October 16, 2008

I. Summary and Recommendations

In Colombia, more than in almost any other country in the Western hemisphere, violence has corroded and subverted democracy. Too often, killings and threats-not free elections or democratic dialogue-are what has determined who holds power, wealth, and influence in the country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between paramilitary groups and important sectors of the political system, the military, and the economic elite.

Paramilitary groups have ravaged much of Colombia for two decades. Purporting to fight the equally brutal guerrillas of the left, they have massacred, tortured, forcibly "disappeared", and sadistically killed countless men, women, and children. Wherever they have gone, they have eliminated anyone who opposed them, including thousands of trade unionists, human rights defenders, community leaders, judges, and ordinary civilians. To their enormous profit, they have forced hundreds of thousands of small landowners, peasants, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous persons to flee their families' productive lands. The paramilitaries and their supporters have often taken the abandoned lands, leaving the surviving victims to live in squalor on city fringes, and leaving Colombia second only to Sudan as the country with the most internally displaced people in the world.

With their growing clout aided by drug-trafficking, extortion, and other criminal activities, paramilitaries have made mafia-style alliances with powerful landowners and businessmen in their areas of operation; military units, which have often looked the other way or worked with them; and state officials, including numerous members of the Colombian Congress, who have secured their posts through paramilitaries' ability to corrupt and intimidate.

Through these alliances, paramilitaries and their cronies have acquired massive wealth and political influence, subverting democracy and the rule of law.

But Colombia now has before it a rare opportunity to uncover and break the influence of these networks by holding paramilitaries and their accomplices accountable. In the last two years, paramilitary commanders have started to confess to prosecutors some of the details of their killings and massacres. They have also started to disclose some of the names of high-ranking officials in the security forces who worked with them. And the Colombian Supreme Court has made unprecedented progress in investigating paramilitary infiltration of the Colombian Congress.

This report assesses Colombia's progress towards breaking the influence of and uncovering the truth about paramilitaries' crimes and networks, as well as the many serious obstacles to continued progress.

Colombia's institutions of justice have made historic gains against paramilitary power. But those gains are still tentative and fragile. They are the result of a fortuitous combination of factors, including the independence and courage of a select group of judges and prosecutors, a Constitutional Court ruling that created incentives for paramilitary commanders to disclose some of the truth about their crimes, the actions of Colombian civil society and a handful of journalists, and international pressure on the Colombian government.

The progress that has been made could be rapidly undone, and in fact may already be unraveling. The recent extradition to the United States of several top paramilitary commanders-some of whom had started to talk about their networks- increases the possibility that they will be held accountable for some of their crimes. But it has also interrupted-temporarily, one hopes-the work of Colombian investigators who had been making significant strides prior to the extraditions. To date, only one of the extradited commanders has provided new testimony to Colombian authorities. Within Colombia, several of the most high-profile cases that the Supreme Court had been investigating have slowed down after the congressmen under investigation resigned, thus ensuring that their investigations were transferred to the Office of the Attorney General.

Unfortunately, the administration of President