Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups: Lessons from a Surrender
8 Jun 2012
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The surrender of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) exposed justice system and government strategy shortcomings that unless corrected will hamper efforts to combat groups which are now top security challenges.
“Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups: Lessons from a Surrender”, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the first-ever surrender, at the end of last year, by one of these NIAGs and paramilitary successors and analyses the policy flaws that it exposed. Only a fraction of the group took part; leaders may be getting away with short prison sentences; underlying criminal structures, including corrupt networks that reach into the political and business worlds, will likely remain untouched; and the impact on conflict dynamics has been limited.
“On the ground, the surrender has achieved little else than stoking confrontations between competing groups that want to take over what ERPAC has lost”, says Christian Voelkel, Crisis Group’s Colombia Analyst. “It has started a new cycle of violence in ERPAC’s eastern plains strongholds, rather than laying the basis for security”.
ERPAC exercised strict control in its operational area and was responsible for the killing of community leaders, displacements, child recruitment and sexual violence. But it kept its hold also thanks to substantial links to regional and local elites, as well as parts of the security forces. Considering such groups criminal organisations (BACRIMs in the Spanish acronym) rather than parts of the armed internal conflict, the government has long insisted that fighters cannot benefit from transitional justice or reintegration measures and that their only option is criminal prosecution. But the judicial system is ill-equipped to handle a collective surrender that must balance the competing needs of encouraging NIAG members to give up arms while guaranteeing victims’ rights to justice, truth and reparation.
The government needs to correct these shortcomings by implementing an explicit surrender policy. Boosting the capacities of prosecuting institutions should be the core of the policy, but it also needs to assume more leadership, not put all responsibility on the judicial system. It should ensure that NIAG victims have access to the benefits extended to victims of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries and also make basic reintegration benefits available to former fighters in an effort to prevent them from resuming their old ways.
“Dismantling the NIAGs and doing so while avoiding impunity, requires closing down also their corrupt networks, guaranteeing victims’ rights and preventing rearmament, in addition to punishing individual crimes”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director. “A credible commitment from the government that it is serious about doing so – that it is taking a more encompassing approach to their surrenders – could also become a crucial part of wider guarantees ahead of possible peace talks with the guerrillas”.