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I.  Summary and Recommendations

The demobilization… is a farce.  It’s a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from another side.

                                    —Demobilized paramilitary fighter, April 2005.

Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups are immeasurably powerful.  Through drug trafficking and other illegal businesses, they have amassed enormous wealth.  They have taken over vast expanses of the country’s territory to use for coca cultivation or as strategic corridors through which they can move drugs and weapons.  In recent years, they have succeeded in expelling left-wing guerrillas and strengthening their own control of many parts of the country.  And thanks to this power, they now exert a very high degree of political influence, both locally and nationally.

Paramilitaries accrued their power and influence by force.  “It is stipulated that there are borders and you have to win people’s respect, and so we had to kill people to show that you could not come in or go out of certain areas,” a demobilized paramilitary told Human Rights Watch.   “It was not a fight for Colombia.  It was a drug trafficking war,” said a former squad commander, discussing his experience as a paramilitary.

Considered terrorist organizations by the United States and Europe, over the last two decades paramilitaries have killed thousands of civilians; tortured, kidnapped, and stolen from tens of thousands more; and threatened and otherwise disrupted the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of Colombians, with almost no consequences for the perpetrators.  To the contrary, paramilitaries have historically enjoyed the collaboration, support, and toleration of units of the Colombian security forces, a fact that has led many to refer to the paramilitaries as a “sixth division” of the army.  Today, paramilitaries have made major gains in consolidating this impunity, along with their economic and political power, with the collusion of the Colombian government. 

Two years ago, paramilitary commanders initiated demobilization negotiations with the administration of President Álvaro Uribe in the hope that they could obtain a deal that would allow them to avoid extradition and potentially lengthy prison terms in the United States for drug trafficking.  Since the start of negotiations, thousands of paramilitaries have started to turn in weapons and enter government reintegration programs.  This trend accelerated towards the end of 2004, when five paramilitary blocks entered the demobilization process by turning in weapons. The process is poised to accelerate much more rapidly: on June 21, 2005, the Colombian Congress approved a demobilization law that gives paramilitaries almost everything they want. 

The Colombian government has mounted an enormous media and diplomatic campaign to build up domestic and international support for its law, with visits from President Uribe and senior officials to Europe and the United States.  President Uribe has been defending the law as a compromise between competing goals of justice and peace, stating that his goal is to “reach peace without impunity; apply justice without surrender.”

But while a genuine demobilization of paramilitaries is obviously an important objective, the process as currently structured is unlikely to achieve its aims.  To the contrary, it is likely to compound the country’s problems.

Under the newly approved law, which is theoretically applicable to both guerrillas and paramilitaries, the government will drastically reduce terms for investigation of these groups’ crimes and grant enormous sentence reductions to members responsible for atrocities.  It will also give up its leverage—the threat of extradition—over their commanders, but it will demand almost nothing in exchange. 

The new law does not ensure that paramilitaries confess their crimes, disclose information about how their groups operate, or turn over their illegally acquired wealth.  Nothing in the law effectively disbands these mafia-like groups.  Disarmed troops can be easily replaced through new recruitment and promises of high pay.  Commanders convicted of atrocities or other serious crimes, such as drug trafficking, will get away with sentences little longer than two years, probably in agricultural colonies.  When they reenter society, their wealth, political power, and criminal networks will be intact. 

As detailed in this report, the government’s record to date gives no reassurance that the defects in the new law will be overcome.  To the contrary, the new law merely codifies many aspects of the approach the government has been applying in recent demobilizations.  This report, which is the first to document the government’s practices in recent demobilizations, drawing on interviews with recently demobilized paramilitaries, shows that such demobilizations have yielded virtually no truth or reparation for victims and have failed to hold most paramilitaries accountable for atrocities.  With the economic power of these groups intact, they remain capable of continued violence even while their forces have partially disarmed.  Their already substantial political control, backed by intimidation and bribery, is not only intact but also gaining new vigor.

This dismal record is the logical outcome of the Colombian government’s ineffective and poorly conceived and implemented demobilization policies.  In implementing the demobilizations, the government focuses almost exclusively on disarming and giving benefits to paramilitary troops.  But it does not make a real effort to determine whether these troops are responsible for serious crimes, to uncover the truth about past abuses, or to provide reparation to victims.  And it completely ignores the difficult—yet crucial—problem of how to dismantle the underlying structures and financial power of these groups.

The current demobilization process in Colombia is not comparable to the demobilization of other armed groups after conflicts elsewhere in the world.  Elsewhere, “successful” demobilizations have usually been conducted in the context of a political transition from conflict to peace, in which disarming fighters was an important symbol and step to secure the peace. 

But in Colombia there is not merely a risk that conflict will be reignited; conflict is ongoing.  And the country’s paramilitaries and guerrillas are far more than a collection of armed individuals fighting for a political cause.  They are extremely sophisticated and powerful mafia-like organizations, largely motivated by profit.  The paramilitaries have well-entrenched networks that increasingly exert local political control through threats and extortion, and they continue to have close ties with units of the Colombian security forces, which the Colombian government has yet to make meaningful progress in breaking.

In this context, simply disarming paramilitary or guerrilla troops will do little, if anything, to put an end to the violence and abuses of these groups.  As long as these groups keep their wealth and power intact, it will be very easy for them to purchase new guns, and replace demobilized fighters with new recruits. 

To be effective, demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitaries must advance the larger goal of dismantling the political power, underlying criminal structure, and wealth of these groups.  To put an end to their activity, the government needs effective tools to find and seize their wealth and investigate the financing streams and criminal networks with which they may hire new killers.  Recent developments described here confirm that the Uribe government has not even sought these tools, let alone put them to use.

At the same time, the demobilization process has profound implications for human rights.  The deal offered to the paramilitaries in the June 2005 law (and which is, presumably, applicable to the guerrillas as well) will have a direct impact on accountability for abuses, insofar as it severely limits the scope of investigations and offers dramatically reduced sentences for individuals responsible for atrocities. The Colombian government has obligations under international law to provide effective remedies—including thorough investigation, prosecution, and punishment of perpetrators, truth, and reparation—to victims of rights violations.  Current demobilization practices and laws make it virtually impossible for the government to provide such remedies in most cases.

This report is based on interviews with numerous demobilized paramilitaries, officials from various branches of the Colombian government, and victims of paramilitary atrocities, among others, conducted in the Colombian cities of Medellín, Cali, Montería, and Bogotá between March and May of 2005.  The report also uses copies of recordings of negotiations between Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace and the paramilitary leadership, leaked to the media in September 2004.

The Government’s Record to Date

Recently demobilized paramilitaries who spoke with Human Rights Watch openly described their own and their group’s involvement in serious crimes, including massacres, killings, kidnappings, and extortion.  None of them had been arrested for those crimes, or even questioned about them. 

Over five thousand paramilitaries have participated in “collective demobilization” ceremonies so far.  Of these, as of April 2005, only twenty-five had been detained for atrocities committed before the demobilization.  As of June, another fifty-five who did not demobilize had voluntarily gone to Santa Fe de Ralito, a specially designated zone where they would be protected from arrest while the government drafted legislation that would allow them to receive sentence reductions for their crimes.  The Attorney General’s office claims that it is still conducting background checks on most of the demobilized paramilitaries.  However, given the government’s lack of information about most paramilitary crimes, it is unlikely that many of them will be found to have a record of atrocities.

Demobilized paramilitaries have not confessed the truth about what they did, and have not disclosed substantial information about their groups’ criminal networks, illegal activities, sources of financing, or assets.  Their victims have yet to receive any form of reparation. 

Paramilitaries have repeatedly flouted the cease-fire declaration they made at the start of negotiations, without suffering serious adverse consequences.  To the contrary, a top commander is being allowed to go through the demobilization process and receive all attendant benefits despite having allegedly ordered the assassination of a Congressman as recently as April 2005.

Moreover, paramilitary groups continue to exercise enormous influence in areas where demobilizations have happened.  In Medellín, for example, it is clear that members of the demobilized Cacique Nutibara Block continue to have control, backed by force, over much of the city.  This group is not at present committing widespread atrocities, in large part because it already defeated the city’s other armed groups.  However, commanders continue to exert authority in many neighborhoods.  We received reports of continued use of threats and extortion by paramilitaries in the city, a fact that is troubling in light of demobilized paramilitaries’ increasing organized involvement in local politics.  Mid-level paramilitary commanders in Medellín are free, receiving benefits, and, in one case, running for national political office.  Elsewhere, there are signs that demobilizations of blocks have been only partial, or that new paramilitary groups are filling the void left by the old ones.

Meanwhile, there is no sign that the process has touched the economic power of paramilitary groups.  Several demobilized paramilitaries described their work protecting coca fields and cocaine processing labs, and told us that they were sure their commanders were hiding assets.  But so far, paramilitary commanders have made only one symbolic turnover of assets to the government.

Nearly all demobilized paramilitaries with whom we spoke told us that an important reason they joined their groups was because the groups pay a relatively high monthly salary.  Paramilitary groups have retained their capacity to pay such high salaries, and recruitment has continued despite the demobilization process.  

Implementation of Demobilizations

Why has the demobilization process to date been so ineffective?  From the beginning, the government has failed to put in place policies and mechanisms that would allow it to uncover useful information about these groups, their crimes, and assets, to hold their members accountable for abuses, and to truly dismantle their structure and power.

The following are some of the most glaring examples of government failures:

  • The government does not require paramilitaries to disclose their aliases before demobilizing.  Thus, it is impossible to match up names of demobilizing paramilitaries with the many open cases in which the perpetrator is identified only by his alias.
  • The government does not keep a record of which weapons were turned in by each individual in demobilization ceremonies.  As a result, even if the weapons subsequently are tested to determine whether they were used in a particular crime (so far, this has not happened) they could not be matched up with the individuals who used them.
  • The Office of the Attorney General does not include members of the Human Rights Unit (which handles the most sensitive cases against paramilitaries for atrocities) in the team of prosecutors who interview demobilizing individuals.
  • In interviews with demobilizing paramilitaries, the Office of the Attorney General does not systematically ask specific questions about their involvement in or knowledge about the atrocities attributable to their groups, the group’s financing streams, assets, and supporters, or the group’s criminal operations.
  • The system for monitoring demobilized paramilitaries is not designed to ensure that they are not still participating in paramilitary or other illegal activities. 
  • The central government does not give local and regional authorities sufficient information to conduct close monitoring of demobilized paramilitaries in their jurisdictions.  As a result, it is extremely difficult to know the extent to which any demobilized individual is still involved in paramilitary activity.
  • The government has not put in place any policies to prevent recruitment into paramilitary groups.  Thus, it is very easy for the groups to replace demobilized troops by simply recruiting new members with promises of high salaries.

The OAS Mission in Colombia

The Organization of American States (OAS) established a Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (the “OAS Mission”) in February 2004 to provide technical support to the verification of the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration initiatives in Colombia.

The OAS Mission is supposed to act in a manner consistent with the international human rights obligations of the OAS member states.  But in practice, the Mission has played a highly questionable role, serving primarily as a rubber stamp for the actions taken by the Colombian government.  Throughout, the OAS Mission has been completely silent about the problems with the process.  To the contrary, it has frequently made statements in favor of the government’s handling of demobilizations, even dismissing international concerns.  As a result, the OAS Mission has helped to give the process a veneer of international legitimacy that it does not deserve.

But even setting aside the OAS Mission’s failure to publicly address the serious problems of the demobilization process, there is no reason to believe that the OAS Mission is playing a useful role as a monitor of the process.

OAS Mission representatives accompany Colombian government officials as they carry out their own tasks, make lists of the weapons paramilitaries choose to turn over (without keeping a record of who turned them in), and are stationed at reference centers for the demobilized to observe the reintegration process. 

In all these tasks, the OAS Mission’s role is mostly passive: to be present and accompany existing government institutions as they implement their own demobilization policies.  The OAS Mission does not behave like an independent observer, nor does it apply international standards to evaluate the government’s policies.  It simply accepts the policies and helps the government implement them.

Nor is there any indication that the OAS Mission has played a useful and distinct role in the verification of the cease-fire declared by the paramilitary groups.  The OAS Mission receives reports of cease-fire violations through various sources.  But it is far from clear what the OAS Mission does with these reports.  In meetings with Human Rights Watch, Mission officials could not describe the criteria and procedures they used to determine what constituted a cease-fire violation.  The Mission does not promptly verify all violations of which they receive reports.  And even when the OAS Mission does verify a violation, it does not publicly denounce it, or even report it to the OAS Permanent Council.  Rather, it merely attempts “to dissuade” the paramilitaries from committing violations—a practice of questionable effectiveness, and one on which the OAS Mission has reported little to the OAS Permanent Council.

Future of the Demobilization Process

The legal framework recently approved by the Colombian Congress to grant sentence reductions and other benefits to paramilitaries responsible for atrocities only aggravates the implementation problems outlined above.  This law, misleadingly referred to as the “Justice and Peace Law,” gives extremely generous benefits to members of armed groups, including the opportunity to shield themselves from extradition, at the expense of justice for the victims of serious rights abuses.  At the same time, the law fails to establish effective mechanisms to ensure the dismantling of these powerful, mafia-like groups.  In particular, the law presents the following major problems:

  1. Investigation and prosecution of abuses is greatly restricted: Prosecutors are required to bring all charges against members within 36 hours of taking their statements, and complete their investigations within the next 60 days.  The overwhelming majority, who will probably not be charged, will receive a pardon for their membership in the group.  These deadlines are completely unrealistic.  Thus, very few members of groups will be charged; even fewer will be tried, and nearly all will escape justice.
  1. Individuals responsible for serious crimes can receive enormous sentence reductions simply by accepting charges:   Paramilitary members can have their sentences reduced—however heinous the offense, however many innocent civilians they might have killed—by just “accepting” charges.  Reduced sentences are nominally set at five to eight years.  But in practice, perpetrators of serious crimes could serve a single reduced sentence of little more than two years for all their crimes, probably on agricultural colonies instead of prisons.
  1. The law gives paramilitaries no incentives to confess or disclose information on rights violations:  The law does not condition sentence reductions on a full and truthful confession.  Demobilized members of paramilitary groups receive greatly reduced sentences even if they refuse to talk about their criminal networks, or their group’s structure and assets. 
  1. Groups can keep their illegal wealth:  The law says members should turn over their illegal assets.  But the requirement is toothless: even if members are later found to have withheld most of their illegal wealth, they can keep their sentence reductions.  Once granted, sentence reductions are locked in.
  1. Commanders receive sentence reductions regardless of whether they ensure that their forces end abuses:  Commanders do not have to ensure their troops’ full demobilization, compliance with the cease-fire, or cessation of criminal activities.
  1. The government gives up its leverage, including the threat of extradition, over commanders and their groups:  By admitting their involvement in all the crimes for which their extradition has been requested, commanders can trigger a prosecution for those crimes in Colombia under the demobilization law.  And by accepting the charges, they can ensure that they receive a greatly reduced sentence for those crimes.  Double jeopardy would then apply to bar their extradition to other countries.

In short, under this law the demobilization process will seriously damage respect for human rights, the rule of law, and efforts to bring justice to Colombia’s victims of abuses, without making real progress towards peace.  Without confession, real incentives for the disclosure of information, turnover of illegally acquired assets, and serious investigation of these groups’ criminal networks, it will be virtually impossible for the Colombian government to actually dismantle these groups’ structures.  Once commanders have shielded themselves from extradition, Colombia will have lost the leverage that brought these groups to the negotiating table in the first place.

The problems identified here will be equally serious if the law is eventually applied to guerrillas: as currently drafted, the law will simply allow members of these groups to obtain enormous benefits without having to really give up their power.

The law has yet to be reviewed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, and it is possible that it will be overturned due to the negative impact it has on victims’ rights.  Yet it may take several months for the Court to review the law.  In the meantime, the Colombian government is likely to move quickly to implement its demobilization law, thus ensuring acquittals or sentencing benefits for many persons responsible for atrocities.  Because the Court’s rulings are not usually retroactive, such benefits may be permanent.


To the Colombian Government:

  • Suspend implementation of the demobilization law until the following amendments have been made to the law:

a. Eliminate provisions that (1) require prosecutors to bring charges within 36 hours after receiving statements from demobilized individuals and (2) limit the time for investigation to 60 days after charges are brought.  Such drastic limitations virtually ensure that the vast majority of those responsible for serious crimes will never be charged, much less convicted.

b. In exchange for sentence reductions, paramilitary commanders should be required to give a full and truthful confession and to fully disclose their knowledge of their groups’ operational structure, sources of financing, and illegally acquired assets. Otherwise, it will be practically impossible for the government to obtain the necessary information to uncover the truth about atrocities and dismantle these groups.

c. The law should provide that paramilitaries will lose all their sentencing benefits if they are found to have deliberately concealed or lied to the authorities about their crimes, operations, and finances, or to have kept illegally acquired assets. This provision is necessary to ensure that the requirements of turnover of assets, confession, and disclosure of information are meaningful.

d. Top paramilitary commanders should be barred from receiving sentencing benefits through “individual” demobilizations until the troops they command fully demobilize and cease engaging in the most serious crimes, termed “atrocities” under Colombian law. This provision is essential to ensure the credibility of the process.

e. The time paramilitary leaders have spent negotiating should not be considered as time served on their sentences.

  • In addition to amending the law (an essential prerequisite for a genuine demobilization), the government should put in place the following policies:

a. Require that the list the government compiles of individuals who wish to receive demobilization benefits include all names and aliases, rank, area of operation, and date of entry into the group for each person who wishes to receive benefits.

b. Make a record identifying the individual who possessed each weapon that is turned in as part of the demobilization process. 

c. Check and certify that the weapons turned in by each demobilized person are in working order.

d. Include members of the Human Rights Unit of the Office of the Attorney General in the team of prosecutors who interview demobilizing individuals so that they can more effectively question demobilizing individuals about their potential involvement in atrocities, and so that the Unit can obtain information from demobilizing paramilitaries about its ongoing investigations of paramilitary crimes.

e. In interviews with demobilizing paramilitaries, the Office of the Attorney General should systematically ask detailed questions about their involvement in or knowledge about the atrocities that were committed in their group’s area of operation, the location of bodies and kidnapping victims, as well as the group’s financing streams, assets, supporters, and structure.

f. Thoroughly review each demobilizing paramilitary’s background, including by reference to his aliases, to determine whether he was involved in atrocities or should be questioned in connection with ongoing investigations.

g. Thoroughly review all open cases for abuses that may be attributable to paramilitaries, to determine whether demobilizing individuals should be prosecuted or questioned further in connection with those investigations. 

h. Bar members from receiving benefits for demobilization if they have committed atrocities in violation of the cease-fire declaration.

i. Establish rigorous monitoring systems for each demobilized paramilitary, involving local as well as national law enforcement officials, to ensure not only that they are receiving benefits, but also that they are not still engaged in paramilitary activities.  The system should include input from a broad cross-section of members of the communities where the demobilized persons reside, as well as from organizations and entities that receive complaints about abuses.

j. Establish and aggressively implement new policies designed to collect information about, find, and seize the illegal assets of the demobilized groups and their members.

k. Establish and implement new policies designed to prevent recruitment of adults by paramilitary or other armed groups.

To the Member States of the OAS:

  • Withdraw the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia until such time as the Colombian government amends the demobilization law and its practices in accordance with the recommendations set forth above.

  • Firmly express to the Colombian government their opposition to the terms of the demobilization law and the government’s practices in implementing demobilizations.

    To International Donors to Colombia and the OAS Mission:

  • Condition any support for the demobilization process on amendments to the demobilization law and the Colombian government’s policies for implementation in accordance with the recommendations set forth above.

  • Withdraw their support for the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia until such time as the Colombian government amends the demobilization law and its practices in accordance with the recommendations set forth above.

  • Firmly express to the Colombian government their opposition to the terms of the demobilization law and the government’s practices in implementing demobilizations.

    To the United States Government:

  • Condition any support for the demobilization process on amendments to the demobilization law and the Colombian government’s policies in accordance with the recommendations set forth above.

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