Demobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal?
Demobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Latin America & Caribbean 4 minutes

Demobilising the Paramilitaries in Colombia: An Achievable Goal?

The target of disbanding the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) by the end of 2005, set when the government of President Alvaro Uribe signed the Ralito I accord with the far-right group nearly a year ago, remains problematic.

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Executive Summary

The target of disbanding the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) by the end of 2005, set when the government of President Alvaro Uribe signed the Ralito I accord with the far-right group nearly a year ago, remains problematic. The government will need to get much tougher, including with credible threats to use force, if negotiations that opened in July 2004 are to succeed. The international community should offer more cooperation if the serious questions that remain about the project can be resolved in a way that respects rule of law and promotes the ultimate goal of ending the long conflict.

The signing of the Ralito II agreement in May 2004 and the opening of talks in the newly established neutral Zone of Location (ZDU), are positive steps, particularly following the near-breakdown earlier in the year, ceasefire violations and continued AUC drug trafficking. While little substance was addressed in the agreement, and a precise timetable for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of AUC fighters has yet to be fixed, Ralito II nonetheless provides the Uribe administration an opportunity to move the process forward during its remaining two years in office.

But to achieve real, sustainable progress, the government still needs to develop a legal framework and political strategy for collective demobilisation of all armed groups. Since the April 2004 disappearance and probable murder of its leader, Carlos Castaño, the AUC has become increasingly assertive. Under the new chief, Salvatore Mancuso, the paramilitaries say they are unwilling to accept any jail time for war crimes or extradition of their leaders to the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges, even as their narcotics involvement has continued unabated, and international concern over possible impunity for past crimes has deepened. The domestically controversial, government-endorsed appearance by Mancuso and two other paramilitary commanders before the Colombian Congress on 28 July 2004 increased this concern. They used the platform to reiterate the AUC proposal to retain a counter-insurgency role after demobilisation by maintaining control of vast regions of the country -- a blatantly self-interested proposition that would allow it to keep illegally acquired land and other property as well as its drug operations.

These demands must be rejected. The only previous experience, in Medellín, shows the dangers of a short-sighted and incomplete approach to DDR. Paramilitaries who were disarmed and ostensibly reintegrated into society there have kept control of numerous city neighbourhoods. Key issues -- their source of income (drugs), continuing contacts with non-demobilised AUC members, and reparations for the victims of their past crimes -- remain unresolved.

The international community has been largely absent from the negotiations, in part due to its distaste for the paramilitaries' links to drug trafficking and involvement in atrocities, but also because of lack of transparency in the process itself. Initial government-proposed legislation on so-called alternative sentencing was criticised for implying the paramilitaries would enjoy impunity for past grave misdeeds. Only the Organisation of American States (OAS) has stepped forward, accepting the role of monitoring and providing information on the ceasefire. It has put its credibility on the line in associating with a controversial beginning to the peace process but if it is to make a serious contribution, its capacity and political will to monitor the ceasefire in all Colombia as well as its inadequate funding will have to be addressed.

The Uribe administration's recent positive response to feelers for ceasefire talks from the smaller of the two insurgent groups (the ELN) could lead it to develop a more comprehensive approach to DDR that provides the foundation for collective demobilisation of all armed groups. In spite of serious differences over how to bring a ceasefire into force and the agenda of future peace talks, negotiations might eventually prove easier with the ELN than the AUC because the group is not as deeply involved in drug trafficking. However, the larger insurgent organisation (FARC) is unlikely to be a passive witness to the demobilisation of either the AUC or the ELN.

If there is to be a definitive agreement with the paramilitaries, the government must threaten them credibly with military consequences should they break the ceasefire and refuse to concentrate and disarm all their forces, end drug trafficking and other criminal activities and pay reparations. Increased activity of the Centre for Integral Action (Centro de Accion Integral) -- the Ministry of Defence entity charged with coordinating police, army and intelligence units tasked to pursue, capture or destroy the non-complying AUC leadership or other paramilitary leadership -- would send a good message.

The alternative sentencing legislation is to be reconsidered shortly by the Congress. While amendments already have improved the original proposal, more is needed, particularly to assure at least some jail time for war crimes, confiscation of illegally acquired assets and both reparations and a greater voice for victims. U.S. extradition remains a potential deal breaker. Any compromise -- such as the serving of U.S. convictions in Colombian prisons -- must come only after substantial progress has been achieved toward actual demobilisation and disarmament of the AUC, full disclosure of its links to drug trafficking, its verified disengagement from that activity and satisfactory disposition of illegal assets.

Bogotá/Brussels, 5 August 2004

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