A Blog? State’s Marc Grossman on Colombian human rights groups
Oct 062004

Álvaro Uribe can always be counted on to say what’s on his mind. Colombia’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.

“In the past, guerrilla atrocities were amnestied,” Uribe said. “The 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.”

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 Colombia’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 Colombia’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 assembly’s three co-presidents.

The M-19 became a political party. A few candidates were killed, particularly movement leader and presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro – whose murder the rightist paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño (missing in action since April 2004, probably dead) claims credit for in his autobiography. The party ultimately failed to prosper in Colombia’s political system, but most of its leaders have indeed survived. Antonio Navarro and Gustavo Petro are now top vote-getters in Colombia’s Senate and House, respectively, and central figures in the Polo Democrático, Colombia’s most successful left-of-center political party (its ranks include Bogotá’s mayor, Luis Eduardo Garzón, who does not have an M-19 background). Other former M-19 members, like Otty Patiño and Vera Grabe, are respected analysts of peace and conflict in Colombia.

The M-19 process was a rare hopeful moment for Colombia, observes Patiño: “The 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.”

The M-19 deal did include an amnesty for “political crimes,” which excludes both common crime and more serious crimes against humanity. Among guerrilla actions covered by amnesty was the M-19’s absurd November 1985 attempt to take over the supreme court building, the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá, in order to carry out a “public judgement” 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 Thursday’s comments, Uribe made allegations about the incident that either aren’t true or, at least, are very much in dispute. Senator Navarro, the former top M-19 leader, did not mince words, calling Uribe’s statements “an offensive and untruthful aggression.” The guerrillas “made a profound, terrible mistake,” Navarro added, “with an operation that we will never stop regretting and for which we’ll never stop asking forgiveness.” However, “that doesn’t mean that the M-19 burned down the Palace of Justice, or that there was any alliance with narcotraffickers.”

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 Gómez Méndez, 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 forces’ “inappropriate reaction to the terrorist act” of the M-19. (For more information on the 1985 incident, including a disturbing account of the military’s heavy-handed response, I recommend journalist Ana Carrigan’s 1993 book The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy.)

Even more sensitive is Uribe’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. Gómez Méndez recalled this week that no links to narcotraffickers – which at that time, pretty much meant Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel – have ever been demonstrated.

Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 member, now congressman and head of the Polo Democrático, recalled that the Medellín Cartel in fact killed 200 of the group’s members during the early 1980s, and that “Ramiro,” the guerrilla who led the ill-fated takeover, had once been tortured and left for dead by Escobar’s men. “The President apparently believes Carlos Castaño – who invented the tie to narcotrafficking in order to justify murdering [top M-19 leader] Carlos Pizarro – more then he believes the country’s justice system, which found no ties between narcotraffickers and the M-19 in the Palace of Justice takeover.”

Three former government peace negotiators and a former interior minister – among them Horacio Serpa, who Uribe defeated in the 2002 presidential election – 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. “If any citizen possesses information about atrocities or narcotrafficking, these crimes cannot remain unpunished,” reads the former negotiators’ letter to Uribe. “It is necessary to take them before the justice system.”

The reason the narcotrafficking charge is so sensitive today, of course, is its relevance to the Colombian government’s ongoing talks with the paramilitaries. Critics – among them former M-19 members – 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 “legalized” by the process. Today’s paramilitaries, they argue, are so involved in the drug trade that it is now difficult to distinguish between leaders of the “self-defense groups” 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 group’s relationship with the Medellín cartel was consistently terrible, especially after M-19 leaders made the mistake of trying to raise funds by kidnapping drug lords’ 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 didn’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 Fé 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. Iván Roberto Duque’s Central Bolívar Bloc manages drug-manufacturing labs all over the country. (Mancuso and Duque, incidentally, addressed Colombia’s Congress in a special session in June.) Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna”) was a minor Pablo Escobar henchman and head of Medellín’s main gang of hitmen-for-hire before joining the AUC in 2000. Hernán Giraldo exercises brutal control over the drug trade in the port city of Santa Marta. Víctor Manuel Mejía, 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 “Centauros Bloc” 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 “paracaidistas,” or those who have just “parachuted in.” 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 – 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 Castaño and Rodrigo Franco, who were allegedly murdered for opposing the group’s increased fealty to the drug underworld.

Unlike the M-19, these narco-paramilitaries are negotiating from a position of surprising strength. Colombia’s press has been abuzz lately with stories about the “paramilitarization” of the country. Mancuso claims that the AUC “controls” about 35 percent of the Congress. Together, the groups reportedly have 49 fronts in 35 percent of the national territory. As Garry Leech’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 AUC’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 Uribe’s main pre-condition for engaging in peace talks. Colombia’s human-rights ombudsman’s office announced last week that it had documented 342 cease-fire violations. And that doesn’t even count Sunday’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 paramilitaries’ 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 doesn’t fit. While a rectification is unlikely, let’s hope that the president does the right thing about the paramilitary talks, which are becoming more troubled with each passing week.

3 Responses to “Were the M-19 peace talks an “error”?”

  1. jcg Says:

    I totally disagree with the M-19 reference that Uribe made, as far as that specific case goes, but I do agree with some of the, apparently undermined a bit here, reasoning behind it.

    Well, holding the AUC fully accountable, humans rights-wise, would be a poor decision at this moment. Every life that a partial cease-fire saves makes it worthy.

    It’s hard to choose between “horrible” and “more horrible”, but sometimes that has to be done, when you aren’t strong enough to prevent those abuses yourself.

    Pastrana didn’t even demand that the FARC make a similar partial cease-fire, but there were unilateral, temporary X-mas truces that saved an unknown number of lives, for a start.

    And actually, as I said, I read the message differently. The Colombian government has made clear, not just when (wrongly) bringing up the M-19 example but in further interviews and communiques, that full amnesties (or almost full) aren’t going to work anymore. See the interview with Restrepo in EL TIEMPO, October 10, for example.

    Full punishment isn’t going to be an attractive offer, neither for the FARC/ELN nor for the AUC, thus some sort of benefits do have to be offered, but nothing that amounts to a full amnesty.

    However, once any workable deal is made, I’m sure that the paramilitaries and other criminals, both inside and outside the government, could well be brought to justice, if the international or Colombian opinion decides to do it.

    For example, the militaries of Argentina and Chile had full pardons or immunities, which were necessary when they were made, but are now crumbling down and they’re getting what they deserve.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You caught me using the too-vague term “accountable” to describe what should be done about paramilitary human rights abusers. To be honest, that’s because we’re still wrestling with this. The difficulty is that two of the goals that CIP exists to promote – human rights and peaceful conflict resolution – are not quite in harmony here.

    You are absolutely right that it’s impossible to imagine Salvatore Mancuso or Don Berna willingly handing in their weapons at the end of a negotiation, then going straight to jail. Perhaps this would be imaginable if the Colombian state, through military might, had weakened the AUC to the point where their leaders had no choice but to face justice. But it’s impossible to argue that the Colombian government has ever come close to that – there’s never been more than the occasional skirmish with AUC paramilitaries, and that after years of well-documented military-paramilitary collaboration.

    What does accountability entail, then, if not jail? Several people scolded me in late 2002 after, in a memo about whether the paramilitary talks deserve U.S. support, I acknowledged the possibility that “some form of immunity from prosecution for most or all of the paramilitaries could be a condition of their disarmament.”

    Friends in the human rights community responded with two very good points. First, Colombia has been through many “forgive and forget” peace agreements since the end of La Violencia, and the cycle of violence has just spiraled as people are forced to live alongside their loved ones’ and leaders’ amnestied killers. The argument holds that you cannot truly have peaceful conflict resolution without justice for human rights crimes. Second, many argue that the worldwide cause of human rights has progressed such that the amnesties that were part of past peace processes would represent a step backward. (People on the right also argue that because “the world changed after 9/11,” terrorist acts that may have been amnestied in the past are off the table now.)

    These views are fully represented in the Senate’s version of the 2005 foreign aid bill, currently in conference committee awaiting final passage, which would prohibit any U.S. support for demobilizations if “the Colombian legal framework governing the demobilization of such groups” does not provide for “prosecution and punishment, in proportion to the crimes committed, of those responsible for gross violations of human rights and drug trafficking.” Meanwhile, as Steve Dudley’s good piece in Monday’s Miami Herald notes – and the M-19 controversy highlights – Colombians themselves have yet to agree on a workable definition of what is forgivable.

    Still, I can think of no real example of a non-state armed group’s leaders agreeing to stand trial and jail unless they were facing defeat. The Uribe government has tried to split the difference with the weaker punishments envisioned in the modified “alternative penalties” bill currently stuck in Colombia’s Congress. These, however, have pleased almost nobody: the paramilitaries have rejected them as too much and the human rights community insists they are not enough.

    In many other past cases, in which the non-state group still has some ability to keep fighting, peace processes have included an even weaker mechanism for “accountability”: the “truth and reconciliation commission.” This is usually a committee of dignitaries judged by both sides to be impartial and disinterested, often with the participation or imprimatur of the international community (such as the UN). The commission doesn’t have the power to hand out punishments, but the more effective ones have been able to name names – to assign responsibility to individuals for ordering some of the worst atrocities of the conflict.

    Some observers, such as former Colombian Peace Commissioner Daniel García-Peña, have explored the possibility of a truth commission for Colombia’s talks with the paramilitaries. This – combined with a seizure and redistribution of all stolen paramilitary assets – may offer a way out. It would be a waste of everyone’s time, though, if such a commission were to name only the trigger-pullers, leaving the “intellectual authors” of crimes anonymous. A worthwhile commission would also take care to name military officers who facilitated or willfully ignored atrocities, and wealthy Colombians who willingly paid for the killers’ guns and salaries.

    Even if that happens, a truth commission still wouldn’t please many people, because nobody would serve hard jail time. But by naming names and attaching eternal shame to the perpetrators, it holds some hope of halting the cycle of violence while still allowing a demobilization to proceed.

    Is this CIP’s final position on the matter? No. But hopefully the discussion shows the direction of our thinking as we consider what kind of “accountability” is sufficient to merit U.S. support for the paramilitary talks. (Or, for that matter, U.S. support for any other peace initiative that progresses to the point where amnesty is a topic.)

    And this, of course, is all without mentioning any of the other thorny obstacles the paramilitary talks face: extradition, cease-fire violations, possible “recycling” of former paramilitaries as state auxiliaries, and the likelihood that guerrillas will benefit from the paras’ absence, to name only a few…

  3. jcg Says:

    The truth commission seems like an interesting alternative, but as you’ve mentioned it’s far from an easy solution…it would need the support or at least tolerance of almost every one potentially involved, in Colombia and outside the country, for it to have lasting results.

    In the end, it’s clear that making a peace negotiation in Colombia these days is going to be much harder than it would have been in say, back in the 80’s (when drugs came into the picture with a bang, literally)…a pity.

    The paramilitary talks do face those and other serious obstacles, which is why I’m beginning to consider that there’s a likely possibility they will eventually either crash and burn due to an intolerable act (on the part of either side or even the guerrillas), or simply dissolve into a meaningless mess that won’t survive Uribe’s term(s).

Leave a Reply