The Future of Colombia’s Paramilitary Death Squads


Born and raised in the slums of Medellín, Diego Fernando Murillo became known in the crime world as a ruthless killer. In 1992, he narrowly escaped Colombian authorities when his boss, Pablo Escobar, went into hiding. The resulting manhunt eventually killed Mr. Escobar but launched Diego Murillo’s career in the Colombian drug world. After switching alliances between various drug cartels, he has arrived at the top of the pyramid power structure of Colombia’s right wing paramilitary forces, known as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).

Mr. Murillo, now known by his alias “Adolfo Paz,” is among a group of AUC negotiators expecting to make an amnesty deal with the Colombian government as part of a peace process that began in December of 2002. Since the signing of the Santa Fe de Ralito Accord in July of 2003, the government has established a 115 square mile demilitarized zone in the department of Córdoba to negotiate with the AUC. Unfortunately for Mr. Paz, currently the AUC’s “inspector general,” he is one of ten AUC officials whose extradition has been ordered by the United States government. He and several of his colleagues are considered to be international “narco-terrorists” responsible for up to 40 percent of Colombia’s prolific trade in illicit drugs.

The current demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) process of thousands of soldiers fighting for Colombia’s notorious paramilitary forces is the latest attempt to gain traction since this peace process began. In 2004, some 2,624 soldiers agreed to turn in their weapons, subject themselves to judicial scrutiny, and enter job-training programs designed to reintegrate them into normal civilian life.1

Proponents for the current DDR program argue that it buoys hopes for peace and facilitates increased security since guns are delivered to the government for destruction. Soldiers stop fighting and contribute to the legal economy. They also argue that mustering the political will to engage the AUC and seriously talk about DDR reflects well upon the Colombian government. And if 20,000 AUC fighters are successfully removed from combat by December 2005, a stated goal, this process promises to eliminate one of the largest challenges to peace and prosperity in Colombia by next Christmas.2

Critics argue, however, that the DDR program in Colombia is feebly executed and holds unrealistic goals. Some see it to be little more than a poorly planned attempt to consolidate government popularity in an election year, while convincing the U.S. to provide more financial assistance at a critical juncture in the bilateral relationship between the two governments. President Álvaro Uribe has already achieved the first step in an effort to amend the Colombian constitution so that he may run for an unprecedented second term. Just months before his possible reelection in November of 2005, Plan Colombia will expire and give way to an undetermined future assistance package.

While the Bush administration would like to see Uribe reelected, a DDR process involving amnesty for internationally recognized terrorists will not have much support in Washington. Uribe, however, cannot expect to get far with AUC leaders without some promise of amnesty. Engaged in a risky venture, the Colombian president is playing the middle man between two parties that will not budge.

A win-win situation for both the government and the AUC would mean that Adolfo Paz, and other well-known drug lords like Salvatore Mancuso, get to retire with their ill-gotten wealth and security while having only traded in a small portion of their overall force, and President Uribe gains a second term. But the U.S. government is holding several wild cards close to its chest in the form of extradition requests. Things could get very complicated.


Challenges to the Demobilization Plan

Several major challenges persist. Here are a few of the biggest:

* The process faces a current funding shortfall. President Uribe’s DDR program as outlined means that even if $3.25 million comes from USAID through the 2005 Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI), total program costs far outweigh current resources. According to U.S. Ambassador William B. Wood, demobilizing 20,000 paramilitaries at $8,500 per soldier will total $170 million, or 52 times the USAID contribution.3 Furthermore, it is not clear how the Colombian government will be able to afford “severance” payments of U.S.$125 per soldier per month for the entire two year (transition) term as promised by government negotiators.

* Legal ambiguity saddles the demobilization process with doubt. As it currently stands, no legal framework exists for AUC soldiers who turn themselves in but cannot receive amnesty due to human rights violations or other outstanding arrest warrants. While current law provides amnesties for certain crimes and economic benefits for soldiers who have not been charged with serious offenses such as kidnappings and massacres, there are no legal requirements that demobilized soldiers must cooperate with authorities in investigations, turn over illegal assets or disclose information about the group’s structure, past crimes, and financial sources. Soldiers who manage to avoid detection, or are otherwise clean, are processed and receive amnesty. They are required to produce little more than identification to register in the program that will walk them back onto the legal side of Colombian life.

* Human rights groups in Colombia are concerned about impunity. According to Horacio Arango, the director of peace programs for the NGO CODHES, “The process should be based on the victim’s rights. Some argue that peace requires impunity. A peace process with impunity, however, results in the victims [civilians] paying twice. Built upon a foundation of destroyed lives and goods expropriated with bullets, a wall will be perversely constructed to protect the very perpetrators whose unacceptable crimes have been pardoned by this ongoing and sinister war.” Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, José Miguel Vivanco agrees, “[Demobilized soldiers] are not even required to confess their crimes,” he said, highlighting the omission of a possibly helpful truth commission component.

* Paramilitaries have shown wanton disregard for the ceasefire. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, as of August 2004, paramilitaries had killed or forced the disappearance of 1,899 people since declaring a ceasefire December 1, 2002.4

* Nobody wants to fund a volatile peace process of questionable legality. With several well-known drug traffickers recently becoming influential paramilitary “commandantes,” the credibility of this peace process has been called into question by the international community. Supporting a peace process that engages unreformed cartel leaders is not a high priority for most donors without vital interests at stake in the region.

* Demobilization could lead to the growth of insurgency while leaving the power of major paramilitary leaders virtually intact. Assuming the DDR process continues as planned, there exists great concern in Colombia regarding how to assure security throughout the country and particularly in insurgent zones. Established during the 1980s, Colombia’s paramilitary brigades have traditionally been associated with doing the Colombian Army’s dirty work fighting leftist rebel groups in the country’s remote rural areas. Without drastically increasing government presence and establishing stronger institutions across the country’s impoverished countryside, these areas, if left neglected, could become lawless breeding grounds for Colombia’s other insurgent groups.

* There is grave concern that the AUC has built-in troop redundancies and that many parallel units are not demobilizing. This argument suggests that AUC leaders are simply bargaining with extra soldiers perceived not essential to critical AUC functions. Furthermore, current disarmament is sketchy at best because no one knows how many weapons the AUC actually has inventoried. Weapons collected may be surplus. And there has been no talk of destroying the weapons. Destruction is a necessary component to any disarmament program as it assures an absolute reduction of illicit arms in circulation.

* Past demobilizations of AUC forces in Colombia have not been particularly successful. The In the final months of 2003 a small force of 868 paramilitary soldiers, based in Medellín, agreed to lay down their arms and re-integrate into society. A year later, just over 50 hold full-time jobs. Many are working again with the same criminal groups they left to help pull off the much-praised disarmament. The collected weapons were rusted, broken, and allegedly not even used by the AUC. This staged farce cost the government much political capital. Adolfo Paz was the paramilitary leader who orchestrated the whole process and it was his Nutibara Cacique Unit that staged the disarmament.

On the Ground: the Role of the OAS Mission in Colombia

Shortly after the demobilization of Adolfo Paz’s Cacique Nutibara Block in November of 2003, the Organization of American States (OAS) created a Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia. At the behest of policy makers in Bogotá and Washington, former Colombian President César Gaviria, as the head of the OAS, appointed Argentine delegate Sergio Caramagna to lead the mission. To the dismay of several OAS members, including Canada, Brazil and Mexico, the appointment appeared to be a political maneuver intended to bolster confidence in the DDR process and galvanize international support. While popular support for the process appears high-it is alleged that the DDR process enjoys an approval rating between 70 and 80 percent in Colombia-the OAS mission has many critics and faces an uncertain future.5

Officially, the OAS’ role as a third party in Colombia is to “verify” the demobilization process and ceasefire. While it does not mediate the DDR process nor facilitate dialogue between parties, the OAS has a place “at the table,” to monitor and observe agreements reached between AUC negotiators and the Colombian government.

Despite surveys which purport high approval for the DDR process at the national level, the OAS and the DDR process enjoy little support at the international level. Caramagna, as the Mission head and official cheerleader, has not hesitated to express his discontent with international donors.

“These are indispensable steps toward peace in Colombia. The international community should support it,” Caramagna told the Associated Press in December. “To this day the world has opposed this process, but it’s worth embracing.”6

Colombian journalist and sociologist Alfredo Molano sees things differently.

“The OAS’ role looks absolutely to be one of justification,” Molano stated in a recent interview from his home outside Bogotá.

“The OAS is the voice of the United States in Latin America,” continued Molano. “Caramagna is very passive. He totally accepts the government’s official version and is afraid to challenge it. This is not a role that allows one to have confidence in the process.”

Caramagna argues that it is easy to stand on the outside of this peace process and throw rocks at it, but the fact of the matter is that thousands of soldiers are turning over their guns and allowing themselves to be subjected to judicial scrutiny. More importantly, however, the OAS’ Head of Mission points to reduced levels of violence in municipalities where groups have demobilized.

One major point of contention so far has been the OAS’ reluctance to “verify” that the ceasefire-a condition set by the government for beginning the talks with the paramilitaries-is not being observed. So far, the OAS has failed to respond to a report by the Colombian Commission of Jurists indicating that paramilitary forces are responsible for several thousand forced disappearances and murders since declaring the ceasefire. The biggest obstacle for the OAS in the eyes of the international community is the impression that it is currently endorsing a process that will grant immunity to well-known narco-terrorists and human rights abusers.

“The debate is whether we’re going to have a process that will be based on the principle of ”forgive and forget,” or one based on truth, justice, and reparations,” said historian Daniel García-Peña, head of the NGO Planeta Paz and Colombia’s high peace commissioner from 1995-1998.7

“When the OAS’ verification process began, I was hopeful that it could be a step toward eliminating paramilitarism. . . but to really verify a peace process, at some point you must be critical.”

If Caramagna’s verification mission is to be successful, he needs both the U.S. and the EU to get on board, providing political and financial resources. The problem, however, is that no one wants to board a hijacked peace process. European aid will clearly be conditioned on peace talks taking place within a much more stringent legal framework-one that requires adherence to international human rights standards.8 The U.S. government will need much stronger reassurances that paramilitary forces are actually demobilizing and, more importantly, that internationally recognized drug traffickers/terrorists are not slipping through their extradition requests.


International Considerations and Prospects for Peace in Colombia

The international court has moved along. It now has higher expectations for justice and human rights than it did a decade ago. Drug bosses in Colombia will never again receive the same leniency afforded to Pablo Escobar, whose imprisonment in “La Catedral,” virtually a private five-star hotel, is regarded as being one of the most brazen judicial stunts of all time.9 Escobar’s former hitman, Adolfo Paz, wants to avoid extradition and retire with amnesty and his wealth intact. He will find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this goal.

Many critics argue that the proceedings in Santa Fe de Ralito do not constitute a peace process because the government and the AUC are not fighting against each other.10 What differentiates paramilitary groups from other armed actors is their relationship with the state.11 According to some, paramilitarism is an example of the state condoning blatant acts of terrorism. For others, the rise of the paramilitaries is a justified response to the guerilla-induced violence that has characterized Colombia’s forgotten rural areas for years. In either case, whether through action or omission, the state’s role in paramilitarism is of paramount concern.12

The current effort to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate paramilitary soldiers is a bold gesture and a measure of clever political maneuvering. In the short-term, there has been a small measure of success. In the long term, however, many questions remain. To gain legitimacy and seek truth, this process needs the support of Colombian civil society and the international community. The far reaching implications of this dispute must be subject to a broad, inclusive, and open public debate. Anything else is unacceptable.

Samuel Logan is a journalist in Rio de Janeiro and a frequent contributor to the IRC’s Americas Program.

John Myers is a freelance journalist who covers security, energy, and the environment. He reports from Bogotá.



1. “La Hora de la Verdad,” Cambio (Bogota: January 20, 2005).

2. Ibid.

3. Isacson, “Paramilitary Talks (6): Extradition and the U.S. Role,” December, 2004. 4. Comisisión Colombiana de Juristas, “En Contravía de las Recomendaciones Internacionales, Seguridad Democrática, Derechos Humanos, y Derecho Humanitario en Colombia: Agosto de 2004,“December 9, 2004. p.18

5. Associated Press “OAS Reproaches U.S., EU Over Colombia” Margarita Martines, (Bogota: December 2, 2004).

6. Associated Press “OAS Reproaches U.S., EU Over Colombia” Margarita Martines, (Bogota: December 2, 2004).

7. Constanza Vieira, Inter Press Service News Agency, “NGOs Question OAS Role in Paramilitary Demobilisation,” (Bogota: December 21, 2004).

8. There are currently competing proposals on the table. If the “Pardo legislation,” which includes a more robust legal framework than the Uribe administration’s proposal, is passed, (which still looks to be months away), the EU may be willing to put some resources toward this negotiation. Uribe will have presented a draft of the government’s latest proposal at the donor’s conference in Cartagena, February 3rd and 4th, 2005.

9. La Catedral de Envigado was the name given to the “maximum security” prison Escobar built for himself outside Medellín during his alleged imprisonment in 1991 and 1992. Most accounts of the prison indicate that it resembled a five star hotel. Escobar was allowed to receive visitors and occasionally permitted to leave to attend soccer games. Ironically, it was Colombian President Cesar Gaviria who made the decision which allowed Escobar to “serve time” at La Catedral as opposed to being extradited to the United States.

10. Human Rights Watch, “Letting Paramilitaries off the Hook,” January, 2005.

11. Daniel García-Peña Jaramillo, “La relación del Estado colombiano con el fenómeno paramilitar: por el esclarecimiento histórico.” (Bogota October 4, 2004).

12. Ibid.