The news of peace negotiations have received an overwhelmingly positive response, both among Colombian political forces and in the international community. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, at a press conference on August 28, said it welcomes “any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia”. A similar statement was issuedby U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, through spokesperson Martin Nesirky.
However, not surprisingly, the news also met with dark clouds. Loud voices condemning the efforts were raised by sectors of the far-right, among them, former president Alvaro Uribe. Uribe claimed that there is no room for negotiation with terrorist and drug-traffickers. Uribe’s camp is Former president Álvaro Urbie and Mauricio Santoyogoing through an embarrassing period, with the falling of two generals very dear to them. General Mauricio Santoyo, who was Uribe’s chief of security, accepted charges of actively collaborating with the paramilitaries while serving as Uribe’s chief security. General Rito Alejo del Río was sentenced to 25 years of prison for the brutal killing of Afro-Colombian leader Marino Lopez Mena by paramilitary forces in 1997. The paramilitary forces decapitated Lopez Mena and played soccer with his head. Both generals have been questioned for decades, and nevertheless received awards and tributes from Alvaro Uribe.
Almost absent in the peace negotiations discussion have been the paramilitary structures, still active and present in Colombia. This phenomenon could be explained, in part, by the Colombian government’s and international community’s refusal to recognize that the demobilization of paramilitaries undertaken by President Uribe in his first term failed. These groups are now referred as “criminal organizations.”
Earlier this month, FOR issued an urgent action alert in response to the increased paramilitary action and presence in several settlements of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó — a reminder of the death-squads’ reign in the mid-1990s. Hundreds of men armed with automatic Peace Community pledge not to carry armsrifles and dressed in camouflage uniforms have been patrolling and sowing terror in an area tightly controlled by the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade. These death squads burned down Reinaldo Areiza’s house and made death threats to Germán Graciano. Both Areiza and Graciano have been leaders of the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community.
Peace in the Colombian armed conflict cannot be reached without dismantling these paramilitary structures, severing the ties between them and Colombian public officials, including sectors of armed forces, and holding them accountable for their crimes. Generals Del Rio and Santoyo must cease to be the exception to the rule of impunity.
This is important for many reasons, among them, so demobilized guerrillas truly reintegrate to Colombian society as result of the peace agreement, instead of merely switching bands, as has happened twice in recent history in the Uraba region. Indeed, in the early 1990s, shortly after the peace agreement with the Popular Liberation Army (EPL for its acronym in Spanish), some of their members founded armed “popular commands” and joined right-wing paramilitary ranks with Carlos Castaño, carrying out a long string of massacres. This continues to happen today. The Peace Community has documented instancesof demobilized members of FARC’s Fifth Front, who, after living in the 17th Brigade barracks, have been seen patrolling with paramilitary troops in the Abibe mountains.
Dismantling paramilitary structures is also needed to put an end to the land grabbing and forced displacement phenomenon. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle clearly shows the links between paramilitaries, the forced displacement those dead squads accomplished through death and terror, and the economic interests, including agribusiness, benefiting from the land grabs.
The six-point agenda that the FARC and Colombian government have agreed upon for their peace talks include:
Fortunately, the dismantling of paramilitary structures is included in the ending of the armed conflict section of the agenda. The wording chosen to describe it reflects the compromise reached, using the government’s term “criminal organizations.” But it also refers to the organizations’ support network and the need to overcome impunity and corruption related to “any organization responsible for homicides and massacres or that threatens human right defenders, social and political movements.” There is also a reference to the victims’ right to know the truth regarding links between paramilitaries and the Colombian state.
So far, the talks are secret. This does not mean there is no role for social movements, grassroots organizations, and the international community. We need to keep voicing our concerns and advocating for a real commitment to end the Colombian armed conflict.