Events

The Peace Process in Colombia with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-AUC

June 28, 2004 // 11:00am5:30pm

Director's Forum Summary
Ambassador Wood began by setting out the basis for U.S. support of a peace process in Colombia. Rejecting the notion of "peace at any price," he said that U.S. support would depend on whether the peace process 1) had a good chance of ending conflict with a particular faction; 2) would reinforce democracy, justice, and the rule of law; 3) would reduce narcotics trafficking; and 4) would lay the foundation for long-term peace, social equity, and development. Given the strength of Colombian democracy and the legitimacy of its government, Ambassador Wood argued that the United States should defer to the country's democratic processes in determining how to achieve peace. National reconciliation, he said, is "first and foremost up to the Colombians."

Ambassador Wood called Carlos Castaño, historic leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), a "drug trafficker, terrorist, and fugitive from U.S. justice," arguing that since Castaño's disappearance in April, the leadership of the AUC was increasingly "in the hands of long-term narcotraffickers without even the veneer of a historical political agenda." Nonetheless, Wood welcomed the mid-June re-opening of peace talks with the paramilitaries, following an agreement in which they pledged to concentrate senior AUC leaders in a zone subject to verification by the Organization of American States. Wood rejected out of hand an AUC request to have a U.S. presence at the peace talks, reiterating U.S. insistence on the extradition of Colombians indicted in the United States and on the need to bring gross violators of human rights and major drug traffickers to trial.

Wood expressed support for a nascent peace process brokered by the Mexican government with the People's Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación, or ELN), provided the ELN met President Uribe's pre-condition for a unilateral cease-fire. He indicated that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) had "never come close" to accepting a unilateral cease-fire, and criticized the FARC's posture in talks to prepare an initial meeting with the United Nations.

Wood described in detail the government's draft Law of Justice and Compensation, saying that it had been toughened substantially in response to domestic and international criticism. According to Wood, the revised draft was "generally" acceptable to the United States, European governments, and the United Nations. He said that the U.S. government was studying the policy, budgetary, and legal implications of U.S. assistance for AUC concentration, demobilization, and reinsertion, and described financial difficulties complicating the work of the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process.

Wood concluded that finding a balance between peace and justice meant that "neither goal will be served perfectly." He described the paramilitary movement as consisting of numerous groups, from child soldiers and campesinos to the "hardest-core, most cynical, most cruel drug lords on the face of the earth." The "horribly mixed profile" of the paramilitaries, a characteristic the AUC shared with other armed groups, created great uncertainty, and meant that not all factions could plausibly be expected to negotiate in good faith.

The text of Ambassador Wood's complete address appears in the See Also box to the right of this screen. Video of Ambassador Wood's presentation and the following panel discussions are also available.

Panel Discussion Summary
Ambassador Wood called Carlos Castaño, historic leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), a "drug trafficker, terrorist, and fugitive from U.S. justice," arguing that since Castaño's disappearance in April, the leadership of the AUC was increasingly "in the hands of long-term narcotraffickers without even the veneer of a historical political agenda." Nonetheless, Wood welcomed the mid-June 2004 re-opening of peace talks with the paramilitaries, in a zone subject to verification by the Organization of American States. Wood rejected out of hand an AUC request to have a U.S. presence at the peace talks, reiterating U.S. insistence on the extradition of Colombians indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges. Wood stressed that finding a balance between peace and justice meant that "neither goal will be served perfectly." He said that the AUC included some of the "hardest-core, most cynical, most cruel drug lords on the face of the earth," a mixed profile that the AUC shared with other armed groups.

Carlos Franco emphasized the important role of paramilitary groups in regional economies as well as in narcotrafficking, noting that the size of paramilitary forces had diminished 10 percent per year under the Uribe administration, after having grown 54 percent in the previous eight years. He said that many in the country did not have confidence in the state's ability to provide security in the event of an eventual demobilization of paramilitary groups, but that the only legitimate and valid security was that provided by state forces.

Congresswoman Rocío Arias, sponsor of legislation to suspend extradition requests for those who demobilize as part of a peace process, called extradition an obstacle to peace. More than forty years of violence and conflict would not end, she said, if all that awaited combatants of left- and right-wing forces was prison time in the United States.

Senator Rafael Pardo, a key figure in the congressional and public debates over the government's proposed Alternative Penalties Law, said that a revised draft of the law was a substantial improvement over the original version, in that the reformed proposal established minimum sentences as well as actual and symbolic reparations to victims. Pardo criticized numerous aspects of the negotiations with the paramilitaries, noting repeated violations of the cease-fire declared in December 2002 and the lack of a government policy to provide security in zones dominated by paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, he said, there was no discernible policy to address the political and economic dimensions of paramilitary power. The aim of the negotiations, he said, should be to end paramilitarism, not recycle its leaders in a way that could lead to worse forms of violence.

Gustavo Villegas provided a detailed profile of the 868 members of the paramilitary "Bloque Cacique Nutibara" that demobilized in Medellín in November 2003. He said that the vast majority of individuals were between the ages of 18 and 25, and that close to forty percent had previously been involved in criminal activities. Most demobilized to rejoin their families, change their lifestyle, or receive benefits offered by the government. Of the 868 who demobilized, almost 90 percent had paid employment providing municipal services or serving as community promoters. As a result of municipal and national assistance programs, Villegas reported that crime rates in Medellín's most dangerous neighborhoods had fallen dramatically in the early months of 2004.

Michael Beaulieu, liaison between the OAS Secretary-General and the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, outlined the various steps in the organization's decision to participate in verifying the cease-fire, demobilization, and reintegration of AUC fighters. The January 2004 resolution establishing the OAS mission contains a broad mandate to support negotiations with guerrilla groups as well, should they go forward and the Colombian government request assistance. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, is mandated to provide advice to the mission on human rights issues. Beaulieu emphasized funding concerns, noting that six regional OAS offices had only one to two staff persons. The OAS could not turn its back on a member state when it asked for help, he said, and involvement by the international community in Colombia could help reduce narcotrafficking and human rights violations.

Daniel García-Peña questioned whether the purpose of the peace talks with the AUC was to end paramilitarism or to demobilize specific combatants, characterizing the groups as reflecting the use of violence by those in power to retain power. The paramilitaries' social base, he said, owed much to the guerrilla tactic of kidnapping; nonetheless, state responsibility for the existence of paramilitary groups had to be acknowledged and addressed. Historically, he said, there was little evidence of a "war" against the paramilitaries, leading some to reject the notion of a "peace process" centered on a political agenda. Given the history and practices of the paramilitaries, both the international community and Colombian civil society have been reluctant to become involved in the talks with the AUC. However, the congressional hearings on the Alternative Penalties Law represented an important opening in the public debate. Meanwhile, according to García-Peña, the political conditions favoring a peace process with the ELN were unprecedented. He cited President Uribe's high levels of popular support, the armed forces' regaining of the military initiative, and the military's seizing of the banner of counterinsurgency from the AUC.

Michael Frühling argued that ending impunity, particularly for cases involving crimes against humanity, was critical to overcoming the armed conflict, and that allowing impunity for serious human rights crimes would only promote more crime. Insisting that the peace negotiations needed structure and content, he said that questions of human rights and international humanitarian law should be prominent in the negotiating agendas with all armed groups. Moreover, victims' rights to truth, justice, and reparations had to be honored. He argued for a "decontamination" of the Colombian state, emphasizing that severing the links between paramilitary groups and public officials was the stated policy of the Colombian government. The international community, he said, should support Colombia in this and other efforts to improve human rights, including by lending support to the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

José Miguel Vivanco welcomed OAS involvement in the peace process with the AUC, but cautioned that to remain credible, the OAS mission must protect its independence and resist identifying with any of the actors in the process. International and financial support for OAS involvement in the peace talks should be conditioned on its preserving independence and on raising the human rights standards of the negotiations. Vivanco underscored that ensuring accountability for human rights abuses implies proportionality between the crime and the resulting sentence. He said that the revised Alternative Penalties law was too lenient with respect to such issues as jail time and the return of illegally-acquired assets, and concentrated too much power in the hands of the president. While extradition was only one tool in the effort to secure justice, in the Colombian case the threat of extradition to the United States constituted the only leverage in the process with the AUC, in that it was widely feared by paramilitary leaders.

 

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