Reintegrating Colombia's Killers
Reintegrating Colombia's Killers
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Reintegrating Colombia's Killers

September in Washington, D.C., is all Iraq, all the time, with Congress, the president and the public debating the war.

But Iraq cannot eclipse other foreign-policy issues that affect American lives.

Take Colombia - a country whose violence and drug trafficking are exported to U.S. cities every day.

This fall Congress debates progress on the Bush administration's implementation of "Plan Colombia," a U.S. program to help the Colombian government wipe out half its coca fields.

Congress will decide whether to cave in to the Bush administration's demand that Plan Colombia continue to deliver funding at an 80/20 split between military to economic aid, and support Colombian paramilitary mobilization without question. Democrats are skeptical, particularly after reports from the International Crisis Group and others that rearmed paramilitary groups still hold sway over cocaine corridors.

President Alvaro Uribe's initial tradeoff with them was to leave the battlefield in exchange for partial amnesty. The worst offenders would face minimal prison terms if they confessed their crimes, disclosed where victims were buried and explained how they had acquired and hidden illegal assets.

An overwhelmed attorney general's office must hold them to their promises or ensure they face the full force of the law if they refuse.

The process has been drawn out and tortuous. Over 30,000 combatants have registered and formally demobilized. Nearly 3,000 ringleaders are seeking reduced sentences under the Justice and Peace law. Only a few dozen have actually admitted crimes.

I just returned from two centers of paramilitary power, where I got a ground view of the disarmament, demobilization and resettlement (DDR) process three years after it began.

In the rural municipality of Tierralta, former paramilitary troops, their victims and the poor campesinos who survived decades of war all blamed the government for failing to deliver on promises.

In Tierralta, where the Organization of American States (OAS) has monitored the process, I sat with a half-dozen former paramilitary in a local church as they described their fears that stipends would dry up, and jobs would be scarce. They were frustrated and angry, and talked about re-arming.

Similar sentiments were expressed in the backroom of a nearby evangelical church by a dozen victims describing how loved ones had been killed and they had been forced to flee their villages. They wanted jobs and new houses - or at least the chance to return to their old ones - and wondered why the paras seemed to be getting benefits denied to them.

I took rutted roads to a rural center where community conciliators were waiting in the zone where the para warlords had negotiated their deal with Uribe's advisers. Villagers recalled promises by government officials that the paramilitary demobilization would bring clear benefits of peace - new schools, water systems, health clinics and farmland. One said, "We don't even have latrines." Another said, "Yes, there is a school but no teachers."

I saw a different process in the Antioquia departmental capital of Medellin the headquarters of "don Berna," one of Colombia's paramilitary barons whom the U.S. has indicted for drug trafficking. There the local mayor, Sergio Fajardo, has made DDR the highest priority, committing extra resources to the program, which has USAID support, and has combined psychological profiling, education and training to bring former paramilitary troops back into society.

Frank Pearl, the businessman who accepted Uribe's challenge to work on the national reintegration program, has adopted many of the Medellin lessons. But a few are missing: He is not responsible for assuring aid to the victims - yet they cannot be left out. And even in Pearl's plans, the rural villages of Colombia, hard to reach, mired in deep poverty and long abandoned, still won't get sufficient investment in governance and infrastructure.

Yet it is in those villages where the 40-year civil conflict between the government, the paramilitary and the two left- wing guerrilla revolutionary groups has raged. Abandonment by a succession of governments not only gave the guerrillas their base of operations but also fostered illegal coca cultivation and Colombia's humanitarian tragedy.

The new U.S. Congress wants to direct more aid to displaced, rural communities and to the attorney general, who is investigating confessed links between para leaders and Uribe party politicians. The Uribe government could help end impunity by digging into its vast intelligence files and providing the attorney general with full dossiers on nearly 3000 para leaders it has said should be granted reduced sentences. So far all it has offered is tantamount to name, rank and serial number.

The one clear and important benefit of the demobilization process has been to remove thousands of killers from the battlefields, with a parallel decline in homicides and kidnappings. However, the victims of their earlier crimes have a right to be sure the attorney general has resources to ensure the paramilitary at least tell the full truth.

Colombia's demobilization of paramilitary armies that committed massacres, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their villages and ran cocaine drug trafficking is important to Americans. We have to get it right - or we have to help Colombia get it right.

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