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Colombia: Negotiating with the Paramilitaries

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Eighteen months after the rupture of peace talks between its predecessor and the main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Uribe administration has entered upon a high risk-high gain negotiating process with the main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), that will test its skill and its good faith.

An accord signed on 15 July 2003 after an AUC “unilateral ceasefire” and seven months of highly confidential preliminary talks directs the start of formal negotiations with the goal of completely disbanding the AUC by 31 December 2005. It offers the first break in more than a year of escalating violence.

The news was received with a mixture of hope and suspicion. The U.S. and EU expressed support for the negotiation process but stressed that demobilisation should not come at the expense of justice. Colombian analysts welcomed the potential benefit of eliminating from the conflict one of the illegal armed groups most responsible for civilian casualties but also warned of difficulties. Fearful the AUC would not be held accountable for past crimes and suspicious it would not be kept strictly to the ceasefire, domestic and international human rights groups were the strongest critics.

There are many questions regarding both sides’ motives for participating in the negotiating process and its feasibility under conditions of ongoing warfare. In part the Uribe administration has undercut the original rationale for the paramilitaries’ existence by expanding the state’s presence across its territory and improving the army’s capacity to confront the insurgents. It has also increasingly applied military pressure against the paramilitaries, while the U.S., Canada, EU and others have labelled them terrorists and called more loudly for Uribe to end longstanding military-paramilitary ties. The U.S. has indicted senior paramilitary commanders for drug trafficking, and the Uribe government’s counter-narcotics policy has begun to hurt their economic base.

Implicit in the concern, however, is uncertainty about what the Uribe administration is actually prepared to offer the paramilitaries to lay down their arms. There is worry that parts of the government and the AUC may not really see themselves as full adversaries; that just as elements in the country’s traditional power structures may have fostered the paramilitaries’ rise, so they may be preparing to use the peace talks to cleanse them politically and thus legitimise their wealth and power.

President Uribe faces two main challenges. The first involves the complexities of demobilising and reintegrating the paramilitaries into society (DR) while the conflict with the insurgents and paramilitaries who oppose the process continues, including how to protect demobilised ex-combatants, verify their adherence to the ceasefire and keep them out of drug trafficking.

To prevent the insurgents from occupying regions formerly under paramilitary control, the government security and civilian presence must expand across the country in step with paramilitary demobilisation. The Uribe administration will need to deal with all paramilitaries, not just the AUC. Refusal to participate in the ceasefire and negotiations should trigger the highest priority military targeting of dissident groups. Stepped up eradication of illicit crops under paramilitary control should be part of the demobilisation process.

The second challenge involves ensuring that the state does not undermine its own legitimacy and the rule of law by turning a blind eye to paramilitary crimes.

All paramilitary fighters will need to be subjected to judicial screening to determine whether they are responsible for serious crimes, such as massacres and kidnapping. Those found guilty for such crimes will need to be dealt with severely while the rights of paramilitary victims should be protected through means such as an independent truth and reconciliation commission and a special reparation fund, with some benefits coming from confiscation of paramilitaries’ drug profits.

It is vital for the Uribe administration to demonstrate that it is serious about pursuing its declared aims with the paramilitaries. If it fails to conduct DR in a just and accountable manner, including moving resolutely to sever ties between the military or others in the Colombian elites and paramilitaries, its credibility and legitimacy will be severely affected, both domestically and internationally. If it does so act, however, it can expect to receive important international political and financial assistance to see the job through.

The odds are against this difficult process succeeding but the possible benefits make it a chance worth taking. Not the least of these would be the demonstration to the insurgents, who also must eventually be disarmed and reintegrated, that the government has both good faith and iron resolution. But transparency throughout the process is the key to avoiding shipwreck and violent backlash.


To the government of Colombia:

  1. Seek to establish a single negotiation table with all paramilitary groups, or if not feasible, a parallel table for non-AUC groups, and assign highest military priority to the capture or defeat of paramilitary groups that refuse to participate or have broken a ceasefire.

  2. Strengthen the government’s capacity to compel participation in the demobilisation and reintegration (DR) process by establishing special police units and prosecutors whose sole duty is to arrest and bring to justice non-cooperative paramilitary members - and armed forces members who continue to support them - and by providing more support for and monitoring of the Human Rights Unit in the Attorney General’s Office.

  3. Charge a high-level commission with coordinating, in support of the High Commissioner for Peace, all aspects of the DR process, including a reparation fund for victims of illegal armed groups that could identify and draw on illegally obtained paramilitary assets.

  4. Ensure full cooperation of the armed forces, police and local and regional governments in concentrating paramilitary fighters for demobilisation in areas which are close to where their groups previously operated, which are easy to protect, and which are accessible for food and other deliveries.

  5. Organise an international conference with government and non-government experts on lessons learned from other DR processes, including international monitoring and verification mechanisms, and request international support for the conference and for technical teams to assist the government in developing DR plans.

  6. Appoint a presidential commission of distinguished Colombian and international figures to monitor and report on actions taken and steps still required to sever ties between the armed forces and the paramilitaries.

  7. Establish a truth and reconciliation commission to document and disseminate information about abuses committed by all irregular armed groups.

  8. Continue to expand the presence of government armed forces and police, as well as civilian judicial institutions, the Ombudsman Office and other state institutions, across the national territory, while reassessing the peasant soldiers program in view of its goals and achievements.

  9. Continue to eradicate illicit crops with special emphasis on regions under paramilitary control, while implementing alternative development programs and basic social service programs in those regions and in rural areas generally.

  10. Maintain support for UN facilitation to engage the insurgent organisations in peace talks, including a ceasefire with an end to the killing and abduction of civilians and to drug trafficking.

To the AUC and all paramilitary groups:

  1. Comply fully with the ceasefire, enter into negotiations, turn over all underage fighters, cease immediately the killing and kidnapping of civilians and the trafficking of drugs, and release any currently-held kidnapping victims.

To the UN, the Groups of Friends, the European Union and the U.S. government:

  1. Engage the government in a regular policy dialogue about paramilitary DR and the need to link this process to the opening of structured negotiations with the insurgents, while making clear that there will be no international financial support until the government has shown concrete willingness to prosecute senior paramilitary leadership and jail those found responsible for crimes against humanity.

  2. Once the government has taken steps to create the special police and prosecutor units, provide complementary funding alongside that of the international financial institutions (IFIs), to support:

(a)    design and implementation of the DR plan;

(b)    truth and reconciliation and DR commissions;

(c)    programs to assist internally displaced persons and victims; and

(d)    judicial and prison institutions.
  1. The U.S. should provide to the Colombian government as rapidly and fully as possible any information it holds or obtains on ties between the military or important civilian figures and the paramilitaries in order to facilitate appropriate action.

  2. The U.S. and the EU should freeze assets and refuse or revoke visas for Colombians – and their family members - who maintain ties to or otherwise support paramilitary groups and leaders that do not participate in the ceasefire, negotiations and DR process.

To the FARC and ELN:

  1. Respect the paramilitary DR process and enter promptly into peace negotiations with the government on the same basis.

To the Colombian business community:

  1. Help in the DR process by offering employment opportunities to demobilised fighters seeking to join the labour market.

Bogotá/Brussels, 16 September 2003

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