Indulging Colombia's Paramilitaries

When Alvaro Uribe campaigned for Colombia's presidency in 2002, he advocated a strong military response to the country's illegal armed groups. Many Colombians, frustrated by the outgoing Pastrana administration's largely fruitless talks with guerrilla negotiators, were persuaded by Uribe's more hard-line approach.

Yet Uribe's record, in the nearly three years since his election, has been characterized by a worrying indulgence toward violent groups. While the Uribe administration has indeed stepped up military action against Colombia's main guerrilla army, its most striking initiative has taken place at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. There, rather than toughness, the government has shown an appalling willingness to accede to the other side's demands.

Since late 2002, senior government officials have been meeting with leaders of violent paramilitary groups to discuss the demobilization of paramilitary troops. These paramilitary leaders – who include some of Colombia's most notorious drug kingpins and most vicious murderers – are seeking to escape responsibility for their crimes. Their goals are to avoid extradition to the United States, minimize potential prison terms in Colombia, and retain as much of their illegally obtained wealth as possible.

To date, there is little reason to believe that they won't get what they want.

Colombia is a human rights disaster, in large part due to violent abuses committed by paramilitary groups. Some paramilitary leaders have more than a dozen outstanding arrest warrants against them in Colombia for massacres, killings, kidnappings and other crimes.

Army complicity in paramilitary abuses has ensured that these men have long escaped justice. Their real fear is not of prosecution in the Colombian courts, but abroad. In September 2002, in a move with huge repercussions in Colombia, the U.S. indicted top paramilitary leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, alleging that they and a third man had conspired to import cocaine into the United States.

Paramilitary leaders, including Castaño and Mancuso, began negotiating with the government a few months later. Declaring a unilateral cease-fire, they promised to demobilize their estimated 10,000 to 20,000 armed and trained fighters by the end of 2005.

Yet since the start of negotiations, the paramilitaries have blatantly flouted their cease-fire promises. Over the past year, Colombia's Public Advocate has collected hundreds of complaints involving apparent paramilitary breaches of the cease-fire, including massacres, selective killings, and kidnappings. Of equal concern, paramilitaries appear to have asserted effective control over some territories from which the Colombian army has ejected guerrillas.

A key issue in the ongoing negotiations is the establishment of a legal framework to cover mass paramilitary demobilizations. The Colombian government's initial proposal, withdrawn after international and domestic outcry, would have granted a full amnesty to paramilitary perpetrators of violent crimes.

The government's most recent demobilization proposal, introduced in the Colombian Congress in early February, makes at least a superficial effort to require paramilitaries to confess their crimes, serve time in prison, and make reparations to their victims. It specifically acknowledges that society has an inalienable right to know the truth about human rights violations committed by illegal armed groups, and that the government has a duty to carry out investigations that lead to the identification, arrest, and sanction of the perpetrators of such crimes.

Still, in substance, the government's proposal leaves much to be desired. It includes loopholes that could gut the rights it purports to protect. Most notably, although it requires paramilitaries to confess past crimes, it contains no real safeguards to prevent paramilitaries from lying about their criminal activities, since it has no provision to revoke benefits once the defendant has received them.

Worse, high government officials have already repudiated the draft bill's rhetorical emphasis on truth and justice, casting doubt on whether the bill's best aspects will survive the legislative process. Purporting to give their "personal views" to the press, Colombia's vice-president and the country's high commissioner for peace – two of the officials who are most involved in the demobilization discussions – have criticized the draft bill and called for an approach based on pardons and forgiveness.

Even without a legal framework, the government has been moving forward with mass paramilitary demobilizations. Since 2003, thousands of purported paramilitaries have demobilized via existing laws that are inadequate to take apart complex paramilitary structures and ensure accountability for paramilitary abuses. The record, to date, is one of complete impunity.

During his run for president, Alvaro Uribe's campaign slogan was "firm hand, big heart." But now, in negotiations with paramilitaries, his government seems to be all heart.

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