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IV. Recent Paramilitary Demobilizations

So far, there have been twelve demobilizations of paramilitary blocks in the context of the ongoing negotiations.   The first, of the Cacique Nutibara Block (Bloque Cacique Nutibara or BCN) and the smaller Ortega Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas de Ortega) occurred in late 2003.  Ten more blocks demobilized starting in November 2004, and the government has announced that several additional blocks are starting or are scheduled to start the demobilization process in coming weeks.37 

In implementing these demobilizations of whole blocks (known as “collective demobilizations”), the government applied pre-existing laws originally designed to encourage desertion from armed groups: Laws 418 of 1997 and 782 of 2002, and their modifications and regulations.38  These laws provide that members of armed groups may receive pardons for their political crimes, but they bar persons who have committed atrocities from receiving pardons.39  The laws also provide for a series of economic, health, and educational benefits to be afforded to those who demobilize.40  Since 2002, 7,150 paramilitaries and guerrillas have participated in “individual demobilization” programs under this set of laws. 41  

Legally, the only difference between a collective and an individual demobilization is that to receive benefits, a person seeking to demobilize individually must first receive certification from an inter-institutional government committee, the Comité Operativo de Dejación de Armas (CODA), of his membership in an illegal armed group and his will to abandon it.42  This requirement was eliminated by decree for purposes of the collective demobilizations; instead, membership in an illegal armed group is established through the person’s inclusion on a list that the group’s spokespersons are supposed to give to Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace.43 

Steps in a Collective Demobilization

A typical collective demobilization occurs in the following way: 

First, top paramilitary commanders give the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace a list of the people in their block who are demobilizing.  According to the Commissioner, his office checks this list with the Ministry of Defense to make sure it matches their estimates of the number of people in each block.44

The people on the list are moved to a “concentration zone” (a geographical area designated by the government), where they are asked to fill out surveys about their interests, health, socio-economic background, and education level.  Representatives of the Technical Investigative Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación or CTI), a branch of the police, take their fingerprints, dental records, and photographs, which are later used to determine whether they have criminal records.  The government registrar (Registraduría) gives them new government I.D.s if they do not have them.  The government also gives out a card that identifies them as demobilized persons entitled to receive benefits for demobilization. 

Subsequently, there is a demobilization ceremony in which each paramilitary hands over a weapon to representatives of the government.  Representatives from the Mission to Support the Peace Process of the Organization of American States are present at the ceremony, and verify the transfer of weapons.

After the demobilization ceremony, each paramilitary is allowed to return to the place of his or her choice.  From then on, they are in touch with a government “reference center,” a regional office under the authority of the Ministry of Interior that is supposed to monitor and assist the demobilized persons in the process of reincorporation into society.  As of April 2005, there were eight reference centers located in different parts of the country.45 

Once associated with a reference center, paramilitaries can start receiving benefits, including health care, shelter, clothing for themselves and their families, education or vocational training, psychological assistance, and support in finding jobs or developing government-financed “productive projects.”   These benefits are not provided directly by the Ministry of Interior; instead the Ministry’s Reincorporation Program is charged with seeing that these benefits are provided through third parties and other government entities.  Some of the demobilized paramilitaries can also receive a monthly stipend.

Also at the reference center, the Attorney General’s office schedules sessions at which all the demobilized paramilitaries in the region are asked to give statements to prosecutors about their involvement in the paramilitary group (this is known as the “spontaneous declaration” or version libre).46  This statement, in which the individual acknowledges his membership in the paramilitary group and states his desire to demobilize, allows the Attorney General’s office to initiate legal proceedings against him for the crime of “agreement to commit a crime” (or concierto para delinquir, the crime traditionally attributed to paramilitaries for their membership in paramilitary groups).  Subsequently, assuming he has not been convicted of any other crime and is not being investigated for atrocities, the Attorney General’s office grants him a pardon for agreement to commit a crime. 

Those who are wanted for atrocities cannot receive complete pardons under Law 782.  So far, these persons have been allowed to wait in a specially designated zone in Santa Fe de Ralito while the government drafted legislation that would offer them sentencing benefits.  Under the new legal framework for demobilization, these persons must be charged within thirty-six hours of their spontaneous declarations, and the investigations against them must be completed within the following sixty days.  After the sixty days, they will either be tried or, if they accept the charges against them, they will receive generous sentence reductions.47

Failures in Implementation of Collective Demobilizations

Demobilizations to date have suffered from legal defects and flaws in implementation that make it virtually impossible to conduct serious and thorough investigations of atrocities and to dismantle paramilitary structures.

The following are some of the most serious problems we documented in the government’s implementation of demobilizations to date:

Failure to Request Aliases

The government has not insisted that demobilizing paramilitaries provide their aliases at any point in the process, even though aliases are often the only way in which perpetrators are identified in criminal investigations.48  The government’s failure thus makes it impossible to link many paramilitaries to atrocities they may have committed. 

One demobilized paramilitary, for example, willingly gave Human Rights Watch his alias—“Anaconda”—but he said that he never gave it to the government because he was never asked about it.  

Even though the government collects demobilizing persons’ photographs, fingerprints, and dental records, it does not collect their aliases because, according to the High Commissioner for Peace, the identification is “an administrative, civil identification.”49

Failure to Maintain a Record of Arms Possession

The government does not keep a record of which weapons are turned in by which paramilitary.50  As a result, even if a particular weapon subsequently is found to have been used in a particular atrocity (so far, the government is not conducting the requisite forensic testing), it could not be matched up with the person who used it.51

A representative from the OAS Mission in Colombia told us that the reason neither the Colombian authorities nor the OAS Mission keep a record of the owners of each weapon is that it would be pointless, because all the paramilitaries share their weapons.  But this explanation was flatly contradicted by demobilized paramilitaries themselves, who consistently and emphatically told us that they “never” shared weapons.  As described by one demobilized member of the Catatumbo Block, each man is responsible for keeping and taking care of his own weapons:  “I had the same weapons all the time.  Nobody touches your weapons, you keep them very clean and sleep with them.  You do not share them.”

Failure to Include Prosecutors from the Human Rights Unit in the Team of Prosecutors Questioning Demobilized Paramilitaries

As already noted, before finally granting a pardon to a demobilizing paramilitary, the Attorney General’s office takes brief statements, known as “spontaneous declarations,” from each person. 

In December 2004, the Attorney General’s office created a team of prosecutors that would be charged with traveling to government reference centers throughout the country to take demobilized paramilitaries’ spontaneous declarations.  The team is composed of eleven prosecutors from various specialized units of the Attorney General’s office, including the Antiterrorism, Antinarcotics, Asset Laundering, and Anti-kidnapping Units.52  However, in a glaring omission, the team does not include prosecutors from the Human Rights Unit.53

The stated reason for this exclusion is that the Attorney General’s office treats the question of whether demobilized paramilitaries can receive benefits as a matter that is unrelated to the Human Rights Unit’s investigations.  Ramiro Marin, the prosecutor who has been in charge of coordinating the involvement of the Attorney General’s office in the demobilization process, told Human Rights Watch that “Law 782 [the law governing the recent demobilizations] is not focused so much on penal action but rather on the contemplation of benefits.”54  Therefore, he explained, the team of prosecutors is focused exclusively on whether or not benefits can be granted to the demobilized paramilitaries.  The Human Rights Unit, in contrast, is kept out of the team so that it can continue its investigations independently, without having to develop a “double legal personality.”55

But given that the Human Rights Unit is in charge of most major investigations of paramilitary atrocities, it would seem more than reasonable to involve at least some members of the Unit in the process of interviewing demobilized paramilitaries.  Prosecutors from the Unit have expertise that could allow them to question demobilized paramilitaries more effectively about their potential involvement in atrocities, which could preclude them from receiving benefits.  Moreover, the Unit itself has an interest in obtaining information from demobilized paramilitaries about the many investigations it is handling.    

Failure to Ask Questions About Past Crimes or the Groups’ Operations and Assets

When giving a spontaneous declaration, demobilized paramilitaries are under no obligation to answer any of the investigators’ questions.  “The spontaneous declaration is the statement [the demobilized paramilitary] wants to make,” according to Elba Beatriz Silva, head of the Human Rights Unit of the Office of the Attorney General.56  “Those who demobilize have no incentive to tell the truth.”57

The purpose of the spontaneous declaration is a purely technical one: to allow the Attorney General’s office to formally document the paramilitary’s membership in the group, and thus open an official investigation of him for the crime of agreement to commit a crime (which all paramilitaries have presumably committed by virtue of their membership in the group).  This, in turn, allows the Attorney General’s office to give the paramilitary the benefit of a pardon for that crime. 

If it were serious about dismantling paramilitaries’ complex networks, the government could structure the spontaneous declaration to collect valuable information about the group’s crimes, operations, and assets, evidence which might be helpful in ongoing investigations or eventual efforts to recover illegally acquired assets.  For example, in the demobilization of a particular block, it would make sense for the Attorney General’s office to assemble a list of questions concerning atrocities and other serious crimes committed in that block’s area of operation, to determine whether those who are demobilizing know anything about those crimes.  This is not, however, happening in practice. 

Paramilitaries are not systematically asked whether they participated in or witnessed atrocities or other criminal activity, what assets they own and how they acquired them, or whether they know anything about the location of drug crops or assets illegally acquired by their commanders.  Nor are they asked questions about specific cases.  In one copy of a spontaneous declaration obtained by Human Rights Watch, a demobilizing paramilitary belonging to the Bananero Block stated that he had been a paramilitary for twelve years and had the rank of “group commander.”  Although this man probably possessed a great deal of information about the group’s operations, past crimes, and assets, he was not asked a single question about these subjects. 

According to representatives of the Attorney General’s office, the questions asked in a spontaneous declaration vary case by case, but there are six “fundamental questions:” To which block did you belong?  When did you join?  Who was your commander?  Where did you operate?  What was your role in the organization?  And, why did you demobilize?   Additional questions are only asked if the member spontaneously admits his participation in criminal activity.58  However, this is a rare occurrence: “it may have happened two or three times.”59  

As Prosecutor Marin acknowledged, “this process does not help the investigations at all.”60 

Interestingly, the conduct of these interviews contrasts sharply with the policies applied to interviews of deserters who are entering individual demobilization programs.  According to the Vice-Minister of Defense, persons who try to go through the individual demobilization process are subjected to a “serious military interrogation” in which the goal is to “prevent terrorist activity, find war material, and complete judicial investigations.”  In general, he compared the questioning to the sort of approach U.S. law enforcement might take with a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) case.  Deserters are subjected to “several” interrogations, “both by the military and the police, as many times as is necessary.”  Among other questions, deserters are asked how they were recruited, what the criminal structure of their group was, where they held kidnapping victims, whether they know about certain facts that they might be able to clarify, whether they know about drug trafficking, and whether they worked with people in the armed forces.61  Not one of these is a part of the standard list of questions asked of paramilitaries who are participating in collective demobilizations.

Superficial Checks of Demobilized Paramilitaries’ Backgrounds

According to Law 782, members of armed groups are barred from receiving benefits for demobilization if they are “responsible” for the commission of atrocities. 

Marin claims that he does not know how the background checks were conducted for the demobilization of the Cacique Nutibara Block, which occurred prior to his involvement in the demobilization process.  However, he says that since he was put in charge of the demobilizations, background checks have been conducted in the following manner:  first, the office is to check whether the paramilitary is barred from receiving benefits because he shows up on their computer system as having been convicted or being wanted for atrocities.  Then, the office is supposed to have members of the CTI conduct a more thorough check of the case-files in each national unit of the Attorney General’s office, to determine whether any demobilized person should be questioned further or investigated in connection with open cases. 

The effectiveness of this process is, however, questionable given that, according to Ramiro Marin, as of April 2005 it had not caused the Attorney General’s office to conduct a single follow-up interview with any demobilized paramilitary.62  Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch was unable to interview the members of the CTI charged with conducting these checks, because Marin refused to put us in touch with them, stating: “I am the one who has to answer for that.”63

Inadequate Monitoring of Demobilized Paramilitaries

The national system for monitoring demobilized persons suffers from serious deficiencies, largely because of its limited focus.  The International Organization on Migration (IOM), which designed the system, called the Tracking, Monitoring and Evaluation System (TMES), with funding from USAID, has stated: “[t]he System is designed to support the successful reincorporation into society of demobilized combatants through the continuous monitoring and assessment of their performance in the reincorporation program.”64  However, the system is not designed to find out whether the demobilized paramilitary is still involved in criminal activities or is still a part of a paramilitary structure.

So far, the system has been fully implemented only in the city of Medellín.  There, the system depends on eleven “coordinators” (psychologists, social workers, and others) and forty “monitors”—themselves demobilized paramilitaries who are selected as monitors due to their leadership skills.65  In practice, this means that in at least some cases the monitors are in fact former local paramilitary commanders.66

The system consists primarily of collecting information about demobilized paramilitaries via surveys of the demobilized member himself, his family members, service providers (employers or instructors), and community members.  The surveys ask questions about a wide variety of issues, including the individual’s satisfaction with the program, drug use, sexual activity, family life, participation in politics, attendance and performance at work or school, and the community’s perceptions.  The coordinators are also supposed to conduct interviews with demobilized persons.67  The information obtained from these various sources is kept together in a computerized database.68

Those who show signs that they are at “risk” (e.g., because they are frequently absent from work or school) are supposed to be given special attention through mentoring, workshops, follow-up phone calls, and other measures. 

This system may serve its stated objective of assessing the demobilized individual’s performance in and perceptions of the reincorporation program.  However, the system is not designed to detect whether he is still involved in paramilitary groups or is otherwise engaged in illegal activities.  It does not include mechanisms for the receipt of complaints about the demobilized persons or population as a whole.  Nor is it linked with other entities (e.g., local NGOs, law enforcement) that would be likely to receive such complaints.  Although the system includes a survey of community members, that survey is distributed only to a select group.69   At most, as explained by Diego Beltrand of IOM, the system might as a side benefit serve to give authorities some indications that “something is going on.”70

A demobilized paramilitary could also simply drop out of the system entirely.  In that case he would stop receiving benefits.  However, he has no obligation to stay in touch with the government on a regular basis.  

Aside from the TMES, Restrepo told us that the local police know the demobilized paramilitaries, meet with them periodically, and also monitor crime levels in areas where demobilized people live.71  As explained below, however, it is unclear how thoroughly this aspect of monitoring is being done.

Failure to Share Information with Local Authorities

Monitoring has been hindered by the reluctance of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace to share information about demobilized paramilitaries with local authorities.  In Valle del Cauca, for example, government officials at both the departmental and municipal levels complained that they had no idea who or where the demobilized paramilitaries were.  As a result, it was very difficult for them to know whether that population was, in fact, still engaged in paramilitary activities. 

At one reference center, a policeman told us that he was supposed to be in touch with demobilized paramilitaries in his area, but he was not able to do so because several months after the demobilization he still had not received the list of those people he should be monitoring.

Moisés Góngora, the director of the Cali reference center, noted that “municipal and departmental authorities do not receive lists [of demobilized paramilitaries] because these are normal people… The idea is to remove the stigma of being a ‘reinserted’ person….  [T]he legal system has already said [their status] has been resolved.”72  

But the failure to communicate with local authorities could eventually result in serious monitoring difficulties, particularly with respect to paramilitary blocks whose members are dispersed.  Unlike in Medellín, where most members of the Cacique Nutibara Block stayed after the demobilization, in other parts of the country demobilized paramilitaries are widely dispersed.73  Thus, regular monitoring will depend on local authorities’ involvement.

Inadequate Policies to Prevent Recruitment

The government has yet to put into place policies to prevent new recruitment into paramilitary groups.  Thus, even while many troops are demobilizing, paramilitary groups could easily be recruiting new troops from the same large pool of impoverished, poorly educated young men from which those now being demobilized were originally drawn. The promise of a regular and relatively high salary is as likely to draw new recruits now as it was five or ten years ago. Demobilization, as it is currently structured, does nothing to address this problem.

While the government has policies aimed at preventing recruitment of children into illegal armed groups, it lacks “a strong policy of prevention of recruitment of adults,” as one official at the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace put it.74

[37] According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, the blocks that have demobilized so far are: Ortega, Calima, Catatumbo, Bananero, Cundinamarca, AUC del Sur del Magdalena e Isla de San Fernando, Cordoba, SurOeste Antioqueño, Mojana, Heroes de Tolová, and Montes de María, in addition to the Cacique Nutibara Block.  At least five more blocks—Heroes de Granada, Autodefensas Campesinas de Meta y Vichada, Libertadores del Sur, Pacífico, and Centauros—are starting the process or scheduled to begin soon.  See Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, “Next Demobilizations,” (retrieved July 14, 2005).

[38] Law 418 as modified by Laws 548 of 1999 and 782 of 2002 and as regulated by Decrees 128 of 2003, 3360 of 2003, and 2767 of 2004.

[39] Law 418, Art. 50, as modified by Art. 19 of Law 782, provides that pardons will not be applied to “those who carry out conduct constitutive of atrocious acts of ferocity or barbarity, terrorism, kidnapping, genocide, homicide committed outside of combat or putting the victim in a state of defenselessness.”

[40] Decree 128, Arts. 6-8, 1-20.

[41] Of these, 3,640 were deserters from the FARC; 2,330 were paramilitaries; 968 were ELN members; and 212 were members of FARC militias.  Human Rights Watch Interview with Andrés Peñate, Vice-Minister of Defense, Bogotá, May 12, 2005. 

[42] Decree 128, Art. 12(4).  The CODA is composed of one person from each of the following entities: The Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defense, Public Advocate’s office, the Reincorporation Program at the Ministry of Interior, the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare, and the Attorney General’s office.  Decree 128, Art. 11.

[43] Decree 3360 of 2003, Art. 1.

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

[45]These are in: Turbo, Montería, Cúcuta, Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Yacopí (Cundinamarca).  The eighth is a mobile reference center that visits different parts of the country.  Human Rights Watch interview with Juan David Ángel, Director of the Reincorporation Program, Colombian Ministry of Interior, Bogotá, March 14, 2005.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.  Marin explained that in only one case, with the Block Magdalena del Sur, were the interviews conducted in the concentration zone.

[47] Before the passage of the new law, paramilitaries who were wanted for atrocities had the possibility of going to Santa Fe de Ralito, a zone specially designated by the government where all arrest orders were suspended and they could wait for the approval of the new law granting them sentence reductions.  Human Rights Watch interview with High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, Bogotá, March 14, 2005.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview with Elba Beatriz Silva, Director of the Human Rights Unit, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 4, 2005.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with officials from the Office of High Commissioner for Peace, Bogotá, April 11, 2005.  Human Rights Watch interview with Claudia Perez de Vargas, OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process, Bogotá, April 11, 2005.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.  Human Rights Watch interview with Elba Beatriz Silva, Director of the Human Rights Unit, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 4, 2005.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005. 

[55] Ibid.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Elba Beatriz Silva, Director of the Human Rights Unit, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 4, 2005.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Luis Santana, Vice-Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, March 14, 2005.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005. 

[59] Ibid.


[61] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrés Peñate, Vice-Minister of Defense of Colombia, Bogotá, May 12, 2005.

[62] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.

[63] Ibid.

[64] See International Office on Migration, “Executive Summary Government of Colombia (GOC) Demobilization and Reincorporation Program, Tracking, Monitoring, and Evaluation System,” n.d. [hereinafter TMES Summary]. The TMES Summary details the objectives of the TMES as follows: “1) determine the degree of reincorporation achieved by  beneficiaries; 2) identify those at high risk of abandoning the program and provide them remedial assistance to reduce drop-outs; 3) assess the effectiveness of program activities, such as vocational training and education; 4) enable the GOC to monitor the overall status of the process, i.e., how many individuals are formally considered “reincorporated”, and 5) provide adequate information to adjust the program as required.”

[65] Human Rights Watch interview with Diego Beltrand, and officials from the International Office on Migration and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.  See also International Office on Migration, TMES Summary.  According to the TMES Summary, surveys are conducted every three months, except with respect to service providers, who are surveyed every month.

[68] International Office on Migration, TMES Summary.

[69] The community members are selected by members of the monitoring team who know the main actors in the community.  Human Rights Watch interview with Diego Beltrand, and officials from the International Office on Migration and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.

[70] Ibid.

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

[72]Human Rights Watch interview with Moisés Góngora, director of the Cali reference center, Cali, March 9, 2005.

[73] For example, of the 557 paramilitaries who demobilized as part of the Calima Block, only fifty-five are in Cali.  Approximately 300 more are spread out throughout the department of Valle del Cauca, and others are even further away, in other departments such as Cauca and Risaralda.  Human Rights Watch interview with senior law enforcement official, Cali, March 2005.  Yet all the demobilized paramilitaries in Valle del Cauca and neighboring departments are monitored by a reference center in Cali.  Thus, a staff member of the Cali reference center “could lose a whole day just to visit one or two persons.”  Human Rights Watch interview with Moisés Góngora, director of the Cali reference center, Cali, March 9, 2005.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview with Roberto Mora, legal counsel at the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, Bogotá, April 11, 2005.

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