In Colombia, a Dubious Disarmament

Residents of Barrancabermeja march to demand redress for victims of paramilitary violence.
Residents of Barrancabermeja march to demand redress for victims of paramilitary violence. (By Juan Forero -- The Washington Post)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia -- In the midst of a relentless conflict, Colombia's government and its ally, the Bush administration, are hailing the demobilization of 32,000 fighters from right-wing paramilitary groups -- a disarmament that authorities here say is larger than any of those that closed out Central America's civil wars in the 1990s.

But another, far more critical picture of the disarmament has emerged in recent months, drawn from the accounts of rights groups, victims of Colombia's murky, drug-fueled conflict, and even a report from the Attorney General's Office. Paramilitary commanders, according to these accounts, have killed hundreds of people in violation of a cease-fire, trafficked cocaine and stolen millions of dollars from state institutions they had infiltrated.

A handful of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also voiced concerns about the disarmament, which is partly funded by the United States.

"The demobilization process has been as much about avoiding justice and consolidating ill-gotten gains as it has been about disarming the paramilitaries," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the subcommittee on foreign operations. "The government needs to stop appeasing the leaders of these outlaw militias and listen more to their victims."

Critics acknowledge that the disarmament has yielded benefits. It has removed a loose confederation of paramilitary militias from a 42-year-old war, leaving the state facing one powerful Marxist rebel organization and a second, much weaker guerrilla group. It has also lowered Colombia's homicide rate, officials here say, and given President Alvaro Uribe's government leverage in its efforts to prod the guerrillas to the negotiating table.

Now, two months after the last paramilitary fighter laid down his weapon in a carefully choreographed ceremony, Colombian officials are pledging to conduct exhaustive investigations of paramilitary atrocities and launch trials of the militias' most bloodthirsty commanders. They say the proceedings will bring justice and recompense for thousands of families who lost relatives or land to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, AUC.

But in communities hit hard by paramilitary violence, including this grimy, oil-refining city in northern Colombia, victims are incredulous about the government's lofty claims. Once fearful that speaking out could get them killed, they are increasingly organized and assertive. And they are sharply criticizing a process that they say is tilted more toward whitewashing crimes than punishing perpetrators.

"The victims haven't had a voice," said Jaime Peña, whose son, Jaime Yesid, 16, was killed by paramilitaries during a 1998 massacre here. "How can there be reparations and reconciliation if we don't know the truth and if there isn't any justice?"

Across Colombia, victims and rights groups have been shaken by revelations in the press about paramilitary-related outrages, from wealthy commanders patronizing elegant stores in shopping malls to disclosures of paramilitary ties to Colombia's Congress.

In the latest scandal, one of the more powerful paramilitary commanders, Rodrigo Tovar, recruited peasants to play the part of paramilitary fighters in demobilization ceremonies, according to a 29-page internal investigative report by the Attorney General's Office. The report, based on records that were kept in Tovar's computer and that detailed crimes committed by his paramilitary unit, was first disclosed in El Tiempo, the country's leading newspaper.

According to its findings, a special bank account was set up to disburse money to unemployed peasants so they could "pass themselves off as militiamen, the more the better."

Tovar, the report continues, "gives instructions so that they are ready for demobilization day, that they know how to march, sing the hymn [of the AUC] and respond to prosecutors' questions." At the same time, Tovar ordered underlings to make sure some bands of fighters remain armed to guard "vulnerable zones."


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