Truth, justice and reparations: taking a beating in Colombia’s Congress The Senate’s foreign aid authorization
Apr 112005

Last week, Colombia’s Congress narrowly approved most of the law that will govern the demobilization of paramilitary groups. A slight pro-government majority rejected nearly every attempt to make the bill tougher, for instance by making it easier for prosecutors to investigate crimes, by requiring full confessions in exchange for light sentences, by excluding narcotraffickers from getting amnestied, or by seeking to dismantle the paramilitaries’ underlying support and command structures.

The tougher standards foreseen in the bill proposed by Sen. Rafael Pardo and others – a bill that had the support of Colombia’s human rights community and many international observers – were eviscerated. The Uribe government – particularly chief negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo, who had threatened to resign unless a lenient bill was introduced – got its way on nearly every point.

(In a press conference called in the Ralito negotiating zone on Sunday, paramilitary leaders insisted that even this “soft” bill was too tough on them, since it contemplated jail sentences of 5-8 years – or as little as 2 ½ to 5 ½ years, with good behavior and time spent in negotiations counted against the sentence. “If we have to decide to head back to the mountains, the first ones to feel sorry about this decision will be us,” said Central Bolívar Bloc leader Iván Duque. It is quite possible, though, that the paramilitaries are bluffing. They may be using the jail-term issue in order to distract attention from other provisions that are too weak, such as confession, seizure of ill-gotten assets, and dismantlement.)

The resulting bill is likely to make peace harder to achieve in the long term. It is a blueprint for a disastrously flawed demobilization process that simply does not deserve the United States government’s support. Here is what some participants and analysts – none of them radical firebrands – wrote or said last weekend, in the wake of Pardo’s legislative defeat.

Rep. Luis Fernando Velasco: “A bill will be approved but the negotiations will not advance. It is a bill to give favorable sentences to people who have committed very serious crimes, without asking in exchange for truth, reparations, or the effective dismantlement of the phenomenon that led them to commit these crimes. That is, it will end up recycling violence in Colombia.” 

Rep. Gina Parody: [Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo] “thinks that peace means handing in a weapon, taking a picture and playing the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the background. That is where peace, for him, begins and ends. In reality, it should be giving reparations to victims and building collective memory, and this is only done if they deliver us the truth.”

Sen. Rafael Pardo: “Let’s suppose that 1,000 men demobilize. The attorney-general (Fiscalía) has 20 prosecutors and 150 assistants. These 1,000 men will have to be investigated and the Fiscalía will determine whom it will forgive [those guilty only of sedition, a political crime] and whom it will prosecute [for involvement in atrocities] according to this law. Let’s take the case of one of those being prosecuted: the paramilitary member will have two alternatives: to admit or to deny his guilt. If he admits it, the Fiscalía must bring him to justice and sentence him in a few days, to a term of five to eight years in prison. If he pleads “not guilty,” the Fiscalía has 30 days to gather evidence and try him in court. But in 30 days one cannot do what couldn’t be done in ten years. And if the crime can’t be proven, the court must drop the investigation. This is a farce of justice.”

El Tiempo editorial, April 11: “The legal framework for the controversial paramilitary process has been a total imbroglio. … The result is rather unusual: other than the flimsy legislative majorities that [Interior Minister] Pretelt and Commissioner Restrepo have won in committee, few support the bill. Neither the victims and their spokespeople, nor part of the pro-Uribe bloc, nor the international community. The United Nations has drawn up a catalog of the bill’s judicial failings. The International Criminal Court announced that it is keeping an eye on it. And [U.S.] Ambassador [William] Wood issued a telegraphic warning about its lack of broad support. Even the paramilitaries and their friends in Congress say they reject it. Though it is worth asking to what extent this opposition is real … it is clear that the ‘paras’ know that this is the best deal they can get.”

Daniel García-Peña, former government peace commissioner: “While the world said farewell to the Pope, the Colombian Congress slowly and quietly was burying any possibility of a legal framework that might contribute to the overcoming and the dismantlement of the paramilitary phenomenon through truth, justice and reparations.”

María Jimena Duzán, columnist, El Tiempo: “It would be good if [Luis Carlos Restrepo] stopped writing columns – this takes a lot of time – and instead traveled through Atlántico, Magdalena, Cesar, Sucre, Córdoba, Bolívar, Urabá, the coffee-growing zone, Meta, Casanare, and Arauca. There, he would notice how the paramilitary phenomenon has taken over local politics, the health system’s resources, and the best contracts from the mayors’ offices.”

Michael Frühling, director of the Bogotá office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited in El Tiempo: “In a letter made public on Friday, dated March 30, [Frühling] said the term “inadvisable” was appropriate because the bill ‘is not in agreement with international principles and norms about the rights of victims of serious crimes, in accordance with international law.’”

2 Responses to “Paramilitary talks: last week’s legislative train wreck”

  1. jcg Says:

    The Return of “Your comment was denied for questionable content” is at hand. I had to cut off random parts of the text in order to solve this.

  2. jcg Says:

    It seems that the show’s almost over then.
    Improvisation and lack of coherent guidelines have practically rendered the current bill toothless, give or take a few details.

    Unless somehow someone can convince those responsible to implement an emergency facelift or, better yet, to go all the way back to square one, and at the same time convince the paramilitaries to stay still and stay quiet. This might very well lead to a real crash.

    PS: maybe the new software doesn’t like “three continous dots”?

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