BOGOTÁ - Just a few days into Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's
second term in office, the close U.S. supervision of his government's negotiations
for the demobilization of the ultra-rightwing paramilitary militias became evident.
Fourteen of the heads of the paramilitary umbrella, the United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia (AUC), were arrested this week, nine of whom are wanted in
the United States on drug trafficking charges.
Against Washington's will, Uribe had suspended all U.S. extradition requests
in exchange for a promise from the paramilitary chiefs to stay out of criminal
activity and demobilize their militias, which are blamed by United Nations agencies
for 80 percent of the atrocities committed in Colombia's long civil war, in
which leftist guerrillas have been active since 1964.
But the agreement between the Uribe administration and the paramilitary leaders
does not appear to have been respected.
Since AUC declared a ceasefire in December 2002 as a condition set by Uribe
for the start of the demobilization negotiations, paramilitaries have committed
more than 3,000 murders, according to human rights groups. In addition, a portion
of the fighters who supposedly laid down their arms have continued to engage
On Monday, before his conversation with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
(DEA) administrator Karen Tandy, Uribe unexpectedly stated in a communiqué
that he would extradite the AUC chiefs if they did not immediately comply with
the peace agreement and the Justice and Peace Law, which offers legal benefits
to 3,000 paramilitaries who face charges of crimes against humanity.
He said that if they did not turn themselves in to the authorities and confess
their crimes – which they are bound to do by the Justice and Peace Law – they
would lose the benefits like shortened sentences offered under the demobilization
Alirio Uribe, head of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, an
internationally respected human rights group, said that another 28,000 demobilized
paramilitary fighters have obtained legal benefits precluding investigations
or prosecutions, or pardons, without having confessed to their crimes, and are
Tandy visited Colombia early this week to pay homage to the 10 members of Colombia's
elite antinarcotics police who were shot down in May in the town of Jamundí
by soldiers who were allegedly protecting drug traffickers.
On Wednesday, the police clarified that the AUC chiefs had turned themselves
in or had been picked up in a "friendly" manner, although radio stations
reported secret raids and round-ups.
The unusual operation was apparently agreed with the government by some of
the AUC leaders, who demanded that the terms "capture" or "prison"
not be used when announcing the detentions.
Other AUC chiefs turned themselves in later, although as of Friday several
powerful leaders were still at large, and the government had set no deadline
for compliance with Uribe's orders.
"I have come to turn myself in to comply with a presidential order, which
I respect and am obeying. We will continue the peace process from here,"
said a smiling former AUC spokesman, Salvatore Mancuso, as he entered a police
station in Montería, capital of the northwestern province of Córdoba.
Mancuso, one of the leaders whose extradition has been requested by the United
States, also faces accusations of being responsible for appalling massacres.
Another AUC spokesman, "Ernesto Báez," revealed that he had
taken part in a lengthy meeting with the police brass. "This process continues
to enjoy the total backing of the government, and is obviously still accepted"
by the AUC, said Minister of Interior and Justice Sabas Pretelt.
The content of the three-year negotiations with the paramilitary forces, which
were created in the early 1980s by drug traffickers and have worked in complicity
with the army, has not been divulged. However, the talks have been closely supervised
by the U.S. embassy, a high-ranking government official told IPS.
Nor is the identity of all of the top AUC chiefs known. According to the press,
several of them are druglords who joined the negotiations by acquiring an AUC
"franchise" in order to present their gangs of thugs as paramilitary
fighters. Their aim was to benefit from Uribe's promise not to extradite participating
leaders to the United States, where many of them are wanted on drug charges.
The controversial Justice and Peace Law, which was passed 13 months ago but
has not yet been implemented, has drawn criticism because it is seen as tailor-made
for the paramilitary leaders.
After the Constitutional Court strengthened the Justice and Peace Law in May,
the AUC chiefs complained that the ruling eliminated the legal guarantees that
they were offered in the negotiations, and that as a result they would not comply
with the law.
The court ruling required that the demobilized paramilitaries make a full confession
of their crimes in order to qualify for the legal benefits extended by the law,
which set an eight-year limit on prison sentences. The court also ordered that
reparations to the victims of paramilitary human rights crimes be paid through
the assets – whether legally or illegally obtained – of the paramilitary
leaders, many of whom are among the richest men in Colombia.
Critics of a decree being negotiated by the government for the implementation
of the Justice and Peace Law, which has been partially revealed by the press,
say it is aimed at keeping the AUC leaders from losing their benefits as a result
of the Constitutional Court decision.
Two days before Uribe's second term began on Aug. 7, the U.S. Embassy leaked
to the local magazine Cambios its reservations about the decree, which it termed
a "judicial pardon."
On Thursday it was revealed by the Caracol Radio station that on Aug. 11, Minister
Pretelt and Deputy Minister of Justice Ximena Peñafort had consulted
AUC leaders about the decree, which has been under negotiation for the last
On Monday, when Uribe ordered the paramilitary chiefs to turn themselves in,
he said it was necessary to give the demobilization process "credibility
at the national and international levels."
The Colombian press has reported that a number of paramilitary leaders drive
luxury cars, surrounded by dozens of bodyguards, frequent exclusive shopping
centers, social clubs and restaurants, and can be seen rubbing elbows with senior
Uribe administration officials and political leaders at public events.
Washington has provided Colombia with 4.7 billion dollars since 2000, mainly
in military aid through the Plan Colombia anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy,
in a failed attempt at reducing cocaine supplies for the U.S. market – the
world's top market for drugs – and at diminishing the power of the guerrillas.
The United States has also supported the paramilitary demobilization process
with 15.5 million dollars, including backing for the Organization of American
States (OAS) mission to support the Colombian peace process, which is about
to present its seventh quarterly report in Washington.
The Justice and Peace Law has been criticized by the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human
Rights for its failure to respect international norms on the rights of victims
to truth, justice and reparations.
While government and AUC spokespersons argue that the truth about the human
rights crimes committed by the paramilitaries will not lead to peace or reconciliation
in Colombia, activist Alirio Uribe (no relation to the president) says the experience
of other countries shows that laws that promote impunity tend to be overturned.
If that were to occur in Colombia, many members of the AUC would be subject
to extradition or to investigation by international courts, he said.
So, he argued, if the paramilitaries are so concerned about legal guarantees,
the negotiators should pay close attention to what has happened in other countries
in similar situations.
Furthermore, he said, the international community, the victims and survivors
of human rights abuses, and society at large would likely tolerate shorter sentences,
even if they are out of proportion with the gravity of the crimes that were
committed by the paramilitary units.
But in order for that to occur, said the activist, full confessions and the
resultant "truth" would not suffice.
Alirio Uribe says that what is necessary is the total dismantling of the paramilitary
structures, and a new public outlook that stigmatizes paramilitary groups that
do the dirty work of the state. Such groups have been used in Colombia since
the mid-1940s to murder community leaders, trade unionists and opposition politicians,
and to deprive poor farmers of their land, to the benefit of powerful economic
interests and organized crime.
(Inter Press Service)