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III. Demobilization Negotiations

Throughout its negotiations with the paramilitaries, the government has taken a remarkably weak position.  Paramilitaries have repeatedly violated their 2002 cease-fire declaration, which the government had initially set as a pre-condition for talks, yet they have not yet suffered any significant adverse consequence.28  To the contrary, the government has bent over backwards to accede to paramilitary commanders’ demands.

Human Rights Watch obtained copies of secret recordings of several hours of negotiations between Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, and a group of paramilitary commanders.  These recordings were initially leaked to the media and partially published by the newsmagazine Semana in September 2004.29 

The recordings cover approximately four hours of discussions, and are not necessarily representative of the entirety of the negotiations.  Nonetheless, they do tend to undermine some of the government’s statements about its conduct in the negotiations, and illustrate the government’s general weakness at the negotiating table and its failure to hold paramilitaries to their commitments.

A serious example of this is the government’s handling of the cease-fire issue during the recorded meeting.   In public, when observers have pointed out cease-fire violations, the government has repeatedly stated that “every time that the AUC violates the cease-fire not only do we respond militarily, but we also make them pay politically at the [negotiating] table for what they do.”30  On the recordings, however, it is the paramilitary commanders who raise the issue of cease-fire violations, not to apologize for them, but as a warning to the government of what may happen if they do not get what they want.31

Some of the most serious issues in the process—such as what would happen with commanders’ massive illegally acquired wealth and their criminal businesses—are not addressed at all in the four hours of recordings. 

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, Restrepo stated that he did not “negotiate” with the paramilitaries.  “I don’t like the word ‘negotiation,’” he told us, “I like the word ‘grace’—I am a theologian.”32  He claimed that even in the recordings, he never negotiated the content of the law.  Instead, he explained the law to the commanders with a “pedagogical” focus.  The goal, he explained, is to “stimulate them to have acts of good faith with society.  It’s not about what I give you and what you give me.”33

Restrepo’s description appears to be more or less accurate.  In the recordings, Restrepo spends a great deal of time explaining the benefits that the government will provide to paramilitaries.34  But it is striking how little he talks about what the government would like to see in exchange for those benefits.  The closest Restrepo comes to making a demand of the paramilitaries is his suggestion that the commanders help the process move forward by demobilizing some blocks before the end of the year and his statement that the demobilizations of blocks cannot be partial, as happened in 2003 with the Cacique Nutibara Block. 

Restrepo does not once touch upon the groups’ vast wealth, or say that they will have to disclose their assets and dismantle their criminal networks as a condition for benefits.35  To the contrary, the discussion is limited to the question of whether the paramilitaries will disarm their troops, without even mentioning the paramilitaries’ criminal and financial structures. 36

In implementing demobilizations to date, the government has acted in a manner consistent with the approach suggested by the recordings: it has focused solely on disarming troops, without addressing in any way the wealth, criminal networks, and local political control that allow paramilitary groups to continue to operate and that will allow them to replenish their forces into the foreseeable future.

[28] In May 2005 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.

[29] “Explosive Revelations,” Semana, September 25, 2005, (retrieved June 5, 2005).

[30] Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, “Interview with High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo,” April 23, 2005, (retrieved June 27, 2005).

[31] The issue comes up during a discussion over paramilitary commanders’ demand that they be allowed to leave Santa Fe de Ralito (the government-designated “concentration” zone where paramilitaries are safe from arrest) to go meet with their troops.  One of the commanders states that it is important that they be left for a time with their troops to “correct many things… because we are totally isolated and this does not favor the process.”  Paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso then adds “then there are cease-fire violations.”  Later Mancuso elaborates: “We need to go to the zones to talk with the troops to avoid further violations of the cease-fire….  I, in particular, am having problems with troops because for a long time I haven’t spoken with them, with their commanders, with their patrolmen.  We are going to have a serious problem in the future.  A serious problem in which there could be many disagreements within the self-defense groups… and we do not want to go to those extremes.” 

[32]Human Rights Watch interview with High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo, Bogotá, March 14, 2005.


[34] He details the economic, health, and educational benefits that will be enjoyed by all who demobilize, and explains that even individuals whose crimes cannot be the subject of a pardon will obtain favorable terms.  He notes that: (1) paramilitaries convicted of atrocities will get sentences of 5 to 10 years, which will be reduced by the amount of time spent negotiating in Ralito; (2) sentences will be served on agricultural colonies, possibly in Ralito; (3) extradition problems will be addressed through the President’s “discretion.”  Restrepo further explains that the government cannot offer the paramilitaries a complete amnesty for atrocities because of international pressure, and because, if it did, there would always be the risk that they would be tried by a foreign court exercising universal jurisdiction.

On extradition, he explains that:  “There is an offer from the President… who says look, I cannot modify the subject of extradition because it becomes an unmanageable international problem for me.  That is to say, I cannot in the middle of an electoral campaign, or in the middle of requests for cooperation like that we have with the United States try to modify that subject because if we seek to modify it, first it generates an unmanageable international storm, and second, the thing could end up worse, that is… with the United States against a process.  So in the face of this reality the President says ‘to a good listener, I use my discretion as President,’… That is what the President offers.”

[35] Restrepo has an exchange with Jorge 40 over this commander’s recent admission to the media that he had diverted funds from the national health system and had “responsibility of 40 million pesos.”  But rather than discussing the need for this sort of criminal operation to stop as part of the demobilization, and rather than demanding that the stolen funds be returned as a condition for Jorge 40 to remain at the negotiating table, Restrepo distances himself from the issue, saying that he wants to leave the matter to the Office of the Attorney General.  Indeed, Restrepo expresses annoyance at Jorge 40 for having made the statements publicly, because it had created problems for the government and had raised questions about the demobilization process.

[36] At one point Jorge 40 says “my commitment is to demobilize this military-social apparatus, leaving only the political one.”

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