Research: Publications

Peace - or "Paramilitarization?"

July 4, 2005 | Report

By Adam Isacson

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At first glance, a negotiation between Colombia’s government and right-wing paramilitary groups looks easy and uncomplicated. The South American country’s paramilitary blocs (or “self-defense forces”) have always claimed to support the government. In particular, they claim to be ardent supporters of Colombia’s right-of-center president, Álvaro Uribe, who served as governor of a state where they are strong, and who owns land in zones under their total control.1

The Colombian military itself helped to found the groups over twenty years ago, as part of a brutal strategy to undermine, through systematic attacks on civilian populations, the leftist guerrillas that have dominated much of rural Colombia since the mid-1960s. Though declared illegal in 1989, the paramilitaries – loosely confederated in a 20,000-strong national organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) – continue to benefit all too frequently from military logistical support, advice, or toleration.

Even though their declared mission of defeating the FARC and ELN guerrillas is far from accomplished, in 2002 the AUC decided to consider going out of business. Its leaders were quick to accept President Uribe’s offer to negotiate their demobilization in exchange for a unilateral cease-fire. Uribe took office in August 2002; most paramilitary groups declared a cease-fire in December of that year. Though that cease-fire has been routinely violated – the Colombian government acknowledges 492 paramilitary killings, and non-governmental human rights groups claim thousands more – the talks have continued for over thirty months.2

Nonetheless, what many critics call a “negotiation between friends” has turned out to be far from easy. While both sides at the negotiating table may share an interest in a quick process that forgives most crimes and names few names, the same cannot be said of other stakeholders like victims’ groups, powerful members of Colombia’s Congress, and most international donor governments.

Though they have no seats at the table, these sectors reject any deal that amnesties paramilitary leaders responsible for countless massacres and extrajudicial killings over the past twenty years. Many worry that the negotiations may help some of the country’s most notorious drug traffickers avoid punishment and keep most of their ill-gotten gains, including millions of acres of prime land taken by force. While failure to punish abuses or to right past wrongs risks prolonging Colombia’s generations-old cycle of violence, critics also point out that a weak agreement will leave paramilitary command and support networks in place, allowing the groups to continue to exist in some other form.

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