Columbia’s Paramilitary Politics

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Lesley Gill

IN A SURPRISE move in the early morning of May 13th, Colombian President Álvaro Uríbe announced the extradition of fourteen top paramilitary leaders to the United States, where they are charged with cocaine trafficking and money laundering. His move has provoked an outcry from victims’ and human rights groups, who fear that the extraditions will undercut efforts to hold the paramilitaries accountable for massacres, disappearances, torture, extra-judicial executions, and the displacement of thousands of people in Colombia.

The paramilitaries represent a “Who’s Who” list of Colombia’s major warlords and drug traffickers. They are men who commanded clandestine, right-wing armies that committed horrific crimes in a decades-long dirty war against guerrilla insurgencies, and amassed fortunes from cocaine traffic and massive land expropriation.

The group includes men such as Salvatore Mancuso, a key paramilitary strategist who lead mercenaries in seven provinces, Diego Fernando Murillo (alias “Don Berna”), a powerful drug-trafficker-turned- paramilitary who converted much of the city of Medellín into his personal fiefdom, and Rodrigo Tovar (alias “Jorge 40”), a ruthless leader in the Caribbean coast charged with masterminding the massacre of sixty indigenous people.

The mass extraditions come at a delicate moment. The government is immersed in a scandal, known as the “parapolítica,” because of revelations that prominent politicians in Uríbe’s ruling coalition maintained relations with paramilitary groups. The scandal revolves around allegations that the paramilitaries helped pro-Uríbe lawmakers manipulate elections, intimidate opposition candidates, and accumulate land in areas under their control.

Paramilitary commanders have fueled the controversy with testimony about their dealings with members of congress, governors, mayors and councilmen. Because of the scandal, as well as thousands of trade unionist deaths linked to the paramilitaries, U.S. congressional approval of a free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia was stalled.

The scandal has reached deep into Uríbe’s ruling coalition. To date, 68 congress members, including the president of the Senate, are under investigation for ties to paramilitary groups, and 31 others are in jail. The vast majority of these individuals come from political parties that supported Uríbe in the last election. Their ties to the mercenaries lends credence to Salvatore Mancuso’s boast that the paramilitaries control 30% of the Colombian Congress.

A Coverup?

The extraditions follow the arrest of Mario Uríbe, the president’s cousin and long-time political confidant, for allegedly seeking the political support of Mancuso before the 2002 presidential elections, and for negotiating the purchase of land with another warlord. They also come just days after Mancuso told the CBS program “60 Minutes” that multinational corporations paid protection money to the paramilitaries because of the incompetence of the Colombian armed forces.

Critics of the extraditions argue that President Uríbe is attempting to bury the scandal in which his administration is deeply implicated. They also claim that he is sending a cynical message to the U.S. Congress about his willingness to deal harshly with human rights abusers. Even though, as Uríbe asserted, the paramilitary leaders managed criminal activities from jail, revealed little substantive information about human rights violations, and failed to forfeit their wealth, critics say that extradition could have waited until the warlords completed their testimonies as part of a so-called “justice and peace” process in Colombia.

Yet if Uríbe had delayed the extraditions any longer, men like “Don Berna” who were exposing some of their dealings with the organs of the Colombian state, might have sunk the administration deeper into the mud of scandal.

Just days before his extradition,”Don Berna” acknowledged to the Justice and Peace Commission that the “Heros of Tolová” — a paramilitary group under his command — and members of the Colombian army massacred eight people in the village of San José de Apartadó in 2005. His precipitious departure curtailed testimony that might further elucidate ties between paramilitaries and the armed forces.

Although Colombian paramilitarism has deep roots in the mid-twentieth century upheaval known as “La Violencia,” contemporary paramilitaries emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s as adjuncts to the security forces charged with stopping the spread of insurgency. Through alliances crafted with politicians, military officers, and regional landowners, they pushed guerrillas out of long-time strongholds, crushed reformist political projects, and secured the property rights of a new narco-agrarian bourgeoisie.

The mercenaries eventually outgrew their role as the state’s clandestine enforcers, and, in areas of the North Coast, the Magdalena River Valley and the Eastern Plains, they consolidated power to such an extent that boundaries between the legal, official state and emergent parastates were difficult to distinguish.

While the paramilitaries waged a dirty war on behalf of the Colombian state, government officials were happy to ignore the mercenaries’ pursuit of private accumulation through the cocaine traffic and the massive dispossession of small, rural landowners. Lawmakers looked the other way even as they backed the multi-billion dollar, mostly military, U.S.-aid “Plan Colombia” program, to wipe out the cocaine trade.

Yet the presence of mercenary armies that massacred civilians and accumulated wealth illegally was eventually untenable for the Uríbe administration. The paramilitaries became a liability, and the government had to confront the task of harnessing the violence that it had unleashed to defeat an insurgency.

Problematic “Demobilization”

In 2005, the Colombian Congress passed the controversial Justice and Peace Law, which emerged from talks between government officials and paramilitary commanders. The law was concerned less with justice and peace than with legitimizing paramilitary power and incorporating brutal killers into the state and the political process.

The law initiated a problematic “demobilization” process in which the Colombian court dramatically reduced prison sentences for mass murderers from 60 years to a maximum of eight years in exchange for full disclosure about human rights violations, the surrender of ill-gotten wealth, and information about the structure and operations of paramilitary groups.

Over thirty thousand mercenaries participated in the highly publicized demobilization process. The once formidable United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — an umbrella organization that united various regional groups — disbanded, and most of the regional blocs (bloques) that comprised it took part in demobilization ceremonies. Yet commanders, who expected to avoid jail, balked at the prospect of spending eight years in prison and threatened to withdraw from the process, prompting Uríbe to transfer them from a ranch in northern Colombia where negotiations had taken place to maximum-security prisons.

The delicate agreement between the paramilitaries and the Uríbe administration then started to fray, as commanders began to expose their dealings and alliances with key governments leaders. Several legislators who had backed the Justice and Peace Law suddenly found themselves under judicial scrutiny.

Free Trade in Real Life

The parapolítica scandal is an important reason why, in April, the U.S. Congress refused to consider a free trade deal with Colombia. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has delayed consideration of the legislation, effectively postponing a vote until the next administration, because of the widening parapolítica controversy, pervasive impunity for human rights crimes, and the ongoing murder of trade unionists.

Over 3,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since the 1980s, and over a dozen have died already this year. Paramilitaries are responsible for the vast majority of these killings. Few have been held accountable for the murders, and Colombia retains the dubious distinction as the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, a status that it has held for many years.

Free trade boosters, who note a decline in trade union murders compared to previous years, have demonstrated a myopia about the past that obscures the extent to which the paramilitary dirty war against workers has succeeded. Colombia currently has the lowest level of trade union affiliation in all of Latin America; only four percent of the workforce is unionized compared to 15% in the 1980s. Hundreds of unions have been destroyed or dismantled over the last 20 years, and part-time, low-paid workers with few, if any benefits, now comprise the bulk of the Colombian work force.

Uríbe consistently refers to trade unionists as guerrillas and terrorists, a charge that can have lethal implications, and over 70 reconfigured paramilitary groups with names such as the “Black Eagles” and “New Generation” have emerged since the end of the demobilizations.

What, if anything, the warlords might still reveal from their U.S. jail cells about crimes committed in Colombia is hard to predict. Perhaps their anger at being bundled off to the United States, where they face possible prison terms of 20-30 years, will spur them to reveal more than they have disclosed in Colombia. Salvatore Mancuso and “Jorge 40” have already indicated through their lawyers that they are willing to make public declarations to Colombian prosecutors.

Yet the truth about the parapolítica is not the only truth sought from these men.

Victims and survivors of paramilitary atrocities want to know what happened to their loved ones. They demand information about the location of mass graves so that they can disinter the bodies, give murdered relatives proper burials, and gain a modicum of closure to a long period of suffering. They also seek the restitution of stolen property.

Unfortunately, learning the truth about human rights crimes is likely to be more difficult with the paramilitaries in the United States than it was in Colombia.

Paramilitaries have no reason to cooperate, and U.S. prosecutors are less focused on crimes against humanity in Colombia than on cocaine trafficking and money laundering in the United States.

The paramilitaries now reside in maximum-security jails in New York, Washington and Miami, where they are kept in isolation and have only one hour per week to speak with their lawyers. It is highly doubtful that they will use that time to elaborate on human rights crimes in Colombia instead of formulating a defense strategy to fight the drug trafficking charges in U.S. court.

The Bush administration, for its part, has no stomach for the dirty laundry of the Colombian government — its staunchest regional supporter — and is unlikely to push for justice and accountability in Colombia, as new, left-leaning political leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador rattle the chains of empire and distance themselves from Washington’s failed policies.

Even though paramilitary leaders may face long prison terms in the United States, it is too early to rule out a deal with U.S. prosecutors in which mass murderers receive reduced prison sentences in exchange for information about cocaine trafficking routes. Despite U.S. drug czar John Walters’ optimism that the extraditions represent a big day for justice, Uríbe has extradited the promise of truth for the victims of human rights crimes along with the paramilitaries.

ATC 135, July-August 2008