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Colombia: Paramilitary Leader Must Be Held Accountable

Credibility of Demobilization Process at Stake in ‘Don Berna’ Case

A top Colombian paramilitary commander who surrendered to the authorities on Friday should be barred from receiving a reduced sentence or other benefits under a pending demobilization bill, Human Rights Watch said today.

Diego Murillo Bejarano, also known as “Don Berna” or “Adolfo Paz”, is one of several paramilitary commanders who declared a ceasefire and started demobilization negotiations with the Colombian government in late 2002. Because he allegedly broke the ceasefire by ordering three recent assassinations, Colombian prosecutors ordered the arrest of this leader from the United Self-Defense Group of Colombia (AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia).

Murillo turned himself in on Friday after two days of evading arrest. Shortly afterwards, the Colombian authorities announced that he would order the demobilization of his troops, and would himself obtain “demobilized” status.

“If Murillo is allowed to receive a reduced sentence, the demobilization process will lose all credibility,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director for Human Rights Watch. “The Colombian government must hold Murillo fully accountable for rights abuses committed in breach of the ceasefire if it’s serious about its promise to end impunity.”

On April 10, Colombian Congressman Orlando Benítez was shot to death, alongside his sister and his driver, on a road near Santa Fe de Ralito in the northern state of Córdoba. Murillo allegedly ordered the assassination after Benitez refused to stop campaigning in the region.

On Wednesday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe authorized security forces to enter Santa Fe de Ralito, the specially designated zone for paramilitary negotiations, and arrest Murillo for allegedly ordering the murder. Uribe announced that the peace process could not become a “paradise of impunity” and said that Murillo’s alleged crime constituted a violation of the ceasefire.

Since the ceasefire was declared in 2002, the paramilitaries have repeatedly violated its terms and carried out massacres, kidnappings and forced disappearances, without suffering any adverse consequences. In a report covering only half the country for the first eight months of last year, Colombia’s Public Advocate (Defensoría del Pueblo) stated it had received 342 complaints involving apparent paramilitary breaches of the ceasefire, including massacres, selective killings, and kidnappings. Estimates of violations made by Colombian nongovernmental organizations are even higher.

Earlier this month, after the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, denounced the paramilitaries’ continuing violations of international humanitarian law and breaches of the ceasefire, the Colombian government responded by asserting that it had increased its use of force against paramilitary groups. However, the government has yet to exclude any paramilitary commander from demobilization benefits for violating international humanitarian laws or breaching the ceasefire.

Known as the Inspector General of the AUC, Murillo is a former security chief for the Galeano family, associates of Pablo Escobar and members of the Medellín Cartel. Murillo has also been linked by the authorities to Medellín gangs used to carry out high-profile assassinations. In recent years, Murillo became the commander of several paramilitary blocks, including the Cacique Nutibara paramilitary block, which demobilized in 2003, and the still-active Heroes de Granada and Heroes de Tolova.

A demobilization bill currently pending in the Colombian Congress would allow paramilitary commanders to serve as little as two years for the atrocities they have committed. The bill, backed by the government, would probably also shield top commanders from extradition to the United States for drug trafficking, insofar as it reclassifies paramilitarism and connected crimes as “political.” At the same time, the bill would allow commanders to retain most of their wealth and power, and thus leave intact their groups’ complex mafia-like networks.

“This bill is a complete giveaway to paramilitary commanders,” said Vivanco. “If the government allows Murillo to demobilize under the terms of this bill, it will be letting him get away with murder.”

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