Last Updated:12/9/02
Peace talks with the paramilitaries: four conditions for U.S. support, by the Center for Internatonal Policy, December 10, 2002

Peace talks with the paramilitaries: four conditions for U.S. support

Who are the paramilitaries?

Today's 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.

Their 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).

Fed 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

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.

While Colombia’s 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.

Cautious U.S. support

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.

Powell’s caution 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. backing.

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 the country.

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.)

Negotiating with 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.

3. Ex-paramilitaries 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.

This “legalization” 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.

Ex-paramilitaries 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 terrorists.

4. Ex-paramilitaries cannot keep what they have stolen or gained illegally.

Their campaign 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.

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