Background Briefing

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II.  The Paramilitary Demobilization Process to Date

The government of Colombia has been engaged in negotiations for the demobilization of paramilitary groups since late 2002, when paramilitary leaders unilaterally declared a cease-fire.  The cease-fire declaration and the ensuing negotiations appear to have been motivated primarily by paramilitary leaders’ desire to obtain a deal that will allow them to avoid extradition to the U.S. while serving as little time in prison for their crimes as possible.6  Observers have also pointed out that paramilitary leaders and drug lords at the negotiating table may view demobilization as an opportunity to launder their illegally acquired wealth.7 

Paramilitaries have been blatantly flouting the cease-fire.  A September 2004 report by Colombia’s Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) stated that in the first eight months of 2004 it had received 342 complaints involving apparent paramilitary breaches of the cease-fire, including massacres, selective killings, and kidnappings.8  Estimates of violations made by Colombian NGOs are even higher, with the Colombian Commission of Jurists stating that as of August 2004 paramilitaries had killed or forced the “disappearances” of 1,899 people from the date of cease-fire declaration.9  

Meanwhile, negotiations have proceeded erratically, and the government has yet to put in place a legal framework that would set forth the benefits and conditions for demobilization.10  Instead, it has been moving forward with demobilizations of thousands of purported paramilitaries by applying existing laws that are inadequate to take apart complex paramilitary structures and ensure accountability for paramilitary abuses.

In late 2003 approximately 868 purported paramilitaries from the Cacique Nutibara Front in Medellín turned in their weapons in massive demobilization ceremonies, and started entering government reintegration programs. But as Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace11 has acknowledged, that demobilization is now largely viewed as a “ public embarrassment” due to the high number of impostors among those who demobilized (the paramilitaries apparently recruited common criminals to pretend to be paramilitaries).12  According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, this demobilization has not resulted in any significant reduction in violence in Medellín; paramilitary groups apparently continue to control certain neighborhoods in Medellín and commit abuses against those who do not cooperate with them.13

In October 2004, paramilitary leaders announced that as a gesture of goodwill they would unilaterally demobilize several thousand troops before the end of the year.  In the following two months, 2,624 troops belonging to five blocks purportedly demobilized: the Catatumbo and Calima Blocks, both led by Salvatore Mancuso, and the Bananero, Cundinamarca, and Isla San Fernando Blocks.14 

The government has hailed the 2004 demobilizations as a great success, but their final outcome is yet to be seen.  Initial reports appear to indicate that this time paramilitaries did not recruit large numbers of impostors to pretend to demobilize.  Another positive fact is that in the demobilization of the Bloque Catatumbo the paramilitaries appear to have voluntarily turned over a large number of weapons and ammunition, as well as some amount of land (apparently around 6,500 hectares).15 

The motivation behind these gestures by Salvatore Mancuso’s groups is unclear.  Some observers suggest that they are strategic moves within the negotiations, and that they will not be repeated.16  The turnover of land is not something that has occurred with other paramilitary blocks that have demobilizedand it is not currently required by law or by the government’s procedures for demobilization.


A Legal Vacuum

The demobilizations that have taken place so far have been conducted in accordance with Colombian Law 418 of 1997 and its amendments and implementing decrees.17 

That body of law provides amnesties for certain crimes and economic benefits to all members of illegal armed groups who voluntarily desert or demobilize, and who have not been charged with the commission of a serious violation of international human rights or humanitarian law, such as a massacre or kidnapping. 

However, these laws are wholly inadequate to deal with massive demobilizations and the dismantling of complex mafias such as the paramilitaries.  Law 418 was initially designed to encourage individual desertion from illegal armed groups.  Although later amendments and decrees attempt to extend Law 418 to cover demobilizations, this set of laws does not include the minimum requirements to ensure the complete dismantlement of the group in the context of a peace negotiation.18  For example, it contains no requirements that, to receive benefits, paramilitaries cooperate with the authorities in investigations, turn over their illegal assets, or disclose information about the group’s structure, past crimes, and sources of financing. 

The Procedures for Recent Demobilizations: An Assembly Line Approach

Recent demobilizations have been conducted in accordance with very mechanical procedures, following a highly expedited schedule published by the office of the High Commissioner for Peace.19

According to this schedule, paramilitary groups go through a three-stage demobilization process lasting at most forty-eight days.  In the first stage paramilitary leaders give the government a list of the individuals who are demobilizing and the weapons they will turn over. 

In the second stage, lasting two to ten days, these individuals are supposedly moved to a concentration zone, where the government verifies their identities,20 makes a determination as to whether or not they are responsible for the commission of an atrocity, and receives each individual’s weapons.  Supposedly, the determination as to whether the individual is responsible for abuses is based on information provided by the Attorney General’s office (Fiscalía) and the state’s intelligence apparatus.  However, in past demobilizations the Attorney General’s office has only checked its files to determine whether those who are demobilizing are already the subjects of ongoing prosecutions or convictions for atrocities.21

In the third stage, those who are wanted for human rights abuses remain in a concentration zone, and the rest are returned to their places of origin, where they may begin to receive economic benefits and other support from the government.

Key Deficiencies

The following are key deficiencies in the laws and procedures described above:

  • Back-door impunity: Under current procedures, the government conducts only a cursory check of its records to determine whether the individuals who are demobilizing are already the subjects of ongoing prosecutions or convictions.22  If they are not, they can immediately start receiving benefits.  There is no further effort to carefully investigate each individual to determine whether he might be linked to crimes against humanity or other abuses.23  Because most paramilitary crimes do not yet have a known author,24 it is very likely that many individuals who have committed massacres, kidnappings, or other crimes will be able to avoid detection and prosecution.  In effect, historically endemic failures to properly investigate and prosecute paramilitary abuses would become guarantees of impunity today. 

Furthermore, it is questionable whether the government’s brief demobilization schedule even allows enough time for an adequate check of existing prosecutions and convictions.  The Colombian Inspector General’s Office (Procuraduria) recently announced that 163 individuals charged with atrocities such as kidnapping and forced disappearances had improperly received judicial benefits in the 2003 Cacique Nutibara demobilization.25


  • Failure to require paramilitary groups or their members to disclose any information about their structure, assets, sources of financing, or past crimes:  Current law does not give investigators the tools (such as required disclosures by paramilitary groups or their members) to conduct even preliminary investigations of the paramilitary groups that are demobilizing, their structure, or their sources of financing.  All a group is required to do is provide a list of those who are demobilizing and the weapons they will be turning over.  Individual paramilitaries are only required to provide information concerning their identities, such as their names, fingerprints, and dental records, which the government must check within a very short time-frame.
  • Failure to encourage real and complete demobilization:  The government has not put in place effective mechanisms that would encourage leaders to ensure complete demobilization.  Leaders can receive generous benefits (including, under the legal framework the government proposed in April 2004, extremely light sentences for abuses) for demobilizing even if their group continues to operate and engage in abuses and other criminal activity.
  • Failure to require paramilitaries to turn over their illegal assets, cooperate with authorities, or make reparation as a condition to receive benefits:  Current law does not require paramilitaries to turn over or even identify their illegal assets, to cooperate with the authorities in investigations, or to make reparation to the victims of their crimes.

[6] “Habla Mancuso,” Semana, No. 1110, August 9, 2003 [online], (retrieved January 6, 2005); Juan Forero, “Colombia Proposes 10-Year Terms for Paramilitary Atrocities,” The New York Times, November 16, 2004 [online] (retrieved November 16, 2004).

[7] Some have argued that if the government fails to require the disclosure and turnover of illegal assets as part of the demobilization process, these assets will probably not be taken into account in criminal proceedings and rulings against paramilitary leaders, thereby permitting a legalization of the status quo.  See “Los Señores de las Tierras,” Semana.

[8] Defensoría del Pueblo de Colombia, “Seguimiento al Cese de Hostilidades Prometido por las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia como Signo de su Voluntad de Paz para el País,” September 24, 2004, p. 23 [online], (retrieved January 5, 2005).

[9] Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, “En Contravía de las Recomendaciones Internacionales, ‘Seguridad Democrática,’ Derechos Humanos y Derecho Humanitario en Colombia: Agosto de 2002 a Agosto de 2004,” December 9, 2004, p. 18 [online], (retrieved January 5, 2005). 

[10]In the absence of a legal framework to govern the terms of demobilization, the government has apparently been making troubling offers to paramilitary leaders concerning issues such as extradition and the location where individuals will serve their sentences.  For example, a September report by the news magazine Semana quoted Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo as telling paramilitaries that, with respect to extradition, the President would use his discretion, and that “to a good listener, that is what the President offers.”  See “Revelaciones Explosivas,” Semana, No. 1169, September 25, 2004 [online], (retrieved January 5, 2005).  In December 2004, the newspaper El Tiempo reported that other leaked tapes indicated that High Commissioner Restrepo told paramilitaries that they could count all the time they spent in concentration zones during negotiations as time served on their final sentences, even though no law provides for such an extraordinary benefit at present.  See “Salvatore Mancuso amenaza con tomar de nuevo las armas si no hay solución radical a su extradición,” El Tiempo, December 5, 2004.  Such offers are problematic in that they generate enormous expectations on the part of paramilitaries about the sort of deal that they can ultimately obtain from the government.

[11] The Office of the High Commissioner for Peace in Colombia is charged with, among other functions, advising the President on peace-related policy, and, on behalf of the President, conducting negotiations with illegal armed groups.  See Alto Comisionado Para La Paz: Quienes Somos, [online] (retrieved January 12, 2005).

[12] “Revelaciones Explosivas,” Semana

[13] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Informe de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos Sobre el Proceso de Desmovilización en Colombia,” paras. 96-97, [online], (retrieved January 7, 2005).

[14] Initially, the High Commissioner’s office had announced that eleven blocks would demobilize before the end of the year; however, several of those blocks apparently later decided against demobilizing at that time.  See “Solamente se Desmovilizaron 5 de los 11 Bloques de Autodefensa que Debían Hacerlo,” El Tiempo, December 29, 2004.  See also Office of the High Commissioner for Peace of Colombia, “Informe de Balance Desmovilizaciones Colectivas 2004,” [online], (retrieved January 4, 2005). 

[15] “Paramilitares del Bloque Catatumbo desmovilizados devuelven 6.500 hectáreas de tierra,” El Tiempo, December 13, 2004, [online], (retrieved December 13, 2004) ; “¿Es significativa la cantidad de tierras devueltas por los paramilitares?,” El Tiempo, December 13, 2004, [online], (retrieved December 13, 2004).  This is only a small percentage of the amount of land that paramilitaries own in Colombia, whether directly or through third parties.  The Colombian organization Consultoría Para Derechos Humanos y Desplazamiento Forzado (CODHES), which works with displaced people in Colombia, estimates that between 1997 and 2003 alone paramilitaries took five million hectares of land by force.  “ONG revela que paramilitares se han quedado con 5 millones de hectáreas de tierra entre 1997 y 2003,” El Tiempo, December 21, 2004, [online], (retrieved December 28, 2004).

[16] Alvaro Sierra (Editorial), “A Donde Va el Proceso con los Paras?,” El Tiempo, December 25, 2004 [online] (retrieved December 28, 2004). Paramilitary groups do not have a unified leadership structure.  Thus, there is no reason to assume that the actions of Mancuso’s blocks will be repeated by other blocks. 

[17] These include Colombian Law 782 of 2002 and Decrees 128 of 2003, 3360 of 2003, and 2767 of 2004. 

[18]The report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the demobilization process makes a similar point.  See Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Informe de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos Sobre el Proceso de Desmovilización en Colombia,” paras. 86-93.

[19] The complete schedule is available at: (retrieved January 4, 2005).

[20] This includes taking the fingerprints, photographs, and dental records of those who demobilize.  See Comisiones de Paz del Congreso de la Republica, “Informe de Relatoría General,” Section 3.6 D.

[21] Ibid.

[22]The government has been narrowly applying Decree 128, which says benefits may not be provided to individuals who are already being prosecuted or have been convicted for atrocities.  See Decree 128 of 2003, Art. 21.

[23] Prosecutors may continue to investigate the facts surrounding reported crimes.  However, there is no serious effort to further investigate each individual, or to even obtain information from paramilitaries to determine whether those who are demobilizing are in fact responsible for the crimes that are under investigation.  

[24]Victims may be able to identify the paramilitary front that committed the violation, but it is unusual for victims to know the names of the specific authors.

[25] “Procuraduría impugnó decisiones judiciales que favorecieron a 163 paramilitares desmovilizados,” El Tiempo, December 13, 2004 [online] (retrieved December 15, 2004).

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