State’s Grossman on AUC talks, “conflict” From paramilitarism to “hidden powers”?
Feb 262005

After more than two years of watching the pendulum swing from crisis to optimism and back again, the paramilitary negotiations have finally reached their breaking point. The AUC leadership let it be known this week that they will walk away from the table if their leaders have to spend time in jail. The Colombian government’s response: if you quit the talks, you have five days to pack, turn off the lights and get out of the Ralito demilitarized zone.

Though the AUC seems to have since softened its position, it looks like this negotiation process is about where the Pastrana government’s talks with the FARC were in late 2001. The talks have reached the point at which discussion of procedural and technical matters (cease-fires, demilitarized zones, in the AUC’s case the distraction of hastily thrown-together demobilizations) has been exhausted, and all parties’ true interests – the potential dealbreakers – come into sharp focus.

The Colombian government and AUC leadership probably would have been happy to spend a good deal more time allowing the talks to continue meandering and avoiding the big questions. (This is what tends to happen to any talks that lack an outside, third-party facilitator empowered to hold both sides to an agenda.) What has forced the issue now is the need for money.

Demobilizing and reintegrating the paramilitaries could cost a quarter-billion dollars or more (which, incidentally, is only a shade more than what the United States already spends each year just to maintain all of the aircraft it has given Colombia over the past several years). The Colombian government is asking international donor countries for funding. Uncomfortable with supporting a process that could end up consolidating paramilitarism’s power in Colombia, donor countries are demanding that Colombia first pass a law to govern what will happen to demobilizing paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes against humanity, how victims will be compensated, and how the AUC will be dismantled.

This law is now under discussion within the Uribe government, where Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt is backing a “peace and justice” law that chief negotiatior Luis Carlos Restrepo, backed by Vice-President Francisco Santos, believes is too tough on the paramilitaries and will thus make it impossible to negotiate. Where President Uribe himself stands is a mystery to everyone.

Simultaneously, the Uribe government is in discussions with key members of the Colombian Congress, particularly those who back Uribe vociferously and will do whatever he asks (and, in a few cases, whatever the AUC asks). Talks have largely broken down with another key bloc of the Congress backing a much tougher “truth, justice and reparations” bill, the coalition of pro-Uribe and leftist parties whose most visible face is Senator and former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo.

The present offers a terribly confusing picture of several competing blocs with widely diverging positions on a broad array of interests. What follows is an attempt – perhaps not a successful one – to make sense of it without oversimplifying to the point of uselessness.

Right now, we can identify seven key interest groups and five strongly divisive issues. Certainly there are more than seven interest groups (for instance the guerrillas do not appear on this list even though they can torpedo the talks with a few acts of violence). There are also more than five divisive issues (such as cease-fire violations or narcotraffickers’ presence in the AUC) but the focus here is on those that appear in the contentious debate over the “framework legislation” to govern demobilizations.

Interest groups include:

1. The paramilitary leadership, which does not want to spend a day in jail, fears extradition to the United States on narcotics charges, and wants to keep at least a good share of the land and wealth it plundered over the years.

The entire Uribe government wants to stuff the paramilitary genie back into the bottle, use a successful negotiation as an argument for re-election in 2006, and keep the names of paramilitary supporters out of the historical record. For now at least, the government divides in two blocs with different estimations of how much the paramilitaries’ demands can be appeased without losing foreign aid and political face.

2. The Restrepo-Santos bloc calls for less jail time, would not require demobilizing paramilitaries to confess their crimes or give information about their command and support networks. It would put some limits on reparations and paramilitary asset seizures.

3. The Sabas Pretelt bloc backs a somewhat tougher law with more jail time, some confession and post-demobilization investigation of crimes, and a stronger reparations regime.

4. The Pardo congressional bloc backs a tougher law with fewer loopholes and less vague language than the Pretelt bill; a stated goal is the true dismantlement of paramilitarism – an effort to guarantee that the AUC does not continue to exist in another violent, lawless form. Like the two government blocs’ proposals, the Pardo bill does not appear to make a priority of identifying the paramilitaries’ past supporters in the Colombian military or their wealthy civilian donors.

5. Non-U.S. donor nations seem to be backing something similar to the Pardo bill, though they probably have somewhat more interest in extraditing paramilitary members and perhaps more interest in seeing the groups’ supporters named as part of a “historical memory” or other healing process. The U.S. Congress probably falls along these general lines, as indicated by statements like a bipartisan letter sent to President Uribe in early February.

6. The Bush administration occasionally talks tough about jail time and dismantlement, but it is hard to underestimate its desire to support President Uribe in all of his endeavors. It is possible, then, that the administration might support a weaker bill and try to put a good face on it. There is little flexibility on the extradition issue, of course, though the administration will probably not allow a failure to extradite demobilized paramilitary leaders to affect its relations with Colombia.

7. Victims’ groups, of course, want everything: jail time for paramilitary offenders, reparations, dismantlement, and naming of paramilitary supporters – though they are more ambivalent about extradition. They are joined by Sen. Piedad Córdoba, leader of the Liberal Party’s left wing, and some of the non-governmental human rights community. (Many human-rights NGOs are reluctantly backing the Pardo bill because it is the only legislative vehicle with even a remote chance of passage, though their hearts are clearly with the hard line of the victims’ groups.)

The five key issues at the moment are:

1. Some jail time for paramilitary abusers. Positions on this issue range from none at all (the AUC) to a few years with a chance for suspended sentences (Restrepo-Santos) to 5-10 years (Pardo) to 20-40 years (victims’ groups).

2. Requiring demobilized paramilitaries to confess their crimes and provide information necessary to dismantle paramilitary networks. Positions range from the current situation of taking down only names and ID numbers and making sure no arrest warrants are outstanding (which the AUC and Restrepo-Santos appear to support), to requiring vague “cooperation” instead of “confession” (Pretelt), to requiring confession and dismantlement (Pardo, and even more strongly, victims’ groups).

It would seem uncontroversial to require paramilitaries to confess and reveal what they know about their organization. Yet the Uribe government has consistently objected to this, as well as anything resembling a truth commission. The official reason is that they believe this would be a dealbreaker for the AUC – but the paramilitary leadership seems to be much more worried about jail and extradition. An unofficial reason might be that the Uribe government and its wealthier and more powerful backers fear a real investigation into paramilitary support networks. By casting a wide net of investigations and interviews of demobilizing fighters, a dismantlement process could end up uncovering more information about paramilitarism than they want revealed. In particular, such an investigation could reveal the identities of military officials and wealthy Colombians who materially supported paramilitaries over the years.

3. Naming of supporters, then, is another key issue of contention at this phase of the talks. Though the Pardo bill requires much more investigation of demobilizing paramilitary fighters than the Uribe government would, the bill does not make a specific effort to identify those who helped the paramilitaries over the years with money, weapons, training, logistical support, or simply by looking the other way.

4. Reparations for victims is a somewhat less controversial issue – almost everyone agrees that victims should have their assets returned if possible. Positions vary, however, on issues like what sort of body should be in charge of adjudicating claims, whether funding will come from seized assets or from the government treasury, and whether “reparations” should include payments for non-tangible losses like pain and suffering.

5. Extradition is strongly opposed by the paramilitaries and strongly favored by the United States (at least rhetorically). Elsewhere in Colombia, though, support for extradition is generally rather tepid. The Uribe government will not extradite paramilitary leaders who comply with commitments in a future peace agreement. Groups that want to see paramilitaries go to jail often oppose extradition as an imperialist imposition, or they are simply agnostic on the issue.

The table below offers a further oversimplification of the issue – a rough overview of where each bloc stands on these five issues. Opinions on each issue are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. “1” means strongly disagree, “5” means strongly agree, and “3” means no strongly expressed opinion (or division with the bloc).

 

Some jail

Confession / Dismantlement

Name supporters

Reparations

Extradition

Total out of 25 (desire to change status quo)

AUC

1

1

1

3

1

7

Government I (Restrepo / Santos)

2

2

1

4

2

11

Government II (Pretelt)

3

3

1

4

3

14

US government

3

3

2

4

5

17

Pardo bloc in Congress

4

4

3

5

2

19

Most non-U.S. donor nations

4

4

4

5

3

20

Many victims’ groups (ideal preference of many NGOs supporting Pardo bill)

5

5

5

5

2

22

Total out of 35 (likelihood of a reform)

22

22

17

30

18

 

Though clearly too simple to be useful for very much, this table still reveals some interesting conclusions:

1. Adding the totals on the bottom row shows that a generous reparations regime might be likely, while naming the paramilitaries’ outside supporters might prove difficult. Extradition also looks unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, the questions of jail, confession and dismantlement yield totals right in the middle of the scale, making it hard to predict what the final outcome will be.

2. Adding the totals in the right column shows that the two blocs most opposed to any change from the status quo happen to be the two blocs seated at the negotiating table: the AUC and the Restrepo bloc of the Uribe government. If the negotiators on both sides favor a lenient deal, any hope for tougher truth, justice, reparations and dismantlement measures must come from outside actors who do not have a seat at the table.

This may be the most important conclusion we can draw at the moment. The role of outside actors – dissident legislators, NGOs, organized victims, foreign donors – is absolutely crucial right now. Any hope for a tough “truth, justice and reparations” regime lies with their ability to counter-balance the interests of the two groups sitting at the negotiating table.

3 Responses to “Paramilitary talks: the breaking point?”

  1. David Holiday Says:

    Courageous effort to try to rationalize this process, and understand it, but I think you have to weight the different actors according to their influence/power as well.

    Do donor nations have that much influence beyond the carrot, and if so, on what issues? Reparations and extradition, I imagine, since they could pony up money for the former, and demand within an international framework the latter. Sometimes heavy external influences can have a negative impact.

    As for the NGOs and others in civil society, they’re probably the weakest actor of all?

    You know the situation better, but it seems to me that these are additional elements of analysis for trying to understand what else is needed.

  2. jcg Says:

    They might not have much direct influence on the matter, but if they play their cards right, they can put pressure on those that do.

    In any event, it looks likely that nobody will get exactly what they are wishing for (though some will be more pleased than others), precisely because of all the different and strongly defended views and perspectives on the matter…

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    Weighting the actors’ relative strengths would probably give you an even more depressing result. There seems to be a strong correlation between desire to maintain the status quo and influence/barganing power. The Colombian government is better able to get what it wants than Sen. Pardo’s bloc or NGOs; the U.S. government has much more clout than European donors who give a fraction of Washington’s contribution.

    One major exception, thank goodness: while the AUC’s leadership is least interested in a tough framework law, they are neither the strongest nor the most influential actor. They have guns, but no moral authority or political legitimacy, no international support and in fact could face extradition if they don’t play ball. The closer the other actors come to a unified position on behalf of a tougher law, the less room for maneuver the paramilitary leaders will have.

    Donor nations do have a critical role to play. By expressing concerns, they offer badly needed leverage to Colombians doing the difficult work of trying to prevent a negotiation process that ends up legitimizing paramilitarism. Donors’ main channel of influence is probably their money, though other important factors include the threat of extradition or the moral suasion of acceptance in the “community of nations.” Of course perceptions of foreign bullying could cause donor pressure to backfire (remember a year ago, when VP Santos accused Europe of treating Colombia like a “banana republic” because of its human rights complaints). But in this case the donor nations are conditioning a request for new assistance, not cutting existing aid to “punish” behavior – so it is harder for charges of “bullying” to stick.

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