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Neither peace nor justice in Colombia

Isabel Hilton— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

THE COLOMBIAN Government has lobbied hard to win international respectability for a peace plan that human rights organisations believe will entrench the political and economic power of a mafia guilty of drug trafficking, extortion, and gross human rights abuses. The endorsement given by the European Union's Council of Ministers in October is counted as a major diplomatic victory.

The plan, enshrined in the Justice and Peace Law that was passed after fierce debate last June, is judged by several international organisations to be so flawed that it is unlikely to bring either justice or peace. The law has yet to be reviewed by Colombia's constitutional court and could be overturned, but that may be too late to slow the Government's rush to implement the plan.

Prolonged conflict

It purports to offer peace to a country racked by more than four decades of conflict, providing for the demobilisation of armed groups of Left and Right; but so far the major beneficiaries have been Colombia's far-right paramilitary forces, which the United States and EU consider — along with the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and National Liberation Army — to be terrorist organisations. The U.S. also recognises them as Colombia's major cocaine traffickers.

One "demobilised" paramilitary group has described it as "a farce ... a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from the other side." Another gunman admitted to involvement in the massacre of men, women, and children: "Sometimes you killed them with the machete because you didn't have anything else left." Now, he holds a certificate assuring him he has "no legal problems."

The plan will embed a criminal mafia that has enriched itself during 20 years of violence, financed by profits from cocaine and other illegal businesses. Last week the top two directors of Colombia's secret police were forced out as the Government investigated allegations, which the directors deny, that the agency was mounting an operation to sell intelligence and surveillance equipment to rightwing death squads. With generous help from the army and wealthy landowners, this mafia has seized great expanses of land for coca cultivation and boasts of its profits.

The terms of the law give virtual impunity to this mafia; its members are not required to confess, but a "voluntary statement" is generously rewarded. A judge has only 36 hours to decide on a prosecution, and even then sentences are light. In return, a trafficker can avoid extradition by pleading double jeopardy. He is then free to keep his stolen goods and run for Congress.

Even now the paramilitary mafia controls many communities, including much of the city of Medellin, and is wealthy enough to recruit new forces to replace those who have been reintegrated. The Government admits that drug traffickers now hold nearly 50 per cent of Colombia's best land and, under the plan, they will be able to enter society with their wealth, political power, and criminal networks intact.

The Government has ignored criticism of the law from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, several U.S. Senators, and many non-governmental organisations. The EU's own report acknowledges many of these concerns. The shocking thing is that it appears to have made little difference to its judgment.

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