Funding for the OAS Verification Mission The Challenge of Neutrality in Northern Cauca
May 312005

It was surprising to see top paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna” or “Adolfo Paz”) ejected from negotiations with the Colombian government, then arrested on charges of ordering a murder in violation of a much-ignored cease-fire. After at least twenty years as an outlaw, in which he became one of Colombia’s richest and most powerful figures, have Murillo’s legendary survival skills finally failed him? Or is this just another obstacle that he will easily overcome?

Since his name started to surface around 2002-2003, Don Berna has been one of the AUC’s most powerful and feared leaders, despite a lack of experience fighting guerrillas. Instead, his resume includes time spent as security chief for one of Pablo Escobar’s henchmen; as part of a Cali cartel-financed operation to kill Escobar; and as a leader of Medellín’s largest network of hitmen-for-hire. Though he has only considered himself a paramilitary for four or five years, he now controls about 2,000 to 4,000 fighters and dominates Medellín’s vast slums.

Don Berna is emblematic of the new AUC leadership that has taken the place of top 1990s leaders like Carlos Castaño. Like the many drug figures that have become paramilitary leaders in his wake, Don Berna embodies the traits required to survive and succeed in an environment where laws are rarely enforced and government authority is arbitrary and corruptible. Like Pablo Escobar before him, Murillo is utterly ruthless, likely responsible for dozens if not hundreds of murders (including, allegedly, the April 2004 attack that led to the disappearance of Carlos Castaño). He has a related talent for quickly ascending the ranks of criminal organizations and maintaining himself there.

Unlike Escobar, Don Berna has shown a remarkable ability simply to survive – despite an unclear, probably drug-related attack in the mid-1990s that gave him seventeen bullet wounds and cost him part of a leg. He has always been one step ahead, switching sides several times to secure a place in whatever group was ascendant in Colombia’s criminal underworld.

His deft survival skills led the 43-year-old warlord to reinvent himself as AUC Inspector-General Adolfo Paz, head of several recently created paramilitary blocs (Héroes de Granada, Pacífico, Libertadores del Sur, Tolová, Nutibara and Calima). To much fanfare, the Nutibara bloc demobilized 860 members in Medellín in November 2003, a process that has been heavily questioned ever since.

Medellín’s El Colombiano reports that “the blocs under his command, according to the Judicial Police (DIJIN), receive up to $500,000 per month to guard Diego Montoya Sánchez, alias Don Diego.” Montoya, a top figure in the North Valle drug cartel, shares a top spot on the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives list, right near Osama Bin Laden.

Nonetheless, Don Berna easily secured a seat in paramilitary negotiations with the Colombian government in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone. There, he stood a very good chance of avoiding extradition to the United States (a New York court has indicted him for drug trafficking), and serving only a few years in jail – at most – for all of his previous crimes. In the few interviews he granted, he spoke of pursuing a political career after the talks end.

To say the least, then, it was unusual to see Don Berna suddenly become the subject of a large-scale police manhunt in and around the Ralito zone last Wednesday and Thursday, then do a long “perp walk” before Colombian television cameras in the custody of Police Chief Jorge Castro and government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo.

Don Berna stands accused of ordering the April 10 assassination of Orlando Benítez, a provincial legislator who had committed the offense of campaigning in Valencia, Córdoba, despite instructions from Don Berna’s Tolová bloc that he not do so. (Intimidating opposition candidates is a key means by which paramilitaries are installing allies in governorships, mayoralties, and even congressional seats throughout Colombia.)

Prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest during the week of May 16. This order could not be added to the pile of pre-existing arrest warrants that have been suspended while negotiations proceed. This time, the crime in question was committed after December 2002, when Don Berna and other paramilitary leaders agreed to observe a cease-fire, which was the Uribe government’s main pre-condition for starting talks.

Such cease-fire violations have been alarmingly common. The Colombian government’s human-rights ombudsman counted 1,979 paramilitary abuses in 2004, including threats and displacement as well as murders. In one 21-month period, December 2002 through August 2004, the Colombian Commission of Jurists counted [PDF format] 1,899 paramilitary homicides in violation of the cease-fire.

The Uribe government decided, however, that this particular violation mattered. On May 25, the government declared Don Berna ineligible to continue as a peace negotiator and ordered his arrest. An ensuing manhunt involved 750 police, supported by helicopters and planes.

Don Berna at first responded with a show of power, as the paramilitary groups he controls forced all buses in Medellín to stop operating, snarling the city’s transit. He was apparently unwilling to go back to being a fugitive, however. By Friday, he had negotiated a deal with government authorities that led to his surrender.

So what happens now? Is the previously untouchable Don Berna, stripped of his status as a negotiator, going to stand trial and face decades in jail for all of his previous crimes, both violent and drug-related? Is the Uribe government finally going to get serious and hold paramilitary leaders accountable for their blocs’ many cease-fire violations? Is a move afoot to roll back the wave of narcotraffickers entering the paramilitaries to avoid jail or extradition?

Not likely. As details about Don Berna’s arrest emerge, it’s beginning to look like he got a good deal for himself.

Upon turning himself in, Don Berna agreed to declare himself “demobilized,” no longer a member of the AUC. This is a largely meaningless step because, like AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso before him, it absolves him only of the crime of “rebellion.” Judgment of his more serious crimes against humanity must await passage of the so-called “Justice and Peace” law still working its way through Colombia’s congress. (Mancuso, in a legal limbo of sorts, is currently residing alongside non-demobilized AUC leaders in Ralito.)

If he is covered by this law, Don Berna will benefit greatly from the bill currently under debate in the legislature. He would have to spend a maximum of eight years in prison, and likely much less due to “good behavior” and credit for time spent in Ralito. He would not be penalized for failing to confess all of his crimes or to turn in all ill-gotten assets. He would likely emerge from the process with his powerful criminal networks intact. If the law determines that paramilitarism is a “political crime,” as is likely, it will be very difficult to extradite him to the United States.

There is still a chance that the “demobilized” Don Berna – who, after all, was stripped of his negotiator status last Wednesday – will not in fact be covered by the lenient “Justice and Peace” law. The attorney-general’s office has a ten-day period to decide whether to call for his arrest for the Benítez murder. If it fails to do so, El Tiempo reports, “‘Don Berna’ or ‘Adolfo Paz’ could possibly return to the negotiating table with no problems.”

No matter what, Don Berna is likely to remain in some form of state custody for some time, even if he is found to be covered by the “Justice and Peace” law. Today the Colombian government will determine how he is to be imprisoned. President Uribe promised over the weekend that Don Berna’s jail will not be luxurious. “Forget about this prison being like La Catedral,” he said, referring to the well-appointed one-man prison that held Pablo Escobar for about a year and a half. “The site that will be chosen by the peace commissioner, the prison institute and the police will be under the total control of the security forces, including the prison guards, and it will be open to the oversight of national and international opinion, have no doubt.”

El Tiempo columnist María Jimena Duzán has some doubts:

What he failed to tell us is that not only will “Don Berna” not be going to a five-star jail, he won’t be going to any jail. And that this episode cannot be compared to La Catedral for the plain and simple reason that it is worse and more shameful. This time, there won’t even be any jail during the investigation phase, since the government has already accepted Don Berna’s demand to bring him to some place that nobody can identify, so that, from his own realm, he can more easily talk to investigators. … If the Justice and Peace law under congressional consideration is approved, the most likely outcome is that he won’t go to any jail, not even a five-star one. After a number of months and without having dismantled his organizations, perhaps after a period in an “agrarian colony,” one will be able to find him out on the street. Does anyone have any doubt about who is winning?

Over the next month or two, expect little attention to be paid to Don Berna’s case. Instead, news about the paramilitary talks is likely to be dominated by another wave of demobilizations.

According to his deal with the authorities, as Don Berna “demobilizes,” so will a few thousand paramilitaries in the blocs under his command. As in past months, these demobilizations will be taking place in a state of near-chaos, as overwhelmed government agencies find themselves incapable of separating authors of serious crimes against humanity from the mass of young, suddenly unemployed fighters on their doorsteps. Those turning themselves in will not be asked about the people who commanded, funded and supported them, and many – though perhaps no longer wearing camouflage uniforms every day – may in fact remain under Don Berna’s command. They will be inserted into a reintegration program that has so far dealt poorly with the thousands who have already demobilized.

Yet this high-profile removal of combatants from the conflict is likely to get a lot of favorable coverage, boost President Uribe’s approval ratings, and be cited by Bush administration officials trying to aid the process despite congressional skepticism [PDF format]. The Uribe government is already exuding optimism: the coming demobilizations, says peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo, will begin “the final stage” of the paramilitary talks, leading to the full demobilization of the AUC by the end of 2005, as foreseen in the 2004 Santa Fe de Ralito accord. Restrepo insists that the past week’s Don Berna episode has in fact saved the process.

Amid the optimism that is likely to accompany the coming demobilizations, do keep an eye on what is happening with Don Berna. If he avoids punishment for breaking the cease-fire and ends up being covered by a too-lenient “Justice and Peace” law, his case will send a message about how strongly the government cares about cease-fire violations, the entry of narcotraffickers into the paramilitaries, and the importance of dismantling paramilitarism. The credibility of the process will suffer a fatal blow. And Don Berna, who always seems to survive by staying one step ahead, will have done it again.

One Response to “Don Berna in custody”

  1. jcg Says:

    This is one is also interesting, though it goes over ground that has already been covered before.

    In the end, it all goes back to the issue of the dangerous balancing act that that government has put itself into (through improvisation and internal divisions). In that context, how exactly could authorities simultaneously process Don Berna (or others) for his crimes and prevent his thousands of troops from going right back into the conflict in retaliation? There are no easy answers to that.

    It may or may not be too late to properly solve this dilemma, at least not without going back to square one…hopefully at least some semblance of a solution that properly addresses some of the issues raised in the article can be found.

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