Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit

Isabel Hilton
24 October 2005

At its meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 3 October 2005, the European Union gave a qualified endorsement to a peace plan for Colombia that human-rights organisations believe will entrench the political and economic power of a criminal mafia guilty of drug-trafficking, extortion and gross human-rights abuses.

The plan was devised by the government of President Álvaro Uribe Velez, who on 19 October received legal backing for a change to Colombia’s constitution that will permit him to run for another presidential term in the May 2006 elections. The peace plan is enshrined in Colombia’s Justice and Peace Law, passed after fierce debate in June 2005, and is judged by several international organisations to be so flawed that it is unlikely to bring either justice or peace.


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The law has yet to be reviewed by Colombia’s constitutional court and may be overturned, but that may take several months and would come too late to slow the government’s rush to implement the plan.

Yet even before this full legal process is completed, a confidential EU report recommends “discreet political support and cautious practical help" to the plan, whilst admitting that it has "insufficient emphasis on the need for the effective dismantling of the paramilitary structures", that it blurs distinctions between the political and the criminal, and allows insufficient time for the investigation of crimes and “restricted opportunities for the victims to receive reparations.”

French diplomats have "voiced serious reservations" about the report and doubt whether the law can deliver positive results. Despite these warnings, the Luxembourg summit of EU foreign ministers gave its approval.

A culture of violence

The plan purports to offer peace to a country that has been wracked by more than four decades of internal conflict. It provides for the demobilisation of armed groups of both left and right; but so far, the major beneficiaries have been Colombia’s far-right paramilitary forces which the United States and the European Union consider – along with the leftwing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (Farc) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – to be terrorist organisations. The US also recognizes them as Colombia’s major cocaine traffickers.

One of the plan’s beneficiaries, in the form of a “demobilised” member of a paramilitary group, has described it as “a farce…a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from the other side.” Another gunman admitted that he had been involved in the massacre of men, women and children: “Sometimes you killed them with the machete, because you didn’t have anything else left.” Now, he holds a certificate from the government assuring him he has “no legal problems.”

The Uribe government has lobbied hard for international respectability for the plan and has accused human-rights organisations that oppose it of sympathy with Colombia’s leftwing guerrillas. Endorsement from the European Union council of ministers is counted as a major diplomatic victory. But the plan will entrench the power of a criminal mafia that has enriched itself over twenty years of appalling violence, financed by profits from cocaine and other illegal businesses.

With generous help from the Colombian army and wealthy landowners (who, as one paramilitary explained, “paid us as though we were their security guards”) this mafia has seized great expanses of land for coca cultivation and now boasts of its profits. “It was not a fight for Colombia. It was a drug-trafficking war,” said a former squad commander.

One paramilitary gunslinger made it clear that his commanders would never let go of their illegal businesses: “The demobilisation process is a way to try to clean the biggest guys. There is a system: they enter a farm, kill or throw out a rancher, and that farm is then transferred to a hardliner…When they enter legality (by demobilising), they are going to say that they already had that land from before.”

Two years ago, some paramilitary commanders began talks with the government in the hope of avoiding extradition to the United States for drug-trafficking. Since then, thousands of gunmen have entered government reintegration programmes. The Justice and Peace Law will accelerate this process; encouraged by the lax terms, a 400-strong force which one drug lord inherited from the late Pablo Escobar, Colombia’s best-known trafficker, have joined a programme.

A system of impunity

The terms of the law give virtual impunity to this mafia: its members are not required to confess, but a “voluntary statement” is generously rewarded. A judge has only thirty-six hours to decide on a prosecution and even then, sentences are light. In return, a trafficker can avoid extradition by pleading double jeopardy. He is then free to keep his stolen goods and run for congress.

Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe Velez has made the shortlist for openDemocracy’s inaugural Bad Democracy Awards. Click here to view the nominees and cast your vote today

If elected, Colombia’s paramilitary commanders may well find congenial company, according to an important commander, Vicente Castaño Gil, who has boasted that 35% of members of Colombia’s national congress are “friends” of the paramilitaries and predicts that “by the next election, (the paramilitaries) will have increased that percentage.”

Even now, the paramilitary mafia control many communities, including much of the city of Medellin, and are wealthy enough to recruit new forces to replace those who reintegrated. The government admits that drug traffickers now hold nearly 50% of Colombia’s best land and, under the plan, they will be able to enter society with their wealth, political power, and criminal networks intact.

The investment they have made in politics has paid off. Ivan Roberto Duque (also known as Ernesto Baez), a leader of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a major paramilitary force, has admitted that he wants to “legitimise the AUC’s power and build it into a big political movement.” He explained that “for many years...(the paramilitaries) have intervened in politics, intimately and permanently penetrated local and regional political processes, and built structures of regional and local politics.”

As one recent study explains, the main objective “is to achieve the monopoly over a set of activities that are susceptible to the control of organised crime, such as wholesale food markets, racketeering, drug-trafficking, and, as a superior goal, the appropriation of political power in the cities.” Legitimate Colombian politicians warn that this plan will mean that Colombian democracy will be subordinated to these criminal groups.

A detailed Human Rights Watch report finds that the Uribe government has barely tried to break the power of groups that the Colombian Commission of Jurists estimates have killed nearly 13,000 people since 1996 (and this figure excludes kidnappings, torture and extortion or forced displacement). There is little hope of justice for the victims: of the 5,000 paramilitaries who have demobilised, only twenty-five had been detained for atrocities up to April 2005. The government claims there is a paramilitary ceasefire, but has turned a blind eye to repeated violations: one commander is being legitimised even though he ordered the assassination of a congressman in April.

The Uribe government has ignored criticism of the law from a wide range of sources – including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, several US senators and a raft of non-governmental organisations. The European Union’s own report acknowledges many of these concerns. The shocking thing is, it appears to have made little difference to its judgment.

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