Colombian Congress Approves Controversial Bill to Revive Peace Talks

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe described the “Justice and Peace” bill, approved Tuesday after weeks of debate, as the legal framework for the demobilization for Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

The measure allows paramilitary commanders, including those accused of war crimes and drug trafficking, to serve reduced jail terms of up to 8 years in return for accepting the charges against them and for participating in peace talks, but does not require senior leaders to ensure that their troops fully disarm.

The law requires full confession of crimes and a total disbanding of paramilitary operations before demobilized fighters can get government benefits, Lower House Representative Roberto Camacho told Bloomberg.

Uribe had strengthened the bill after American officials expressed concern that the bill did not require commanders to confess to any crimes or reveal any information about their organization’s activities. Despite the toughened language, the law angered some in the United States for shielding the paramilitary commanders from extradition on drug charges by allowing them to confess to trafficking, giving them double-jeopardy protection.

The bill does, however, ban AUC commanders of seeking political office and carrying weapons for at least two years.

International officials and even some Colombian lawmakers have criticized the measure, saying it is too soft on an organization responsible for human rights abuses, war atrocities and narcotrafficking.

“Uribe gave the paramilitaries what they wanted from day one: protection from extradition.” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, said.

The U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Louise Arbour in late May 2005 said the AUC had violated the self imposed cease fire and of continuing to traffick cocaine to the United States.

“[W]ithout a full and credible account of their (armed illegal groups’) activities, the public can have no confidence that illegal armed groups have been effectively dismantled,” she said.

But Uribe has said the bill represents a milestone in his administration’s peace negotiations with the 15,000-strong paramilitary group, which originated two decades ago as private militias hired to protect wealthy land owners and drug barons.

The AUC, classified by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombian history in its primary goal to eliminate the left wing FARC guerrillas and has helped finance its rightwing agenda and paramilitary organization through kidnapping, extortion and, especially, the drug business.

One of the more controversial provisions of the amnesty bill is the reclassification of paramilitarism and its related illicit activities as “political,” not criminal. This reclassification effectively protects AUC commanders from facing long jail sentences or being extradited to the United States, which has issued arrest warrants for at least 10 commanders on terrorism and narcotrafficking charges.

The provision originated from the government’s 2002 peace negotiations with the AUC, which reportedly threatened to walk away from talks unless the Uribe administration offered the incentive to prevent extradition of AUC troops to the United States.

These negotiations started when Colombia’s newly appointed peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, initiated contact with the AUC in 2002. By 2004, Restrepo persuaded the AUC to agree to the “Santa Fe de Ralito accord” in which the government would suspend arrest warrants in the AUC’s northwestern safe haven of Santa Fe de Ralito and protect AUC leaders from extradition to the United States. In return, the AUC declared a self imposed cease fire and reiterated its commitment to a full demobilization by the end of 2005.

By March 2005, more than 4,600 AUC members had demobilized, but significant issues, namely prison terms and extradition to the United States, continued to pose a challenge to a full demobilization by the AUC, Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2005.

The government’s commitment to the 2004 Santa Fe de Ralito peace accord was tested by the case of AUC chief Diego Murillo, known as “Don Berna”. Murillo, considered one of the most violent warlords, surrendered to Colombian authorities May 27, 2005 to face charges he ordered the assassination of a Colombian lawmaker on April 10 near Santa Fe de Ralito. The AUC threatened to pull out of the peace talks if the government prosecuted Murillo for murder and if their demands outlined in the peace accord were not met.

But Murillo’s role as a peace negotiator for the AUC granted him immunity from facing jail time in Colombia and being sent to the United States, which indicted him on cocaine trafficking charges last year and formally requested his extradition on June 9, 2005.

Instead, Colombian authorities are holding Murillo on a ranch in northern Colombia, as part of the provisions in the government’s peace negotiations. And Colombia’s Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt has said all legal proceedings against Murillo would be suspended as long as he remains in peace talks.

The amnesty provision — and the government’s lenient treatment of Murillo — sparked an outcry from some Colombian legislators, U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups, who complain that the government’s peace incentives and the bill would unjustly give better treatment to AUC commanders than other murderers, terrorists and drug traffickers — even when many paramilitaries are allegedly involved in those crimes.

“What this shows is what we’ve kept saying, that this process is a defeat for the government. … What Berna gets is no extradition and the same benefits that he would have received had he not just assassinated someone,” Sen. Wilson Borja was quoted as saying in a June 2 New York Times article.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said if Murillo was given a reduced sentence, the “demobilization process will lose all credibility.”

“The bill is a complete giveaway to paramilitary commanders,” Vivanco said in a May 31 statement. “If the government allows Murillo to demobilize under the terms of this bill, it will be letting him get away with murder.”

Under the terms of the legislation, Murillo would face a short jail term in Colombia and would likely be protected from extradition to the United States.

“The only reason these (paramilitary) groups are today interested in demobilizing is because of (the threat of) extradition,” Vivanco said.

U.S. lawmakers are also up in arms over the bill. A bipartisan group of senators sent letters to Uribe expressing concerns that the paramilitaries, if exempted from adequate punishment by Colombian courts, would continue to function and that the legislation did nothing to dismantle the paramilitary’s “narcoterrorist” structures.

“Not only Colombia’s future is at stake, but also the future of peace and security throughout the region,” Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned in his letter.

The senators also warned that the bill and the government’s negotiations with the AUC could hurt the United States’ ongoing assistance and collaboration with Colombia in its fight against drugs and terrorism.

Despite such concerns, the U.S. government provided roughly $1.75 million in 2004 to help in the demobilization effort of the AUC and to aid the peace process, Roger Noriega, the assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, told the House International Relations Committee on May 11, 2005. In total, the U.S. government has given more than $3 billion in mostly military aid since 2000.

While the Uribe administration was hammering out a peace deal with the AUC, the Colombian president came under pressure to initiate a similar outreach to the left-wing Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, or National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN.

During the administration of former President Andres Pastrana, the ELN and government representatives held talks in Havana, Cuba for several months in 2002. The government initially offered the ELN a 1,860 square-mile demilitarized zone in northern Colombia, the reported location of the ELN’s central command, but Pastrana’s government terminated talks with the ELN in early June, saying the guerrillas were not committed to the objectives of their peace agreement.

In the spring of 2004, Restrepo re-initiated the peace process, but more than a year later, both sides are still having trouble deciding where to hold peace talks and who should act as a mediator.

Mexico had served as an intermediary during the exploratory phase of the peace process, but ELN leaders want assistance from Brazil, Venezuela and Spain in ending the group’s 40-year war against the state. The Uribe administration proposed that Mexico continue to mediate the talks, which ELN leaders rejected, pointing to Mexico’s harsh condemnation of Cuba for human rights abuses.

Other stumbling blocks to the peace process include ELN leaders pushing Uribe to free ELN prisoners from Colombian jails and negotiate a bilateral cease-fire agreement, but Uribe insisting the ELN must disarm unilaterally if talks are to continue.

And even while working to launch the peace negotiations, Colombian authorities captured two of ELN’s alleged leaders, Jose Luis Mejia and Jose del Carmen Borda in late April 2005.

Meanwhile, the 3,5000-strong ELN has been losing members as dozens of guerrillas say they’ve lost the will to fight for the ELN’s cause and have surrendered their weapons, according to reports in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper.

Once the guerrillas turn over their arms to Colombian authorities, they enter the government’s program to reincorporate them into civic life, which has accrued roughly 12,000 former paramilitary members and guerrillas over the past two years.

The $85 million-a-year “reintegration program,” which began in 2002 after Uribe’s inauguration, represents a key feature of the government’s efforts to end the country’s civil conflict by providing ex-fighters with a modest monthly stipend for up to 21 months, job training or sending them to school to earn high school diplomas.

The “reformed fighters” must live in group homes run by the Defense Ministry for about three months and, in return, many must help the Colombian military and police with information about their former group’s hideouts and plans, as well as engage in combat, according to El Tiempo.

Negotiations with “las Fuerzas,” or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, broke down following the hijacking of a domestic plane and the kidnapping of the president of the Senate’s Peace Commission on Feb. 20, 2002. Pastrana immediately announced the termination of talks and their demilitarized “safe zone” around their historic stronghold in southern Colombia.

Fighting between the Colombian military and the FARC has intensified of late. Shortly after the peace talks collapsed in 2002, the FARC’s 13,000 troops renewed their campaign to topple the state. Most notably, the left-wing guerrilla group in late May opened fire and slaughtered five town council members in the province of Caqueta, a traditional FARC stronghold.

The FARC in 2005 unsuccessfully proposed a prisoner exchange with the United States, offering to trade three U.S. Defense Department contractors kidnapped in February 2003 after their plane crashed in the jungle for senior FARC commander Ricardo Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad, who has been in U.S. custody since December 2004 on charges that include terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering.

Uribe had agreed to extradite Trinidad, who was captured in January 2004, only after the FARC had ignored his offer to release 63 hostages, including politicians, government troops, U.S. contractors and a German businessman.

The United States, which first classified the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997, flatly rejected the proposal on the grounds that it is “against U.S. policy to make concessions to terrorists” and reiterated its demand that the guerrillas release the three hostages, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves.