With the start of the election campaign in Colombia, the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries is faltering, although most will escape without punishment

Military offensives against the guerrillas and the maintenance of the status quo, especially with regard to the land question – the fact that the Paras are making a political name for themselves with an agenda similar to Uribe’s should be fine with the president, who governs with changing majorities. But they are too obviously involved in drug trafficking and massacres against alleged civilian supporters of the guerrillas for open alliances to be possible at this stage.

Informally, the paramilitaries have long been part of the political spectrum. Finally, since their creation in the 1980s, they have been linked to both parts of the traditional oligarchies and the new rich from the underground economy. The "autodefensas," united for some years in the umbrella organization AUC, were on the one hand militias of landowners and private bounty hunters against kidnappers of industrialists, and on the other hand urban gangs on behalf of the drug cartels and rural private armies to control the coca plantations and the laboratories for further processing.

Numerous reports from domestic and international human rights organizations (impunity for death squads) prove that they cooperate with parts of the armed forces, at least at the local level. A few months ago, the leadership of the "autodefensas" also claimed that about one-third of the congressmen supported their interests or owed their seats to the "electoral recommendations" of their respective para-units. Earlier this month, Colombia’s intelligence chief was forced to resign when it was revealed that senior members of his agency had sold equipment to paramilitaries for intercepting police radios.

A rough heart and a strong hand

President Uribe, who has achieved majorities of up to 80 percent in polls, owes his popularity to a military campaign against the guerrilla organizations and the ubiquitous presence of security forces in the cities. After the failure of peace negotiations under his predecessor in 2002, Uribe’s "strong hand policy" has actually led to improvements in the security situation in the centers of the country. The number of kidnappings has decreased significantly, and Colombians travel more safely today than they did a few years ago.

This policy is accompanied by an effort to persuade the right-wing paramilitaries to disarm voluntarily. In order to push through Uribe’s most important political project at the moment, the government is going out of its way to accommodate the irregular fighters. The vast majority of the demobilized do not face any criminal prosecution. Their demobilization is governed by a Prasidial Decree (Decree 128/2005), which provides transitional payments and integration assistance. Even capital crimes committed "in combat" will go unpunished.

In contrast, the "Justice and Peace Law," which is at the center of international criticism, will be invoked only by a few hundred leaders of the paramilitaries against whom criminal proceedings are pending or will be initiated within a few weeks of disarmament, or who have already been sentenced. For example, Salvatore Mancuso, until recently head of the AUC and sentenced to 40 years in prison for numerous massacres, can limit his sentence to a maximum of eight years. Land acquired through evictions and income from drug trafficking are hardly threatened: compensation can only be claimed individually, its scope is limited and it is not enforceable under civil law. This prevents even a political reappraisal of the crimes, which would reveal the structures and financing of the associations.

Stumbling block delivery

Nevertheless, demobilization is faltering. The planned time frame until the end of the year can no longer be kept. For the law has a decisive gap from the point of view of the paras: the extradition. Many leaders of the paramilitaries are wanted as drug traffickers in the U.S., and in U.S. courts, no leader of the gangs that have become a political movement in the demobilization process can invoke the Colombian amnesty law.

Uribe cannot afford a complete halt to extradition. Military success in containing the guerrillas depends too much on American military aid. And despite personal friendship with Uribe, George W. Bush cannot force the release of funds in Congress if the country refuses to transfer criminals who are on the CIA’s most wanted list.

To emphasize their demand to "answer" only in Colombia, the Paras broke off the demobilization at the beginning of October. At that time, the police had transferred "Don Berna" from house arrest at his hacienda to a maximum security prison. This appeared to the other commanders as the beginning of extradition proceedings. Only when it was clear that nothing stood in the way of the reelection of the president, from whom the paras expected more concessions than from any other candidate, and after the government had threatened to take the remaining 10.000 paramilitaries under arms militarily, Interior Minister Sabas Pretal was able to announce on 16. November: "Confidence has been restored."Demobilization will continue, a guarantee of non-extradition is not part of the process," he said.

Although the paramilitaries have given in, their negotiating position has improved. Because the interruption has made a new schedule necessary. A date has not yet been set, but what is clear is that the completion of disarmament is now approaching election day at the end of May. This makes Uribe vulnerable. In order not to jeopardize his re-election, he must demonstrate the success of his policy of voluntary disarmament. But any extradition or real prosecution would lead to further delays. The Paras can play for time.

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