talks with the paramilitaries: four conditions for U.S. support,
by the Center for Internatonal Policy, December 10, 2002
talks with the paramilitaries: four conditions for U.S. support
paramilitary groups were founded in the 1980s by landowners, drug
lords, and elements of Colombia's military. Their mission was
to offer protection against guerrilla groups operating in northern
Colombia, though they have more frequently targeted civilians
living in areas of guerrilla influence. They are widely charged
with killing most of the more than 2,000 noncombatants that Colombia's
conflict claims each year.
largest umbrella organization, the United Self-Defense Forces
of Colombia or AUC, is on the U.S. government's list of international
terrorist organizations, alongside Colombia's two main guerrilla
groups (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and
the National Liberation Army, or ELN).
by donations from large landowners and their deep involvement
in the drug trade, the rightist groups are the fastest-growing
actors in the conflict, more than tripling in size since 1998.
Though illegal, the paramilitaries claim to support the government,
and human rights observers - both official and non-governmental
- continue to allege that members of Colombia's armed forces regularly
support or tolerate them.
By Adam Isacson,
senior associate, Center for International Policy
December 10, 2002
Cautious U.S. support
One of the main
parties to Colombia’s conflict has apparently decided to silence its
weapons and talk peace. On December 1, most of Colombia’s 13,000 paramilitaries
– right-wing vigilante groups formed over the last twenty years to fight
leftist guerrillas – declared an open-ended cease-fire. The illegal
militias have signaled that they intend to negotiate a demobilization
agreement with the government of President Álvaro Uribe.
government has negotiated on and off with leftist guerrillas since 1982,
the paramilitaries had never before been approached for talks. Shortly
after assuming office in August, however, President Uribe approved contacts
between paramilitary leaders and his peace commissioner, Luis Carlos
Restrepo, facilitated by several of Colombia’s Catholic bishops. These
talks quickly brought about the December 1 cease-fire commitment.
During his December
3-4 visit to Colombia, Secretary of State Colin Powell praised the cease-fire
announcement as “a good start,” but his support was otherwise cautious.
In particular, the secretary gave no indication of whether Washington
would consider suspending the Justice Department’s extradition requests,
issued in September, against key paramilitary leaders wanted for narcotrafficking.
is justified. It is not clear yet what degree of support Washington
should lend President Uribe’s talks. Some support is called for, since
the dialogues may reduce the chances of a severe intensification of
Colombia’s war. The talks are also unlikely to succeed without U.S.
The question is:
how much backing? Should the U.S. government offer only rhetorical support,
as it did during the previous Colombian government’s attempts to talk
peace with the FARC and ELN guerrillas? Should U.S. diplomats actively
accompany the talks? Should U.S. tax dollars help pay to feed and shelter
paramilitary fighters taking part in the cease-fire? Should the Justice
Department lift its extradition requests?
The answer depends
on whether the talks fulfill the four conditions discussed below. If
uncertainty persists on any of these four points, the United States
would do well to keep a skeptical distance.
1. All paramilitary
groups must participate in the negotiations.
Between 1997 and
2002, nearly all of Colombia’s “self-defense groups” claimed membership
in the AUC, under the direction of warlords Carlos Castaño and Salvatore
Mancuso. Over the past several months, however, power struggles and
disagreements over human rights and drug trafficking dramatically reduced
the number of rightist fighters under the AUC umbrella. As a result,
it is not easy to cobble a common commitment to negotiations from the
dozens of semi-autonomous paramilitary fronts and blocs scattered around
So far, though,
all but about 1,800 of the paramilitaries have agreed to the cease-fire
and negotiations. This includes most of the AUC and the powerful “Central
Bolívar bloc.” The two groups that remain outside are the “Metro bloc”
(1,500 members), active in Medellín and other key zones of populous
Antioquia department, and the Casanare bloc (300 members), active in
the oil-rich savannahs of eastern Colombia. (The “Metro” group has agreed
only to a three-week holiday cease-fire, saying it would only participate
in talks if leftist rebels were also present.)
only a majority of the paramilitaries is not enough. Doing so would
still leave Colombia close to where it began, with thousands of armed
paramilitaries at large even after a demobilization agreement. Paramilitary
groups that remain “on the outside” would likely grow rapidly during
talks, gaining influence in areas controlled by demobilizing groups.
They would be able to recruit new members from among the demobilizing
groups’ rank and file, most of whom would face few opportunities in
Colombia’s shattered economy. The United States would do well to view
critically an attempt to demobilize only some of the paramilitaries.
2. The definition
of “cease-fire” must include non-battlefield violence.
Calling an end
to open combat with guerrillas is not enough. A true “cease-fire” must
mean an end to the grisly methods that Colombia’s paramilitaries rely
on more frequently than battlefield confrontation: murder, torture,
threats, spying and control of citizen movements.
Under a true cease-fire,
human rights defenders, labor organizers, investigative journalists,
judges and other non-violent reformers would have nothing to fear from
the paramilitaries. Peasants living in guerrilla-controlled rural areas
would need not fear traveling to paramilitary-controlled towns to buy
and sell goods. Displaced communities and exiled activists overseas
would be able to return home. If threats and intimidation continue as
usual, however, then a cease-fire cannot be said to exist, and the United
States must keep its distance.
must not be “recycled” into any state security structure.
Some form of immunity
from prosecution for most or all of the paramilitaries could be a condition
of their disarmament, as has been the case in nearly all peace processes
worldwide over the last twenty years. This doesn’t mean that Carlos
Castaño will ever see Disneyworld again – and crusading European judges
will ensure that he can’t travel anywhere outside Colombia – but it
does mean that he and others might have freedom on Colombian soil. If
paramilitaries disarm, their rank-and-file would be very likely to receive
amnesties and assistance for their reintegration into civilian life.
of former paramilitaries, however, may take place at the same time that
President Uribe is implementing the security measures that have marked
his “law and order” presidency, such as increasing the armed forces,
creating networks of civilian informants, and installing “peasant soldiers”
– auxiliary personnel who live in their own communities – throughout
the country. It may be very tempting for the Uribe administration to
“recycle” demobilized paramilitaries – thousands of unemployed individuals
with combat experience – into the expanding armed forces or into the
newly established citizen security structures.
must have nothing to do with these structures. Placing these known violators
under the state’s auspices, either as soldiers or as “informants,” would
guarantee a sharp increase in direct state responsibility for shocking
abuses. It would worsen the conflict with the guerrillas, and perhaps
make Colombia’s government an international pariah.
The United States
must make clear that it will only support talks with the paramilitaries
if their members are demobilized into non-military pursuits. Washington
is likely to give Colombia’s police and military about half a billion
dollars in 2003, an amount that will probably increase over the next
few years. The U.S. government must ensure that its citizens’ money
does not support a security force that includes, or has an institutional
relationship with, thousands of pardoned drug-dealing, chainsaw-massacring
cannot keep what they have stolen or gained illegally.
of terror has made many paramilitary leaders personally wealthy. Forcing
hundreds of thousands of their compatriots to flee the countryside has
left millions of acres of farmland in paramilitary hands; a frequently
cited statistic holds that 40 percent of Colombia’s cultivable land
is currently in the control of drug dealers and paramilitaries. A true
peace agreement with the paramilitaries would give this land back to
its original owners, including displaced communities who would be allowed
to return to their landholdings.
The United States
cannot support a peace agreement that would allow the paramilitaries
to keep the lands they have stolen. A peace won by legalizing such ill-gotten
gains would not last long. In fact, Washington must pull support from
any agreement that allows ex-paramilitaries to keep illegally
acquired assets, including those gained through narcotrafficking.
If these four difficult
conditions are being satisfied, then the United States should support,
both diplomatically and financially, President Uribe’s effort to negotiate
the paramilitaries’ disarmament. This may even include the possibility
of suspending extradition requests for the groups’ leaders at a latter
stage in the talks; while helpful in bringing the paramilitaries to the
table, the requests could ultimately be an obstacle to the talks’ resolution.
(Similar flexibility on extradition requests could be required in an eventual
negotiation with the FARC guerrillas – a negotiation that appears rather
unlikely at the moment.)
If these conditions
are not being met, though, Washington must spend no political capital
in support of talks with the paramilitaries. Instead, it must encourage
the Colombian government to do something it still is doing far from sufficiently:
to fight the paramilitaries to the same degree it fights the guerrillas,
and to punish anyone who collaborates with them.