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V. The Government’s Record to Date


So far, over five thousand persons have participated in “collective demobilizations” of paramilitary groups.  As of April 2005, only twenty-five of them were under investigation or had been convicted for atrocities committed before the demobilization.75

The Attorney General’s office claims that only members of the Cacique Nutibara Block have already received pardons and that it is still in the process of checking its files to determine whether any of the paramilitaries who demobilized in the 2004 and 2005 demobilizations are being, or should be, investigated.76  Because the initial background checks for outstanding convictions or pending investigations were performed early on in the process, however, paramilitaries from these groups would be barred from receiving benefits only if new evidence has come to light in the intervening period and such information is identified when the Attorney General’s office checks the files. 

Given how little information is being collected about paramilitary crimes through the spontaneous declarations, it is hard to see how cross-checking of files will yield any additional results.  Marin himself concedes that so far the cross-checking has not resulted in a single follow-up interview with a demobilized paramilitary.77

The small percentage of demobilized paramilitaries that have been barred from receiving benefits because of their involvement in atrocities so far (less than 1 percent of the total demobilized population, and less than three percent of the demobilized membership of the BCN) is shocking when one considers the number of atrocities that have been attributed to paramilitary groups over the last decade.  According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, paramilitaries have killed over 12,999 persons in Colombia since 1996 alone—this number does not include kidnappings, acts of torture and extortion, forced displacement, and other serious crimes committed by members of these groups.78

The small percentage denied benefits is also striking in light of demobilized paramilitaries’ own statements in interviews.  In fact, most of the demobilized paramilitaries Human Rights Watch interviewed admitted their involvement in massacres, killings, kidnappings, and/or extortion.  Yet none of them had been charged or detained for those crimes, or even seriously questioned about their own or their commanders’ responsibility.

For example, two demobilized members of the BCN acknowledged in interviews that they had killed civilians, although they could not estimate how many.  One also recognized that, along with others, he had sometimes abducted people he considered “subversives” and had “taken information out of them by force.”

But both of them had already had their legal situation “resolved” (i.e., they had received their pardons for membership in the group).   They knew that a few other members of their group had been arrested for preexisting crimes, but they said that “it was because of bad luck that they were caught.”  To their minds, it was “unjust because they had turned in their weapons” too.

Another paramilitary who had operated in the Cordoba Block under the command of Salvatore Mancuso, admitted his involvement in massacres and gruesome killings of civilians he viewed as supportive of guerrillas: “These were people who felt powerful and were friends of the guerrillas.”  As for children who were killed, he felt that “in any war, there are times that innocents pay…  A bullet does not ask where it is going.”  Although he usually used firearms, “sometimes you killed them with the machete because you didn’t have anything else left.”  However, he said the government had given him a certificate stating that he did not have any legal problems.79

Demobilized members of the Catatumbo and Cundinamarca Blocks also told us about their own and their groups’ involvement in killings and torture.  One told us that “if we found collaborators… we killed them.  We also killed child combatants.”  Another said that “we tortured people who became guerrillas or collaborated with other narcotraffickers.”

In Medellín, we spoke with several men who claimed to have been mid-level commanders of the BCN, just below the group’s top commander, Don Berna.   But at the time of the interviews, none of them had cases pending against them; they were now heading the “Democracy Corporation” (Corporación Democracia), a non-profit association of all the demobilized members of the BCN.  One of them, Giovanni Marin, is campaigning for a seat in the Colombian Chamber of Deputies.

Truth and Reparation

So far, the demobilization process has yielded very little progress in terms of truth or reparation for victims of paramilitary atrocities.  Demobilizing paramilitaries have not confessed their past crimes, or voluntarily disclosed any meaningful amount of information to the authorities that would have helped clarify the facts about those crimes.  Without such information, most cases of paramilitary atrocities as well as other crimes such as drug trafficking are likely to remain unsolved.

In turn, without progress in investigations, it is impossible to determine who should pay reparations to victims.  It may also be difficult to determine who is a victim of a paramilitary crime, and therefore entitled to reparations.  So far, there has been no significant progress with respect to reparations.

Of the twelve paramilitary blocks to have demobilized so far, the only one to turn over any assets to the government has been the Catatumbo Block, which turned over some land, ten motorboats, forty-five mules, and eleven vehicles.80  That property is supposedly being returned to its original owners, if it was stolen; however, no payment has been made in reparation to the victims of the many paramilitary atrocities in the Catatumbo region, or elsewhere in the country.

This record with respect to reparations and truth reflects how little attention is being paid to victims in the process as a whole.  As noted by Colombia’s General Accounting Office, it is also “troubling that while the funds destined by the government in 2000-2003 to fully take care of an entire displaced family were on average $5.5 million pesos [around U.S. $2,000], the funds directed at demobilizing and fully reintegrating a member of an armed group on average were $19.5 million pesos [around U.S. $9,000], a fact that makes evident the differentiation in the way the State’s policies work with respect to victims and perpetrators.” 81

Lasting Peace and Dismantling of Paramilitary Structures

The government likes to present the demobilizations that have been conducted so far as tremendous successes that are resulting in a genuine and lasting peace.  But while the demobilization process has disarmed some paramilitary troops, it has failed to touch the massive wealth that fuels paramilitary groups’ activities.  Nor is there any sign that the demobilizations have done anything to interfere with paramilitaries’ illegal businesses or the political and economic control they exert over much of the country.  And given that their wealth remains intact, the groups will be able easily to replace the demobilized troops with new recruits, and old weapons with new.


Paramilitaries have repeatedly committed abuses in breach of the cease-fire declaration they made in December 2002.  According to a September 2004 report by the Public Advocate that covered only eleven of the country’s thirty-two departments, in the first eight months of the year there had been 342 paramilitary violations of international humanitarian law in breach of the cease-fire, including massacres, forced disappearances, and kidnappings.82  A separate report by the Public Advocate for the department of Tolima (which had not been included in the broader report) stated that during that same period, paramilitaries had presumably committed at least 177 violations in Tolima alone.83  There were 133 targeted assassinations, five massacres, thirty-three forced disappearances, and seven acts of extreme cruelty to victims.  According to one Colombian organization, as recently as June 2005 the paramilitaries were holding 509 people hostage.84

The government itself recognizes that there have been numerous cease-fire violations, but argues that the cease-fire has nonetheless resulted in a significant reduction in the number of atrocities committed by paramilitaries.85  While official statistics show a decrease in some major indicators atrocities committed by both paramilitaries and guerrillas, the start of this trend does not coincide with the cease-fire declaration or with the start of demobilization negotiations.86   

There are numerous factors that may have contributed to the decrease in official indicators of abuses, including a change in tactics by Colombia’s armed groups, the consolidation of paramilitary control in some areas, and a strategic retreat by the guerrillas in response to an increase in military action against them.  And it is far from clear how long the decreases will last.    

In Medellín, for example, homicide rates have been dropping steadily in recent years, going from 3721 in 2002 to 2013 in 2003, and 1177 in 2004.87  The drop began before the BCN’s demobilization, and coincides with the BCN’s consolidation of its control over the city after the defeat of most of the guerrillas and competing paramilitary groups (such as the Metro Block) in the city.  BCN commanders themselves told us that they had brought peace to the city by taking it over.

In May 2005, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, visited Colombia and raised concerns about the paramilitaries’ continued cease-fire violations.  President Uribe responded publicly by arguing that every time a paramilitary group violates the cease-fire, the government combats it.88

However, the government has yet to make public any concrete examples of ways in which it has enforced the cease-fire.  To the contrary, despite their repeated cease-fire violations, paramilitaries have consistently been able to avoid accountability. 

The most flagrant case of such impunity is that of the notorious paramilitary commander Don Berna.  In late May, Colombian prosecutors ordered the arrest of Don Berna for the April 10 assassinations of Colombian Congressman Orlando Benítez, his sister, and his driver, on a road near Santa Fe de Ralito.  Don Berna had allegedly ordered the assassinations after Benitez refused to stop campaigning in the region.

Announcing that the peace process could not become a “paradise of impunity” and that Berna’s alleged crime constituted a cease-fire violation, President Uribe authorized an enormous operation in which hundreds of security forces entered Ralito to arrest Don Berna.  Don Berna evaded arrest for two days, finally turning himself in on May 27, 2005. 

Despite Don Berna’s alleged responsibility for three atrocities in breach of the cease-fire, however, Colombian authorities subsequently announced that Don Berna would be allowed to demobilize and, presumably, receive all attendant benefits.

Continued Paramilitary Control

There are signs that powerful paramilitary structures have remained intact even after the demobilizations of the various blocks.

One revealing fact is that during their spontaneous declarations (which have in some cases occurred months after the demobilization ceremonies) at the reference centers, the demobilized paramilitaries have not requested public defenders to represent them.  Instead, according to government officials, the demobilized paramilitaries have consistently been represented by the same handful of lawyers, apparently hired by their former commanders.89

In Medellín, BCN commanders continue to exert a great deal of authority in many neighborhoods through their non-profit association, the “Democracy Corporation” (or Corporación Democracia), and through the monitoring process itself (in at least some cases, low-level commanders were selected as “peace coordinators” due to their leadership skills).90   There have been reliable reports that members of the Democracy Corporation are taking advantage of their position to start illegal businesses, in which they take others’ land and sell or rent to displaced people.91  While leaders of the Democracy Corporation have stated that all they are doing is “social work,” people who spoke with Human Rights Watch claimed to have been threatened and abused by demobilized paramilitaries in the city for refusing to follow orders or resisting extortion.92 

In interviews, the heads of the Democracy Corporation admitted that they were still in touch with their top commander, Don Berna.93  And, in an example that some have described as a model for other parts of the country, the Democracy Corporation is, under the guidance and overarching leadership of Don Berna, increasingly involved in politics, both at a local level and through campaigns for national public office.94

Don Berna, in turn, appears to exert extraordinary power in the city, where many believe that the reduction in crime levels is a direct result of Berna’s orders.95  After authorities ordered Don Berna arrested for the assassination of Congressman Benitez, bus transportation was paralyzed in Medellín, reportedly because drivers were threatened by Berna’s men.96     

Outside of Medellín there have also been reports of continued paramilitary activity in regions where paramilitaries have demobilized.  For example, in Valle del Cauca, where the Calima Block demobilized, Human Rights Watch received reports from residents of the towns of Calima Darien and Florida (areas that had been under the control of the Calima Block) that paramilitaries, apparently from the Calima Block, were still committing abuses there.   Law enforcement and other government authorities, as well as the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cali, had received similar reports.

Partial Demobilizations

A serious problem with the demobilizations is the lack of clarity about the membership of paramilitary groups, and whether the demobilizations of those groups have been complete.

This issue gained a great deal of public attention in connection with the demobilization of the BCN.  After that demobilization, there were reports that common criminals had posed as paramilitaries, and in recordings of the negotiation leaked to the media, Restrepo stated that the Medellín demobilization had been an “embarrassment.”  According to Medellín’s Mayor, Sergio Fajardo, this is inaccurate: the city is full of different types of criminal organizations, including gangs, but the paramilitaries had incorporated those gangs into their structure.97

Whether or not non-paramilitaries participated in the Medellín demobilization, we did receive reports that members of the BCN had remained active in the area.  A demobilized low-level commander told us that not all the troops under his command were allowed to demobilize because his commanders had given him only forty slots to fill with demobilized troops.

Very recently, the Colombian government announced that 800 men from the Héroes de Granada, a little-known paramilitary block reportedly formed two years ago near Medellin, also under Don Berna’s command, had started the demobilization process.98  According to news reports, the block includes four hundred men from the so-called “Envigado Office,” a highly sophisticated network of assassins and criminals that Don Berna inherited from Pablo Escobar, and that has not traditionally been considered a paramilitary group.99  The start of the demobilization was preceded by allegations that Don Berna was recruiting people to pose as paramilitaries for purposes of demobilization, and was offering them salaries of 360,000 pesos on top of the stipend they would receive as demobilized individuals.100

It is also possible that in some areas the vacuum left by demobilizing paramilitaries is being filled by other, in some cases new, paramilitary groups.  One demobilized man told us that he believed the groups had a strategy to replace the demobilized blocks with new ones: “I once worked with the Calima Block… I saw the day they turned themselves in.  I had worked with about 200 men… but none of them was at the negotiation.  I think they have remained active.”  In April and May there were reports of new paramilitary groups being formed in Valle del Cauca and in the Catatumbo region.101

Some demobilized paramilitaries suggested that a partial demobilization might be the goal of the paramilitary leadership: “Those of us who are not big commanders will demobilize.  But aside from Mancuso there is another one… who will not demobilize and will take over the reins of the business,” said one. 

A former senior member of the Catatumbo Block told us that his group had intentionally left a portion of its troops active.  According to another demobilized paramilitary, the demobilization process is “a farce.  It’s a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from another side.”  

Wealth and New Recruitment

Beyond the question of what happens with the troops, what may turn out to be more important is the question of what happens with the commanders’ and the groups’ wealth.  The new demobilization law provides that to be eligible for demobilization benefits, paramilitary groups must turn over assets resulting from illegal activity.  However, the law fails to include any penalties if it is later discovered that paramilitary groups or commanders withheld substantial portions of their illegally acquired wealth.  As long as paramilitary groups hold on to their wealth and sources of financing, they will be able to entice new troops to join. 

So far the only paramilitary block to turn in any assets to the government is the Catatumbo Block, and members of that block did not turn over any cash. 

Several demobilized paramilitaries told us that they were certain their commanders were hiding assets: “If one is going to demobilize, one doesn’t leave the assets in one’s own name.  One builds front companies,” said one demobilized paramilitary who said his group was involved in drug processing.  “They can give that land to other people they trust,” said another.102

One man elaborated further, telling us that the paramilitary commanders would never let go of their illegal businesses because if they did, “how will they finance themselves?”  In his view, “the demobilization process is a way to try to clean the biggest guys, [and] move all their money into legality.  They have a lot of it because it’s a big business….    There is a system: they enter a farm, kill or throw out a rancher, and that farm is then transferred to a hardliner.  To discover that is very complicated.  When they enter legality [by demobilizing], they are going to say that they already had that land from before.”

It is also doubtful that paramilitary groups have been turning over all their weapons.  Several demobilized paramilitaries told us that they had more than one weapon, and in some cases they had three or more.  But in the demobilizations that have been conducted so far, on average each member turned over about one weapon.103  And one demobilized man from the Catatumbo Block directly admitted to us that “the weapons were not all turned over.”

Paramilitary groups have continued to recruit new troops.  In at least some cases, paramilitaries are even recruiting from the ranks of the demobilized.  A demobilized man in Bogotá told us that “there are people from the guerrillas who [after deserting] have joined the AUC.  On the corner [outside the reference center] they are recruiting for the self-defense forces.  They are paying 400,000 pesos…. They have also gone to the shelters to recruit.” Another told us that he had been approached “several times” by recruiters, and that “many” of the people who had demobilized with him had rejoined armed groups.  Such statements have been corroborated by news reports about other demobilized persons, who claim that the people who are trying to recruit them are also purchasing new weapons.104

[75] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.  As of June 2005, approximately fifty-five others who did not demobilize had voluntarily gone to Ralito, where they were protected from arrest while they waited for the government to pass a demobilization law that would regulate their benefits.  International Office on Migration, “Demobilization Process Summary Chart,” June 9, 2005.  See also Human Rights Watch interview with High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo, Bogotá, March 14, 2005.

[76] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramiro Marín, Prosecutor before the Supreme Court, Office of the Attorney General of Colombia, Bogotá, April 6, 2005.  Marin said that of the 867 members of the Block Cacique Nutibara, 205 were involved in prior crimes, but only twenty-five were involved in crimes considered atrocities such as terrorism, kidnapping and extortion.

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

[78] See Colombian Commission of Jurists, “A Metaphorical Justice and Peace,” June 21, 2005.  In addition to the material authors, it is crucial that top commanders be held accountable for these serious crimes.

[79] This does not mean he has necessarily received the pardon for agreement to commit a crime.  The certificate is probably his criminal record, which shows that he is not wanted or under investigation for atrocities.

[80] A detailed listing of the assets turned over is available at “List of assets turned over by the Catatumbo Block of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,” (retrieved June 30, 2005).

[81] Delegated Comptroller for the Defense, Justice, and Security Sector, “Public Policy About Forced Displacement in Colombia: Only Good Intentions?,” (retrieved June 27, 2005).

[82] Office of the Public Advocate of Colombia, “Monitoring of the Cessation of Hostilities Promised by the United Self-Defense Forces as a Sign of their Will for Peace for the Country,” September 24, 2004, (retrieved June 6, 2005).

[83] Office of the Public Advocate of the department of Tolima, “Report on Monitoring of the Agreement of Santa Fe de Ralito—Córdoba—About Cessation of Hostilities Against the Civilian Population in Tolima,” October 15, 2004.

[84] “NGO says that paramilitaries have 509 hostages in their power,” El Tiempo, June 16, 2005, (retrieved July 17, 2005).

[85] “'Paramilitaries who do not respect the cease-fire are combated militarily,’ said President Álvaro Uribe,” El Tiempo, May 12, 2005, (retrieved May 20, 2005).

[86] For example, official statistics show that the number of massacres dropped dramatically between 2001 and 2002.  See Human Rights Observatory of the Vice-Presidency of the Republic, “October 2002 Report – Massacres,” (retrieved July 17, 2005).  Official sources registered significant drops in the number of kidnappings per year between 2000 and 2001, and then again between 2001 and 2002.  See Human Rights Observatory of the Vice-Presidency of the Republic, “October 2002 Report—Kidnappings,” (retrieved July 17, 2005).

[87] Office of the Mayor of Medellín, Powerpoint Presentation “Program Peace and Reconciliation: Return to Legality,” March 12, 2005.

[88] The President supported his argument by noting that according to official statistics, since the start of his term in August of 2002 until May 2005, 9,864 paramilitaries had been arrested, 7,000 had demobilized, and 1,125 had been killed.  These statistics are, however, notoriously unreliable. They contain gaps and bad definitions that lead to systematic underreporting and false reporting (e.g., people executed by paramilitaries have been reported as having been killed in combat by security forces).  And there are major discrepancies in statistics kept by different government agencies.  See United Nations, Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia, Annex IV: Note on Statistics, E/CN.4/2005/10, February 8, 2005, (retrieved June 15, 2005).

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with officials from the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, Bogotá, April 12, 2005.

[90] 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.  Human Rights Watch interview with demobilized paramilitary commander, Medellín, March 11, 2005.

[91] “’Don Berna’s’ demobilized men are accused of promoting four invasions of neighborhoods in Medellín,” El Tiempo, July 21, 2005, (retrieved July 22, 2005).

[92] Ibid.  Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of Medellín, Medellín, March 12, 2005.

[93] Demobilized paramilitaries in Bogotá also admitted to us that they were still in communication with members of their groups, including their commanders in El Ralito.

[94] Enrique Rivas G., “Demobilized ‘paras’ proselytize in Medellín: ‘Don Adolfo’ is their Political Leader,” El Espectador, July 10, 2005, (retrieved July 18, 2005).

[95] “The Pacifier,” Semana, April 23, 2005, (retrieved June 27, 2005).

[96] “The power of Diego Murillo, ‘Don Berna’, in Medellín, remains intact,” El Tiempo, May 26, 2005, (retrieved May 27, 2005).

[97] Human Rights Watch interview with Sergio Fajardo, Mayor of Medellín, Medellín, March 10, 2005.

[98] “Allegations that the number of paramilitaries in the ‘Héroes de Granada’ paramilitary block is inflated,” El Tiempo, July 21, 2005, (retrieved July 22, 2005).

[99] “The Office of Envigado, one of the most feared organizations of the criminal world, ends,” El Tiempo, July 20, 2005, (retrieved July 21, 2005).

[100] “Paramilitary chief ‘Don Berna’ allegedly recruited false combatants to later demobilize them,” El Tiempo, July 11, 2005, (retrieved July 17, 2005).

[101] In April of 2005, there were reports, which the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace could not confirm, of the creation of a new group called Autodefensas Unidas del Valle in the area formerly occupied by the Block Calima.  Human Rights Watch interview with Colonel Alvaro Acosta and officials from the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, Bogotá, April 11, 2005.  In March 2005, there were reports of actions by demobilized paramilitaries in Catatumbo to create new paramilitary blocks in that region.  See “Three former paramilitaries who were forming a new group called ‘Reinserted people for Colombia’ were arrested,” El Tiempo, March 23, 2005, (retrieved June 30, 2005).

[102]Drug traffickers and armed groups are known to use elaborate methods to disguise their control over land.  General Comptroller of the Republic, “The Administration of the Agrarian Reform and the Process of Confiscation and Termination of Rural Assets” (“La Gestión de la Reforma Agraria y el Proceso de Incautación y Extinción de Bienes Rurales”), (retrieved June 29,2005).

[103]According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, as of June 2005, 5,285 paramilitaries had participated in collective demobilizations, and approximately the same number of weapons—5,828—(this number includes 2,335 grenades) had been turned over.  See Summary Chart, n.d., (retrieved June 27, 2005).

[104] “Groups of self-defense forces are recruiting reinserted people in shelters in Bogotá,” El Tiempo, May 4, 2005, (retrieved May 5, 2005).  Some authorities told us that they were concerned that demobilized members of the Calima Block may have already become involved with other paramilitary blocks operating in the region, such as the Pacifico Block, or with drug trafficking gangs such as the Machos and Rastrojos.  Human Rights Watch interview with law enforcement officials, Cali, March 2005.

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