terrible mistake,â€ Navarro added, â€œwith an operation that we will never stop regretting and for which weâ€™ll never stop asking forgiveness.â€ However, â€œthat doesnâ€™t mean that the M-19 burned down the Palace of Justice, or that there was any alliance with narcotraffickers.â€
There is no credible evidence that the M-19 intended to immolate themselves by burning down the Palace of Justice. Former Colombian Attorney-General Alfonso GÃ³mez MÃ©ndez, who in his earlier post of Procurator-General headed an investigation of the incident, recalled this week that the building burned down due to the armed forcesâ€™ â€œinappropriate reaction to the terrorist actâ€ of the M-19. (For more information on the 1985 incident, including a disturbing account of the militaryâ€™s heavy-handed response, I recommend journalist Ana Carriganâ€™s 1993 book The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy.)
Even more sensitive is Uribeâ€™s allegation that the M-19 conspired with narcotraffickers (many of whose trial records and incriminating evidence were destroyed in the conflagration) to take over the palace. GÃ³mez MÃ©ndez recalled this week that no links to narcotraffickers â€“ which at that time, pretty much meant Pablo Escobarâ€™s MedellÃn Cartel â€“ have ever been demonstrated.
Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 member, now congressman and head of the Polo DemocrÃ¡tico, recalled that the MedellÃn Cartel in fact killed 200 of the groupâ€™s members during the early 1980s, and that â€œRamiro,â€ the guerrilla who led the ill-fated takeover, had once been tortured and left for dead by Escobarâ€™s men. â€œThe President apparently believes Carlos CastaÃ±o â€“ who invented the tie to narcotrafficking in order to justify murdering [top M-19 leader] Carlos Pizarro â€“ more then he believes the countryâ€™s justice system, which found no ties between narcotraffickers and the M-19 in the Palace of Justice takeover.â€
Three former government peace negotiators and a former interior minister â€“ among them Horacio Serpa, who Uribe defeated in the 2002 presidential election â€“ sent Uribe a sharply worded letter over the weekend denying any link between the M-19 and drug lords. The former officials point out that the M-19 were only granted amnesty for political crimes, and that some who demobilized were sent to jail for committing common crimes or atrocities. Cooperation with narcotrafficking is not a political crime, and as such could not have been amnestied. â€œIf any citizen possesses information about atrocities or narcotrafficking, these crimes cannot remain unpunished,â€ reads the former negotiatorsâ€™ letter to Uribe. â€œIt is necessary to take them before the justice system.â€
The reason the narcotrafficking charge is so sensitive today, of course, is its relevance to the Colombian governmentâ€™s ongoing talks with the paramilitaries. Critics â€“ among them former M-19 members â€“ are concerned that these talks may not only allow dozens of horrific massacres to go unpunished and unaccountable, but that the nexus between paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers may end up being â€œlegalizedâ€ by the process. Todayâ€™s paramilitaries, they argue, are so involved in the drug trade that it is now difficult to distinguish between leaders of the â€œself-defense groupsâ€ and leaders of major trafficking organizations. Their resulting economic power has made them very powerful figures in Colombia.
For its part, the M-19 is alleged to have been in contact with drug traffickers, and even to have traded marijuana for arms in the 1970s and early 1980s. But the groupâ€™s relationship with the MedellÃn cartel was consistently terrible, especially after M-19 leaders made the mistake of trying to raise funds by kidnapping drug lordsâ€™ family members. The drug lords proved to be much more ruthless than the guerrillas.
If the M-19 did dabble in the drug trade to raise money, it never became a significant income stream for the group. Nor did the group ever gain a reputation as allies of the cartels. It is worth noting that the U.S. government, which is currently seeking the extradition of eight paramilitary leaders for narcotrafficking, issued no such requests for M-19 leaders. Perhaps because they didnâ€™t benefit from the massive resources that the drug trade later provided to the FARC and the AUC, the M-19 by 1989 was badly beaten: down to a couple of thousand members, with little territory and its prestige shredded by the 1985 fiasco. When it agreed to negotiate, it did so from a position of profound weakness.
Compare that to the current talks with the paramilitaries. The group of gentlemen negotiating with the government in the Santa FÃ© de Ralito demilitarized zone includes some of the most notorious narcos in the country. AUC military chief Salvatore Mancuso is wanted by the U.S. Justice Department for sending at least 17 tons of cocaine to our shores. IvÃ¡n Roberto Duqueâ€™s Central BolÃvar Bloc manages drug-manufacturing labs all over the country. (Mancuso and Duque, incidentally, addressed Colombiaâ€™s Congress in a special session in June.) Diego Fernando Murillo (â€œDon Bernaâ€) was a minor Pablo Escobar henchman and head of MedellÃnâ€™s main gang of hitmen-for-hire before joining the AUC in 2000. HernÃ¡n Giraldo exercises brutal control over the drug trade in the port city of Santa Marta. VÃctor Manuel MejÃa, one of the top figures in the Norte del Valle Cartel, showed up in the negotiation zone in June as titular head of the AUC in oil-rich Arauca department. Miguel Arroyave, a paramilitary since emerging in 2001 from a jail term for narcotrafficking, ran the â€œCentauros Blocâ€ in eastern Colombia until two weeks ago, when he was killed by his own men.
Once a network of anti-guerrilla death squads whose leaders furthered their right-wing cause by allying with drug lords, the paramilitaries have metamorphosed into a network of mafias, with a new generation of leaders who were drug lords first, and paramilitaries later. Observers even have a term for the recent wave of drug figures who have recently bought their way into the paramilitary structure, presumably in order to benefit from a negotiated amnesty: they are the â€œparacaidistas,â€ or those who have just â€œparachuted in.â€ These new leaders have few anti-guerrilla credentials; if anything, they view the FARC as competition for drug funds and trafficking routes, a rival mafia â€“ and in some cases, they are alleged to be doing business with the guerrillas, such as buying coca paste from them. For evidence of their increasing grip on the paramilitaries, look no further than the recent fate of high-profile AUC leaders, like the late Carlos CastaÃ±o and Rodrigo Franco, who were allegedly murdered for opposing the groupâ€™s increased fealty to the drug underworld.
Unlike the M-19, these narco-paramilitaries are negotiating from a position of surprising strength. Colombiaâ€™s press has been abuzz lately with stories about the â€œparamilitarizationâ€ of the country. Mancuso claims that the AUC â€œcontrolsâ€ about 35 percent of the Congress. Together, the groups reportedly have 49 fronts in 35 percent of the national territory. As Garry Leechâ€™s Colombia Journal points out this week, the Colombian military has aggressively fought paramilitaries outside the AUC structure, but the main paramilitary network remains largely unchallenged as talks with the government move along slowly and secretly.
The paramilitaries know they are in a position of strength, especially as President Uribe, concerned about his popularity as he seeks a constitutional amendment to run for reelection, is unwilling to take the politically costly step of calling off the negotiations. Doing so would end the AUCâ€™s declared cease-fire and cause violence levels to climb back upward.
Because the paramilitaries have room for maneuver, they have only partially observed the cease-fire, which was Uribeâ€™s main pre-condition for engaging in peace talks. Colombiaâ€™s human-rights ombudsmanâ€™s office announced last week that it had documented 342 cease-fire violations. And that doesnâ€™t even count Sundayâ€™s horrific massacre of 11 people, including children and a pregnant woman, in Valle del Cauca department. From their position of strength, paramilitary leaders know they can continue to violate the cease-fire with impunity and to remain inflexible in their demands for a full amnesty for past crimes.
Under these circumstances, one can imagine why Uribe might be responding so testily to questions about where the paramilitary peace talks are headed. But there is no need for such an unhelpful response.
The right answer would have included a promise to redouble efforts to curtail the paramilitariesâ€™ narcotrafficking, and to put so much pressure on their leaders that they will have no choice but to agree to accountability for past atrocities. How disappointing, then, that Uribe instead chose to denigrate a past peace effort and to imply that there is nothing new about negotiating amnesty with a group that is up to its neck in illegal drugs. The M-19 comparison simply doesnâ€™t fit. While a rectification is unlikely, letâ€™s hope that the president does the right thing about the paramilitary talks, which are becoming more troubled with each passing week.