Research: Publications

Memorandum: Paramilitary Peace Process

December 18, 2003 | Policy Brief

By Ingrid Vacius

On November 25, in a highly publicized ceremony in Medellin’s convention center, 850 members of the Bloque Cacique de Nutibara paramilitary unit handed over their weapons to Colombian government officials. Broadcast throughout Colombia on live television, the surrender was portrayed as a major step forward in a process that could lead to the full demobilization, by the end of 2005, of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a 13,000-member umbrella organization of rightist death squads currently on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. During the ceremony Colombia’s peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, exclaimed, "this is a huge advance and a demonstration of peace. It will help rebuild hope."[1] In the end, however, the 850 demobilizing low-ranking fighters turned in fewer than 200 weapons – nearly all pistols.[2]

Not physically present at the ceremony were key AUC leaders like the bloc’s commander, Diego Murillo Bejarano, known as "Don Berna" or "Adolfo Paz," as well as notorious chieftains Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. These figures are still officially fugitives: they are still trying to negotiate the terms of their surrender with the Colombian government, seeking not only immunity for past crimes against humanity but also a guarantee that they will not be extradited to the United States for drug trafficking charges. They did, however, address the surrender ceremony in a prerecorded video shown during the live television broadcast; igniting the anger of Colombia’s human rights community.

All three of these leaders face very serious accusations. Castaño, the AUC’s political leader, has admitted to playing a role in the 1990 assassination of presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro, leader of the M-19, a guerrilla group that negotiated peace with the Colombian government. A Colombian judge also sentenced Castaño in absentia to 22 years in prison for the assassination of presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa. More recently, Castaño was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1997 Mapiripán massacre, in which more than 200 paramilitaries killed and tortured more than 30 people over a five-day period.[3] “Don Berna” carved out a fearsome reputation organizing gangs of hit men for cocaine king Pablo Escobar's brutal Medellín cartel.[4] Sources from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Colombia prosecutors say that today Don Berna is regarded as “one of Colombia's biggest cocaine barons.”[5] Mancuso has eight arrest warrants issued under his name for a number of massacres—including the 1997 El Aro massacre – and numerous selective killings.

Critics contend that the current “peace” strategy is largely an improvised process. Allowing low-level paramilitaries to demobilize while its leaders remain free, able to recruit and continue to commit crimes will not weaken the overall paramilitary structure. In fact, some believe that “[Colombian President Alvaro] Uribe's decision allows hundreds of killers and drug traffickers to go free under a process that lacks international supervision.”[6]

After the initial disarmament, how is the government going to guarantee and verify their reinsertion to civilian life, who is going to pay for the costs of job training, psychological assistance and other related social work, and who is going to verify that ex-fighters do not go back to illegal activities? One member of the Nutibara bloc told El Tiempo that once demobilized he will not stop selling marihuana and he will not give in all his weapons. “How am I going to walk around without a weapon? Do you think the men in Blanquizal—a neighborhood that had a large guerrilla presence until last year—are going to give up all their weapons knowing that the guerrillas may come back? You hand over some weapons but not all.”[7]

Additionally, Mr. Uribe’s proposal of an amnesty law that would allow human rights abusers to pay reparations rather than serve jail time is extremely controversial. Such a law would allow many who have committed crimes against humanity to get away with no punishment – not even accountability for their crimes. In a recent interview, for Colombia’s main newspaper El Tiempo, Don Berna was asked about the processes pending against him for atrocious crimes. His response was emphatic “‘Adolfo Paz’ is not willing to pay a day in jail.’”[8] Immunity cannot come without a cost, and the paramilitaries owe much more than a symbolic gesture to their many victims. An official, credible mechanism – a truth commission, individual trials, or something else – must be in place to bring to justice those who have killed, massacred and disappeared so many people in Colombia.

Furthermore, the Uribe government will have to address the drug trafficking charges and extradition requests pending for some of the AUC’s most notorious leaders. Castaño and Mancuso are charged with smuggling 17 tons of cocaine to the United States. The U.S. Justice Department has made clear that it will seek the extradition of paramilitary leaders charged with drug trafficking, without regard to any peace accord.[9] Critics have also noted that handing out pardons before negotiations begin can lead common criminals and drug traffickers – many of whom have lately bribed their way into the AUC – to benefit from the proposed amnesty. This peace process should not be a vehicle by which drug traffickers can legitimize their wealth and escape punishment.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges the Uribe administration will face is filling a security vacuum that may be left as the paramilitaries demobilize. The government must be able to establish the presence necessary to prevent guerrillas, or paramilitary splinter bands, from taking over those territories. As stated by military analyst, Alfredo Rangel “if the armed forces can’t contain the guerrillas, then they (the rebels) will be strengthened and recover strategic positions.” [10] While the Uribe government has set forth some measures to increase security forces’ capacities, it is not clear how his government plans to pay the high cost of holding onto new territories.

Past administrations, in their rush to reach a negotiated settlement with armed actors, have been criticized for improvising and ultimately have seen the failure of their peace efforts. The Uribe administration should learn from its predecessors’ mistakes: instead of entering this negotiation process with no clear strategy, it must carve out a plan that leads to truth and reconciliation without impunity.


[1] Penhaul, Karl. The Boston Globe “Colombian fighters aim at peace, “November 26, 2003.

[2] Forero Juan, The New York Times “800 in Colombia Lay Down Arms, Kindling Peace Hopes,” November 26, 2003

[3] Human Rights Watch. Paramilitary Television Broadcast a “Travesty”, November 26, 2003.

[4] Penhaul, Karl. The Boston Globe “Colombian fighters aim at peace,”November 26, 2003.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Editorial. “In Colombia, a move in the right direction,” The Miami Herald, December 3, 2003

[7] “Joven paramilitary que se desmovilizara reconoce que seguira armado y en el narcotrafico,” El Teimpo, November 17, 2003.

[8] “No pagare un solo dia de carcel’, afirma Don Berna,” El Tiempo, November 29, 2003.

[9] Van Dongen, Rachel. “800 Fighters Surrender in Colombia,” The Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2003. colombia26nov26,1,687878.story?coll=la-headlines-world

[10] Acosta, Luis Jaime. “Paramilitary peace plan makes Colombians nervous,” MSNBC, November 27, 2003.

CIP in the Press