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Paramilitary Demobilizations in Colombia


Tuesday, Aug. 02, 2005

The Country's Gratitude

In a public ceremony on August 1 presided over by high Colombian officials and a representative of the Organization of American States, Murillo aka Berna aka Paz watched as more than 2,000 paramilitary fighters handed over their guns. The demobilizing troops had been under his command, but were promising to abandon violence and rejoin society.

Luis Carlos Restrepo, Colombia's high commissioner for peace, expressed gratitude for Murillo's actions. "With this step, Mr. Murillo Bejarano, you've fulfilled the pledges solemnly assumed under the auspices of the peace process with the Self Defense Forces," Restrepo said, using the name - Self Defense Forces - by which the paramilitaries refer to themselves.

"The country thanks you for it," the high commissioner added.

Murillo is wanted for multiple killings, drug trafficking, and a host of other crimes. He is a former security chief for the Galeanos, a family that was linked to Pablo Escobar and that belonged to the Medell'n Cartel. According to federal prosecutors in New York, who have indicted him for murder and conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, Murillo is "the de facto leader of [Colombia's main paramilitary group], in charge of narcotics-trafficking activities, including all of its cocaine transportation and financial operations."

An Illusory Cease-Fire

Murillo's bloody record would make it difficult to praise him no matter how exemplary his current actions. But Restrepo, in thanking Murillo in the name of the Colombian public, was not only ignoring crimes committed in years past. He was closing his eyes to violent abuses that happened just months ago.

According to Colombian prosecutors, in April, even while Murillo was acting as a peace negotiator for the paramilitaries, he ordered the assassination of a congressman and two companions. The three victims -- Orlando Benitez, his sister and driver -- were killed by gunmen who stopped their car near the town of Valencia, close to the place where paramilitary leaders were meeting with the government. Murillo is said to have ordered the killings after Benitez refused to stop campaigning in the region.

The killings were part of a larger pattern. Even though paramilitaries had declared a cease-fire in December 2002, when they began negotiations with the government, they had violated it on countless occasions. According to a report by Colombia's Public Advocate that covered fewer than half of the country's thirty-two departments, in the first eight months of 2004 there were 342 paramilitary cease-fire violations, including massacres, forced disappearances, and kidnappings.

And the April killings exposed another, equally serious problem: the misleading nature of paramilitary demobilizations. Thousands of paramilitaries in Colombia have participated in public demobilization ceremonies, taking off their uniforms and handing over at least one gun. But it is far from clear, once the cameras have been turned off and the show is over, what their one-day transformation really means.

A crucial question is whether they have cut the ties that link them to their commanders. The experience with Murillo suggests that the answer is no. When prosecutors ordered Murillo's detention in April, after the Valencia killings, hundreds of his supposedly demobilized troops went into action. The authorities in Medellin, where his troops were active, reported that paramilitaries under Murillo's control brought the city of two million people to a standstill.

Unsurprisingly, the government quickly cut a deal with Murillo that saved him from arrest and brought him back into the negotiations.

The Justice and Peace Law

With the June passage of a law to government the demobilization process, the negotiations are finally over. And thousands of paramilitaries are now demobilizing. But what can be expected out of this process?

First, a few background facts that Murillo's case exemplifies. Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups are extremely powerful. Through drug trafficking and other illegal businesses, they have amassed enormous wealth. And thanks to this wealth and power, they enjoy a high degree of political influence, both locally and nationally.

Paramilitaries accrued their power and influence by force. Deemed terrorists under U.S. and European law, over the last two decades paramilitaries have killed thousands of Colombian civilians; tortured, kidnapped, and robbed tens of thousands more; and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

To be effective, therefore, a demobilization law should address these problems. It should include mechanisms for dismantling the groups' underlying criminal structures, reducing their political power, and seizing their wealth.

Simply disarming paramilitary troops will do little, if anything, to put an end to their abuses. As long as these groups keep their wealth and power intact, it will be easy for them to purchase new guns, and replace demobilized fighters with new recruits.

Yet the legal framework recently established in Colombia accomplishes none of these objectives. It grants enormous sentence reductions and other benefits to paramilitaries responsible for atrocities, including likely protection from extradition, but it fails to establish effective mechanisms to ensure that the groups are dismantled. While paramilitaries may lie dormant for a while, as long as it is convenient for them, their power and control will not disappear.

Misleadingly referred to as the "Justice and Peace Law," the law furthers neither justice nor peace. It is a gift to men like Murillo: it forgets the abuses of the past but does little to prevent their repetition.

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. She is currently visiting Colombia. This piece is based on Human Rights Watch's just-released report, "Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia's Demobilization of Paramilitary Groups," written by Americas Division researcher Maria McFarland.

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