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Interviews Expose Fatal Flaws in Government Approach
August 1, 2005
The government’s failure to conduct the demobilizations in a serious manner is helping paramilitary commanders launder their wealth and legitimize their political power.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch

Colombia’s demobilization process is strengthening the power of paramilitary groups without furthering a genuine peace, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

Drawing on interviews with numerous demobilized paramilitaries, the report is the first to document the Colombian government’s mishandling of the recent paramilitary demobilizations.

“The government’s failure to conduct the demobilizations in a serious manner is helping paramilitary commanders launder their wealth and legitimize their political power,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch. “Having interviewed numerous demobilized paramilitaries, government officials, and other insiders, it is evident this process is rotten to the core.”

Nearly 6,000 people have participated in so-called collective paramilitary demobilizations since 2003. As of April 2005, only twenty-five of them had been detained for the thousands of atrocities committed by their groups, which are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. government and the European Union.

Recently demobilized paramilitaries quoted in the report openly described participating in massacres, killings, and kidnappings, and also spoke of their groups’ highly profitable involvement in drug trafficking. None of the men had been arrested for these crimes, or even questioned about them.

As the report documents, demobilized paramilitaries are not confessing, turning over substantial assets, or disclosing substantial information about their groups’ criminal networks and financing streams as part of the demobilization process. Instead, paramilitaries are taking full advantage of the demobilization process to launder their illegal fortunes and legitimize their political control.

Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary groups,” a 64-page report, also shows that demobilizations are not bringing real progress towards peace. Paramilitary groups continue to control areas, such as Medellín, where demobilizations have taken place. And they have repeatedly flouted the cease-fire declaration they made at the start of negotiations, without suffering serious adverse consequences.

“The demobilization process is a way to try to clean the biggest guys, [and] move all their money into legality,” according to one demobilized paramilitary. Another said bluntly that the process is “a farce. It’s a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from another side.”

Demobilized paramilitaries told Human Rights Watch that an important reason for joining these groups is the high salaries they offer. Paramilitary groups have retained their capacity to pay such salaries, and recruitment has continued despite the demobilization process. Thus, troops who disarm as part of the demobilization process are easily replaced.

“The government’s approach to demobilization allows paramilitary commanders to put on a show of disarming some troops,” said Vivanco. “But the government has not truly attempted to dismantle their mafia-like networks, seize their illegally acquired fortunes, or ensure a full cessation of abuses.”

Human Rights Watch’s report identifies numerous glaring problems in the government’s handling of recent demobilizations. For example, the government does not systematically ask demobilizing paramilitaries specific questions about their groups’ crimes, assets, and supporters.

Nor does the government even require demobilizing men to disclose their aliases, making it impossible to link them to the many unsolved crimes in which the perpetrator is identified only by his alias.

The report also includes a detailed critique of the demobilization law recently signed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, which codifies much of the government’s existing approach.

“Rather than correcting the problems in the demobilization process, the new law compounds them,” said Vivanco. “It eliminates the Colombian government’s ability to pressure these groups through the threat of extradition, thereby strengthening the position of paramilitary commanders and undermining human rights and the rule of law.”