Op-Ed

What President Bush Needs to Ask President Uribe

Vanda Felbab-Brown

On his visit to Colombia, rewarding President Álvaro Uribe for his compliance with the U.S. war on drugs and for being a staunch U.S. supporter in an otherwise antagonized Latin America, President Bush should raise some tough questions about the demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitaries. He should also stress the need for a more complete—geographic and functional—extension of the Colombian state.

Following his election in 2002, President Uribe negotiated the disarmament of the rightist paramilitary groups that by then had become a major independent force, taking over territory, fighting the leftist guerrillas (the FARC and the ELN), trafficking in drugs, and engaging in wholesale massacres and intimidation of the population. The paramilitaries originated as private defense militias of cattle ranchers and landowners against the guerrillas as far back as the 1960s and as bodyguards of the drug lords of the 1980s. Under the leadership of Carlos Castaño during the 1990s, they coalesced under an umbrella organization and vastly grew in number.

But ironically, an impetus for the paramilitaries’ expansion and growth in power was the destruction of the Medellín and Cali drug cartels in the mid-1990s. The fragmented boutique drug cartels left in the wake of law enforcement successes against the large cartels were vulnerable to the paramilitaries takeover and also in need of the paramilitaries’ protection. From the drug traffickers’ perspective, the relationship with the paramilitaries was easier than with the leftist guerrillas. Moreover, the paramilitary units battling the leftist guerrillas were frequently tolerated by the military, once again an advantageous situation for the traffickers. In the late 1990s, many more or less independent drug traffickers bought themselves positions of power in the paramilitary umbrella organization to cloak themselves with political legitimacy.

Facing extradition charges on drug trafficking counts to the United States, the paramilitaries took up President Uribe offer of leniency: no extradition to the United States, no more than eight years in prison, and the seizure of their assets proven to have been acquired illegally in exchange for demobilizing their units, handing over their weapons, and ending their drug trafficking ventures. In fact, as of now, over 30,000 have officially demobilized and over 50 of the top commanders are in prison in Itagüí. Massacres against the population have decreased dramatically as the paramilitaries’ role in the conflict decreased. These are important accomplishments.

Still, despite the seeming success, there are tough questions to be asked about the demobilization of the paramilitaries. In principle, there is nothing wrong with leniency and amnesty and, in fact, this method has been an important part of ending violence and civil wars in many places—in Italy during the era of the Red Brigades, in Malaya during the 1960s, and in Peru’s struggle against the Shining Path during the 1990s, to name just a few. Colombia itself has a long history of negotiating with both rebels and criminals, although the success rate there is much lower. Many of the leftist guerrillas who demobilized under an amnesty scheme during the 1980s and formed a political party were gunned down by the paramilitaries, deterring others from negotiations since. Colombia’s negotiations with key drug traffickers, such as Pablo Escobar, put some of them for a while in jail, but they continued running their smuggling operations from there, and the deal ultimately broke down.

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Issues of justice aside, major questions remain about the efficacy of the process. There is increasing evidence that many of the demobilized paramilitaries continue to operate para-state structures, intimidate the population, and engage in criminal activities, including drug trafficking. They may not be walking around in uniforms and with an AK-47s anymore and instead carry silencers on their Rugers, but they maintain a strong and frequently violent grip on large parts of Colombia, such as the Atlantic Coast and parts of Medellín. New paramilitary groups are emerging and continuing to battle the leftist guerrillas over drugs and territory. The paramilitaries also continue to influence the political process through violently intimidating, killing and buying off opposition at the local and regional level. Over the past months, the Uribe government has been rocked by revelations of the paramilitary alliances with his top political supporters and members of congress. Even a less visible paramilitary presence will continue to undermine any future negotiations with the guerrillas, expose the critical weakness of the Colombian state, and ultimately delegitimize it.

President Bush should demand a full disclosure of the connections between the paramilitaries and Colombia’s politicians, not simply at the national level, but also at the local and regional level where ultimately the connection between the population and the state is made and where legitimacy and authority of the state is created. He also needs to demand that the police that President Uribe placed throughout the country in fact protect the population and challenge the resurgent paramilitaries instead of guarding each other. Finally, a major effort must be given to reintegration of the demobilized paramilitaries in Colombian society, so that they do not again end up as criminals and para-fighters.