The Colombian government is in negotiations with the paramilitaries, facilitated by the Catholic Church. The precondition for negotiations was put by President Alvaro Uribe Velez: “there must be a promise that not a single Colombian more will be killed.” Uribe said that on November 25, 2002. There were assassinations on November 23 (unionist Jairo Vera Arias, 36 years old, killed in a motorcycle hit in Bucaramanga) and November 21 (community leader Arnulfo Salamanca Moreno, shot by several paramiliataries in Duitama, Boyaca), but at the time of this writing it isn’t clear whether or not the paramilitaries have met the precondition. If they haven’t killed anyone in two days, it will represent a change.
More difficult to understand is what this change really means for Colombia. The most unusual thing about the negotiation with the paramilitaries is that the army and paramilitaries are inextricably linked (there is plenty of evidence of this, from Human Rights Watch to the United Nations through to statements from the US State Department). The paramilitaries provide plausible deniability in Colombia’s dirty war against social movements and the guerrillas. And by ‘pacifying’ whole regions, displacing hundreds of thousands through massacres from resource-rich lands (over two million displaced so far), and destroying unions by killing unionists (about 150 this year), they have done their job very well. The Colombian government meanwhile can present itself as a harried, overwhelmed institution trying to deal with illegal armed groups on the left and the right, even as it helps the right destroy social movements-all with help from the United States. Given such a mutually beneficial arrangement, it is hard to see why either party would want to change it.
But in spite of these services rendered, it is clear that both the United States and Colombia do want a new relationship with the paramilitaries. Several months ago the US indicted Carlos Castano, the leader of Colombia’s national paramilitary organization, Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas (AUC), and is seeking his extradition. As head of the AUC, Castano could be charged with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of mass murder, crimes against humanity. The US is indicting him for drug trafficking.
The US has been flexing its muscles with Colombia in other ways. In addition to Castano, the US Justice Department indicted Jorge Briceno Suarez, one of the leaders of the FARC (Colombia’s largest guerrilla group), on kidnapping and drug-trafficking charges, taking away from the Colombian government its chance of negotiating independently with the guerrillas. When Colombia planned to purchase 24 Brazilian Embrauer Super Tucano EMB-314 light-attack aircraft for $234 million, General James T. Hill of US Southern Command warned Colombia that this could hurt Colombia’s chances of getting more US funding for its anti-guerrilla effort and suggested that the money instead be spent on upgrading Colombia’s existing US-made fleet.
One of President Uribe’s first announced initiatives was a network of ‘civilian informers’, who many believe will consist of former paramilitaries. Colombian sociologist and writer Alfredo Molano believes that the intent of these new moves is to push Colombia towards a more open war:
‘The network of informers [planned by Uribe] can serve to reintegrate [the paramilitaries], and the ‘special military zones’ [established by Uribe], or theatres of war, or ‘special public order zones’, can be used to return the monopoly of terror to institutional hands. What will happen in these zones will only be known by the victims, because travel in and out of them will be denied to foreign journalists, human rights workers, or anyone who isn’t controlled by the government. In these zones impunity will take its measure of blood and the country will never knowâ€¦
Castano’s extradition-if it ever happens-is the missing link. A man with so much information is dangerous. Too dangerous (and his allies would have known it, from one look into those crazy eyes). His crimes don’t matter: narcotrafficking trumps massacres. The government will find a judicial formula that will allow it to wash its hands, keep its secrets locked away in a maximum security prison in the US, and pass the negotiations with the guerrillas over to the USA.’
Perhaps this is the strategy: bring the foot soldiers of the paramilitaries to work in ‘civilian intelligence'; send one or two of the most public, problem leaders away to the US; and put the work of repression back into the hands of the army, police, and judicial system. The next unionists or community leaders to die will perhaps be labeled, instead of innocents who died at the hands of uncontrollable ‘illegal self-defense groups’ (as the government calls the paramilitaries),’guerrilla suspects’ who die in ‘confrontations with the army’ or ‘shootouts with police’.
Over ten years ago, Pablo Escobar, who unleashed some of the first drug-financed right-wing assassins on Colombians, negotiated a ‘surrender’ with the Colombian government. He was ‘locked up’ in a prison camp of his own design, with his bodyguards and employees living with him, from which he came and went as he pleased, entertained guests, and conducted his business. He had two members of his cartel brought to this prison, tortured, and killed. Some time after that, he ‘escaped’ from prison. Escobar– like Castano– did the work of killing leftists, journalists, and politicians well, but-like Castano-he was a little too flashy, a little too vocal, he overstepped the bounds and had to ‘surrender’. Like Escobar’s surrender all those years ago, and the ‘negotiations’ with the drug cartels that followed, the Uribe government’s ‘negotiations’ with the AUC are not going to be allowed to stand in the way of the all-important tasks of killing unionists, displacing peasants, and preventing peace with the guerrilla movement. Those tasks are ordered from the US, and it is unlikely that they will stop until the US changes its orders.
Justin Podur maintains ZNet Colombia Watch