Paramilitary demobilization in Colombia: A cautionary tale for rebel peace talks
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Paramilitary demobilization in Colombia: A cautionary tale for rebel peace talks

What will happen when more than 150 people convicted of human rights violations in Colombia get out of prison – all at the same time?

The ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla insurgency are not the country’s first attempts to quell over half a century of violence. While negotiations continue in Havana, Cuba, Colombia’s attention is turning to another, older accord: the paramilitary demobilization of 2005, whose first beneficiaries will be released in the coming months after completing their short sentences.

Known as the United Self-Defenses of Colombia (AUC for its initials in Spanish), this coalition of right-wing death squads worked in conjunction with Colombian state security forces to commit some of the worst human rights violations in the 50+ year conflict, including hundreds of assassinations and massacres. In its heyday, the AUC operated across two-thirds of Colombia and had 30,000 members.

In 2005, facing increasing international scrutiny for human rights violations and paramilitary-military cooperation under former president Alvaro Uribe’s tough-on-terror “democratic security” strategy, the AUC signed a peace accord known as the Justice and Peace Law 975 . The law granted reduced prison sentences of eight years in exchange for key information about human rights violations and intellectual authors of crimes.

Nine years later, the Justice and Peace Law’s legacy includes 400,000 hours of public testimony; confessions to 43,000 crimes; the participation of 70,000 victims; 161 former AUC fighters eligible to be freed this year – and critiques regarding the law’s failure to truly dismantle paramilitary power structures and provide truth, justice and reparations to victims. In spite of the law, the rate of impunity for human rights violations is somewhere between 90-99 percent, depending on the crime.

“Impunity is the second crime committed against victims,” said a spokesperson for the National Organization for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE). “There is an institutionalized, codified impunity, and the Justice and Peace Law 975 is a clear example. The paramilitaries did not demobilize.”


A paramilitary by any other name…

The Colombian government now refers to non-guerilla illegal armed groups as criminal gangs, or BACRIM. These groups are involved in a number of illegal activities, including murder, torture, forced displacement, drug trafficking, extortion, and, increasingly, illegal mining.

But this classification obscures the systematic nature of the BACRIM’s targeting of Colombian human rights defenders, trade unionists, members of opposing political parties, land restitution leaders and other members of social movements. Though the BACRIM may not have the far-right political ideology of their AUC predecessors – just as many current guerrillas lack the Marxist credentials of their founders – they still act as mercenaries for hire for business and political elites who have their eyes on Colombia’s natural resources.

“Because of a number of legal victories for Afro-Colombian communities, business interests can’t legally remove us. They would have to consult us first on all proposed development projects,” said a community leader in the city of Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port, where neighborhoods are almost totally controlled by the so-called BACRIM. “In order to get access to land, these corporations had to form an alliance with paramilitaries to illegally displace us with violence. It’s not only cocaine that pays paramilitaries, but also corporations.”

Buenaventura is not the only place where residents point to connections between paramilitary groups and business interests, both illegal and legal.

The banana-growing region of Urabá, near the Panamanian border, was a historic AUC stronghold and the birthplace of today’s most powerful BACRIM, the Urabeños. Urabá was also where Chiquita Brands made recurring payments to the AUC for “security services” – for which the U.S.-based company was fined just $1.7 million by the Department of Justice in 2007.

See also: US court dismisses Chiquita paramilitary case

According to a recent report by the Interchurch Justice and Peace Commission, a prominent Colombian human rights organization, paramilitaries have a long history of collaborating with state security forces to displace residents and bring large-scale banana, yucca, African palm and cattle-ranching operations into Urabá.

The continued influence of these groups, combined with some politicians’ efforts to discredit organizations and journalists investigating their activities, suggest that the “parapolitics” scandal that first broke in 2006 is far from over. At the time, 35 percent of Colombia’s national congress was believed to have ties to paramilitary groups. Since then, politicians at all levels have been implicated, and some continue to call for an investigation of former President Uribe and his family members for alleged ties to drug trafficking and paramilitaries.

Most recently, opposition senator Ivan Cepeda challenged Uribe, who was elected senator in March, to a public debate on his paramilitary activities. The debate was approved by the Senate on Tuesday but has no confirmed date yet.


A shaky freedom

Former AUC fighters about to leave prison are wary about what awaits them. In addition to the pressure to rearm from paramilitary descendant groups, they will be facing powerful interests that are none too pleased about their testimony and attempts to name names.

One former AUC member told Semana magazine, “There’s a real danger with the military, the police, the Department of Administrative Security, the Sijin Intelligence Unit, everyone that participated with us in homicides. The State used us–we could name colonels that are now generals, businessmen that gave us money. But now they are our enemies.”

In the same article, another former AUC commander, Manuel de Jesús Pirabán, said, “Up until now the state hasn’t told us how it will guarantee our security.”

While it may seem ironic that former victimizers are now concerned about being victims, protection for former combatants has huge implications not only for the Justice and Peace Law, but also for the peace process with the FARC. Guerillas may be less likely to honor any potential accords if they see AUC members who served their time being assassinated as soon as they leave prison.

See also: Colombia peace talks to include role for victims

Of course, another risk is that former combatants will rearm and continue to terrorize the same victims that were supposed to benefit from these accords. This is especially likely if there is no support for their transition to civilian life–especially for fighters that were recruited as youth and may have no other job experience or training. Such a scenario would leave Colombia and victims of its armed conflict in a limbo: with many of the same actors, arms and dynamics at play, but no longer the words to call it a war.