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Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups: Lessons from a Surrender
Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups: Lessons from a Surrender
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia

Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups: Lessons from a Surrender

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.

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Executive Summary

The surrender of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) in December 2011 risks going down as a failure. Only a fraction of the group took part; leaders may be getting away with short prison sentences; and the underlying criminal and corrupt structures will likely remain untouched. The impact on conflict dynamics in the group’s eastern-plains stronghold has been limited. As worrying, the lack of transparency, including of international oversight, has damaged the credibility of the process, leaving the impression that an illegal armed group has again outwitted state institutions to the detriment of the public and particularly of the victims. The authorities need to draw the right conclusions from the process. Otherwise, the lack of appropriate instruments to manage collective surrenders will continue to hamper efforts to combat groups such as ERPAC that have grown into one of the country’s top security challenges.

The surrender of 272 members – slightly more than a third of ERPAC’s total armed strength – was the first time a New Illegal Armed Group (NIAG) with roots in the demobilised paramilitaries had chosen to give up its weapons. Pressure to surrender had been building, externally and within the group, since police killed its founder, alias “Cuchillo”, in December 2010. The former mid-level paramilitary leader had made ERPAC the dominant illegal armed force in parts of Meta, Guaviare and Vichada departments, with a key role in drug trafficking and other organised criminal activities. But with substantial links to the regional and local political elite as well as to parts of the security forces, ERPAC was always more than an ordinary criminal outfit. It exercised strict social control in its strongholds, including through targeted killing of community leaders, and was responsible for displacements, child recruitment and sexual violence.

ERPAC members currently face criminal proceedings before ordinary courts. They may seek benefits provided for by the criminal justice system such as the reduction of sentences in return for accepting charges. But they are not eligible for the benefits of the government’s demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program. This is because the government considers groups such as ERPAC criminal organisations (BACRIMs in the Spanish acronym) and not part of the internal armed conflict. For the same reason, NIAG members are also not eligible for consideration under transitional justice measures such as the 2005 Justice and Peace Law (JPL).

A wholesale extension of DDR and transitional justice mechanisms to NIAGs would be unwarranted, but the exclusive reliance on the ordinary criminal law to try their members has its downsides. First, it leaves victims without legal guarantees and benefits extended to the victims of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries; a March 2012 Constitutional Court ruling might, however, open the door for some NIAG victims to be covered by the new 2011 Victims Law. Secondly, it leaves former fighters without a clear perspective of civilian reintegration, thus increasing risks they will take up arms again. Serious crimes committed by NIAGs need to be fully investigated and prosecuted, but a more expansive approach to dismantling these groups is also required where there is a sufficient link to the armed conflict.

Contrary to government hopes, the ERPAC process revealed the limits of its surrender strategy, rather than vindicating it. The attorney general’s office had little choice but to free most of the fighters almost immediately, as only nineteen leaders were originally subjects of an arrest warrant. This obliged prosecutors and the police to recapture ERPAC members one by one, an onerous, still incomplete task. The public outrage was understandable, but more damaging is that the process will likely fail both to punish those responsible for serious crimes and to have a structural impact on ERPAC’s business activities as well as its corrupt links with politicians and security forces. Potential information from rank-and-file members on ERPAC operations appears not to have been fully exploited. Leaders do not face a credible threat of serious criminal charges and thus have little incentive to collaborate seriously with the judicial system.

But the problem goes further. The government’s sharp conceptual distinction between parts of the conflict and organised crime groups – upon which the logic of the surrender was built – poorly reflects on-the-ground complexities. Groups such as ERPAC do not fully replicate the paramilitaries, but they cannot and should not be considered in isolation from the broader context of the internal armed conflict. This means that dismantling the NIAGs involves more than investigating and punishing individual criminals. It also requires dismantling corrupt networks, guaranteeing victims’ rights and preventing rearmament. Given its current weakness, reconciling such disparate interests overburdens the judicial system. The Santos administration deliberately left the field to the attorney general’s office, but the shortcomings revealed in the ERPAC experience have highlighted the need for an explicit surrender policy that goes beyond individual criminal prosecution and has active government leadership.

After the Uribe administration long downplayed the NIAG threat, President Santos has taken a stronger stand, though results have remained elusive. Combating NIAGs is a complex challenge, involving multiple government agencies and cutting across several policies. But without an explicit surrender policy, the government’s anti-NIAG strategy will continue to fall short. Such a policy could also have benefits beyond future exercises with NIAGs. A more credible and encompassing approach to tackling NIAGs might become a crucial part of guarantees for the new peace talks with the guerrillas that the government is slowly preparing the ground for.

Bogotá/Brussels, 8 June 2012

Peasants from Colombia’s south west march in favour of the the peace agreement after the plebiscite, in Bogotá, Colombia. Kyle Johnson

Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia’s 2016 peace accord was a spectacular breakthrough after five decades of war. It was also an outcome Crisis Group helped work for during 15 years of Bogotá-based research and advocacy, including 36 reports and briefings, 91 op-eds and commentaries and more than 500 meetings with all parties.

Peace talks started between the Colombian government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2012, an outcome International Crisis Group had helped work toward for a decade. Our ideas fed directly into the 2016 peace agreement, and helped resolve the difficult tension between securing both justice and peace.

When Crisis Group began work in Colombia in 2002, the conflict between the government and FARC guerrillas was entering its fifth decade. The latest attempt at negotiations had just collapsed, giving way to a tough military approach under President Álvaro Uribe. This policy prioritised security gains at the expense of addressing the conflict’s root causes – frequently with disastrous results for civilians caught up in the violence.

We also sounded the alarm for emerging threats. Our 2004 report on the regional dimension of Colombia’s counter-insurgency policies was prescient in warning that the conflict could spill over the country´s borders. Four years later this danger materialised, causing a major Andean diplomatic crisis and threats of war between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

A new impetus for peace came in 2010 with the election of President Juan Manuel Santos, who signalled his ambition to find a negotiated end to the conflict and address its root causes. Crisis Group seized the moment to lay out possible negotiation paths. A high-level government contact was among Colombian and U.S. officials who praised our early report laying out this new agenda – President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity – saying that Bogotá used a number of our recommendations in initial informal talks with the FARC.

“The analysis of the International Crisis Group on Colombia constitutes an important source of reference that helps us better understand our reality, as well as how to sensitively address key issues such as progress and obstacles on human rights, and the enormous challenges of comprehensive victims’ care in our country”. Angelino Garzon, Vice President of Colombia, February 2011

FARC fighters stand in formation in Cauca, Colombia. Kyle Johnson, Senior Analyst for Columbia.

In September 2012, as formal peace talks opened in Havana, Cuba, our report Colombia: Peace at Last? summarised our private advocacy and quickly became a reference point for media and public debates. In one meeting, a top-level Colombian official brandished his copy of the report, with parts of it underlined: our analysis of post-conflict security risks was of great interest, he said, especially when it pressed for particular care over the reintegration of mid-level FARC commanders.

Arguably the most difficult part of the peace talks still had to be negotiated: accountability for devastating crimes carried out by guerrillas and state operatives in a decades-long conflict that killed some 220,000 people and displaced seven million more. Justice was crucial for a sustainable peace, but the prospect of lengthy prison sentences could easily deter the FARC from agreeing to lay down arms.

“Crisis Group’s work is “useful and objective”. Pablo Catatumbo, FARC negotiator, June 2016.

Crisis Group could combine intimate knowledge of the Colombian conflict with decades of transitional justice expertise: our then President Louise Arbour was previously UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and our Latin America Program Director Javier Ciurlizza had served both civil society and government sides of truth and reconciliation processes in his native Peru and four other countries. We did extensive field work on victims’ experiences and expectations, local transitional justice initiatives and the national and international legal context and standards for victims’ rights. Our conclusion: a strong emphasis on judicial prosecution for the most serious crimes committed by all parties to the conflict needed to be accompanied by some kind of amnesty for lesser crimes.

Though controversial, we decided to propose a comprehensive model of transitional justice, including an amnesty for political crimes and “effective restriction of liberty” sentences for lower-ranking FARC perpetrators under conditions linked to reconciliation. These elements would be accompanied by an independent truth commission and grassroots initiatives for truth-seeking and truth-telling, and a commitment to comprehensive reparation for victims.

We published these recommendations in Transitional Justice and Colombia’s Peace Talks (August 2013), accompanied by intense advocacy with the government and FARC. Louise Arbour met with President Santos, former President Uribe (the principal opponent of the peace talks), and the government’s chief negotiator in Havana, Sergio Jaramillo. We discussed our proposed solution across Colombian society, including the victims’ groups and activists we had consulted throughout our research. We argued in Washington DC for U.S. support for the peace deal, and engaged key actors in Oslo, The Hague, London and Brussels. President Santos publicly cited our analysis and messages, including in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2013. In March 2014, Louise Arbour was consulted by the Colombian government’s Advisory Panel on the peace talks.

After many months of contentious debate, Crisis Group’s proposals on transitional justice emerged as one of the basic building blocks of the breakthrough agreement on transitional justice that the parties reached on 23 September 2015. Several elements ­directly mirrored Crisis Group recommendations, above all regarding the distinction between the most serious wartime crimes and lesser crimes ­liable for amnesty, as well as the selection system for judges in the Special Juris­diction for Peace. President Santos cited Crisis Group’s statement on and analysis of the transitional justice agreement while presenting it to the Colombian public.

“Crisis Group’s reports are the “most detailed, realistic and useful” analysis available to delegations at peace talks in Havana. Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s peace negotiator and post-conflict minister, September 2013.

The peace deal was signed on 26 September 2016 at an emotional ceremony in the Colombian port of Cartagena as fourteen Latin American presidents looked on. Just days later, however, the process suffered a terrible shock. In a referendum on the final agreement, Colombians rejected it by a margin of 0.5 per cent, and with a turnout of only 37 per cent.

The entire peace process hung in the balance, even if the “no” vote was partly a reflection of the government’s general unpopularity. Crisis Group kicked into action, advocating a renegotiation of the agreement with the government and FARC, the opposition and international actors, and identifying ways to mobilise popular support for it. The two sides were already deeply committed to making peace work, leading to a new deal signed in late November and approved by the Colombian congress shortly thereafter.

Despite many uncertainties in late 2016, the FARC-government ceasefire mostly held. Crisis Group continues to press ideas for smooth implementation of the deal, including, for instance, overcoming delays in the FARC handover of weapons, and reducing violence in rural and urban areas. Our analysts are now focused on the next step: advancing the newly-opened peace process with Colombia’s second traditional guerrilla group, the ELN.