After pouring $3 billion into Plan Colombia, the United States is about to be betrayed by one of its closest allies in the fight against drugs and terror. The Colombian government is putting the final touches on a scheme to launder the criminal records of top paramilitary commanders—including some of the country's most powerful drug lords—while allowing them to keep their wealth and maintain their control over much of the country. Should the plan be approved, it will be an enormous setback for U.S. counternarcotics and counterterror efforts, as well as for human rights in Colombia.
It was the United States, ironically, that set the stage for this scheme by requesting the extradition of these commanders. Not only has the United States deemed Colombia's paramilitaries to be a terrorist group, government prosecutors have indicted a number of paramilitary commanders for bringing tons of cocaine into the country. It was those commanders who initiated demobilization negotiations with the Colombian government, hoping to reach a deal that would allow them to avoid extradition to America.
Handled well, the negotiations could benefit both Colombia and the United States. Paramilitaries and guerrillas have been fighting for control of Colombia's resources for decades. Fueled by money from drugs and extortion, these mafia-like groups have killed thousands of civilians with impunity. The paramilitaries, in particular, are notorious for their atrocities, which include countless massacres, abductions and "disappearances."
A real demobilization, one that dismantles the criminal and financial structures of paramilitary groups and holds their members accountable for crimes, would be an important step toward peace, human rights and the rule of law. It would also be a major victory for the United States in the fight against drug trafficking.
Unfortunately, powerful political forces in Colombia have been pressing to give the paramilitaries a pass, letting them keep their wealth and power. Colombia's Congress is poised to approve a bill, backed by President Álvaro Uribe, that would allow top commanders to serve as little as two years behind bars for their crimes. These pathetically short prison terms would cover even the worst atrocities and the narco-trafficking for which they are wanted in the United States.
To get these reduced sentences, commanders would have to "accept" the charges against them. But they would not have to confess their abuses, disclose the location of their hidden bank accounts and drug processing labs or reveal the names of their arms suppliers and financial backers. They would not even have to ensure that their troops disarm fully.
After two years, commanders' records will be clean, but their criminal networks and the wealth fueling their activities will almost certainly be intact. And their already considerable political power - paramilitaries claim to control 30 percent of Colombia's Congress - will be strengthened.
The U.S. reaction to this scheme has been surprisingly weak and unclear. To Colombians it looks like the U.S. government is either divided or just not very interested in the issue.
This perception has occasionally been challenged, most notably in January, when a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers sent Uribe a letter saying that the demobilization process must effectively dismantle paramilitaries' "narco-terrorist" structures. And during her recent visit to Colombia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she hoped the pending demobilization bill would "dismantle illegal armed groups, bring justice and reparation to victims, and punish those guilty of major crimes and atrocities."
While helpful, the secretary's remarks are not enough. To many here, they sound like rhetoric that will never translate into policy. Colombian policy makers still believe that regardless of what bill they enact, U.S. endorsement and financial support can be taken for granted.
The United States should be unequivocal in its objection to this record-laundering operation. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat in this front of the fight against drugs and terror. It would mean letting drug lords and mafias take over not only economic but also political control of a strategic ally in the region. And it would mean abandoning any hope for peace, human rights and the rule of law in Colombia.
(José Miguel Vivanco is Human Rights Watch's Americas director and Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is the organization's Colombia researcher. )