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Can Uribe get paras to disarm?
Suzanne Timmons
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Uribe’s plan to demobilize paramilitary fighters raises concerns of rebel violence, impunity.

Colombia’s Catatumbo region has seen its share of violence in the country’s 40-year-old civil conflict. A coca-growing area in northwestern Norte de Santander department, a strategic trade route on the Venezuelan border, and home to a stretch of pipeline pumping Occidental Petroleum’s oil to port, Catatumbo has witnessed over the past six years a bloody power struggle between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Trapped amidst the battle for regional control, Catatumbo’s 176,000 inhabitants have been victim of kidnappings, massacres, disappearances, and displacement.

Now, Catatumbo and 10 other regions across Colombia will participate in President Alvaro Uribe’s peace efforts with the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella group formed to protect landowners and drug traffickers from rebel extortion and attack. AUC leaders have pledged that before the end of the year, 3,000 of their fighters belonging to 11 blocs will disband, hand over their weapons, and return to their home towns. Around half of the troops are expected to come from the AUC’s bloc in Catatumbo.

"If the State is able to control this indomitable area, it would be the best argument in favor of a demobilization scheme that has yet to demonstrate its merits," Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper said in an early November editorial. "That will require, in addition to military presence, the arrival of the State’s social side, perhaps the weakest flank in the whole scheme."

Fear of reprisal

Although the government has pledged it will guarantee the safety of local inhabitants post-demobilization, Catatumbo residents reportedly fear violent rebel reprisals when the paramilitary troops withdraw. Germán Espejo, researcher at security and foreign affairs organization Security and Democracy Foundation, said Catatumbo and other disputed regions are areas the rebels will seek to retake and control in the wake of demobilization.

Uribe even acknowledged that allaying residents’ fears was going to be a challenge. "People say to me, the paramilitaries are going to demobilize, and who will protect us; I’ve said that we can’t continue with the hope that the paramilitaries will protect us…," he told Radio Caracol Nov. 18, referring to Catacumbo, adding the military would step in to protect local inhabitants.

Over the years, the AUC has entrenched itself in the illicit drug trade, and Washington has requested the extradition of several top commanders on drug trafficking charges. The group is also responsible for many of Colombia’s heinous human rights abuses.

After declaring a cease-fire in December, 2002, as a condition to peace talks (LP, Dec. 16, 2002), paramilitaries have killed or forcibly disappeared more than 1,900 people nationwide, according to the Colombian Jurists Commission.

Dificult incorporation

Since the Nov. 3 launch of the demobilization process, AUC leaders have been drawing up a list of fighters who will gather for a few days in as-yet-undetermined areas to relinquish weapons, confirm they have not been charged with rights abuses and begin the process of returning to civilian life. Some 450 members of the AUC’s Bloque Bananero became the first bloc to begin the demobilization process on Nov. 25.

The Uribe administration will pay ex-fighters as much as US$140/month for up to two years as they complete the demobilization process. Some will be hired to pull up illicit drug crops in national parks and indigenous reserves. The government also hopes that companies will provide jobs for up to 40 percent of ex-fighters.

"The problem," says Espejo, "is how society is going to incorporate these people, if the private sector is really going to make a sacrifice and begin to give them work in their factories, in their companies." In last year’s effort to disarm 868 members of the Cacique Nutibara bloc in the city of Medellin (LP, Feb. 25, 2004), companies initially offered to hire just 180 ex-fighters, said a city official involved in that process. The jobs never materialized.

Cacique Nutibara underscores some of the obstacles to the process. Critics say that the group rounded up common criminals in a last-minute effort to flesh out their ranks and avoid a full demobilization. The bloc allegedly continues to operate in the city.

This year’s demobilization is the forerunner of an ambitious plan to disarm the AUC’s remaining 17,000 fighters by end-2005. Not all paramilitary factions, however, have agreed to disarm nationwide. Economic interests that have traditionally relied on paramilitary protection against rebel activity may pressure existing groups to stay in action, or promote the formation of new movements. The groups’ lucrative business ventures in drug trafficking and contraband, and their increasing political control in many regions, could discourage full demobilization.

Human rights organizations are also concerned about impunity. Although the government will pardon minor crimes, inadequate judicial controls and investigative procedures may allow demobilized fighters not yet charged to escape justice for rights abuses. Nor is it yet clear what punishment those guilty of human rights abuses will face.

The government plans to confine top commanders and others already charged with human rights abuses to special areas until Congress passes a reduced-sentencing law for demobilized fighters. However, that bill, expected to set prison terms of between five and 10 years and establish reparations for victims, has not yet been submitted for congressional debate. It is unlikely to be passed this year.

"There are a lot of concerns about…what happens with justice and the crimes (paramilitaries) committed," said Luis Eduardo Salcedo, spokesman of the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace.

Verification of the demobilization process will prove difficult, but necessary. But the Organization of American States’ team responsible for verifying the process lacks the technical, economic and human resources to effectively monitor the nationwide demobilizations, says Alvaro Villaraga, president of Colombian human rights organization Democratic Culture Foundation.

"In theory, the paramilitary demobilization is something positive but it is not occurring under the necessary conditions," said Villaraga, who helped negotiate in previous peace processes with Colombian rebels.


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