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COLOMBIA: The Limits of Paramilitary Repentance

Constanza Vieira

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Feb 9 2007 (IPS) - Former paramilitary fighter Wilson Salazar, alias “El Loro”, was impatient over and annoyed by the prosecutor’s questions and the charges put forth by the victims’ defence attorneys. He claimed he was being blamed for more crimes than he had committed.

Former paramilitary fighter Wilson Salazar, alias “El Loro”, was impatient over and annoyed by the prosecutor’s questions and the charges put forth by the victims’ defence attorneys. He claimed he was being blamed for more crimes than he had committed.

He also said he regretted having submitted himself to the Justice and Peace Law, which stipulates that he must make a full confession to obtain legal benefits, such as a sentence of just eight years for the human rights crimes he committed. The law, which went into effect in 2006, governs the far-right paramilitary umbrella group’s negotiated demobilisation.

Among the crimes he committed, “El Loro” shot a 13-year-old girl and beat her to death with a shovel as she tried to defend her mother, Cecilia Lazo.

Lazo, a candidate for mayor in the town of San Alberto in the northeastern province of Cesar, was shot and killed by “El Loro”.

None of the survivors of paramilitary atrocities or the families of victims attended his confession this week in Barranquilla, Colombia’s main Caribbean coastal city.


On Thursday, the government adopted regulations for the participation by victims of human rights abuses in the legal proceedings that began in December against paramilitaries like “El Loro” (The Parrot) for crimes against humanity, which are not subject to any statute of limitations and cannot be amnestied.

The decree issued by the Ministry of the Interior and Justice states that in order to attend the trials, the victims must prove that they have suffered “direct damages,” must have already filed a formal complaint against the accused, and must register in a special database.

And to participate in the legal investigations, they must renounce, in writing, their right to keep their identity in reserve. However, the decree says nothing about providing security for the victims.

Despite the fact that the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) was officially dismantled in 2006 after closed-door negotiations with the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe, the killings have continued.

On Jan. 20, the headquarters of the League of Displaced Women near the Caribbean resort city of Cartagena, where the group had built their new settlement “City of Women”, was set on fire.

Freddy Espitia, head of a local committee of displaced persons in the Caribbean province of Córdoba, in northwestern Colombia, was shot and killed on Jan. 28.

On Jan. 31, in Montería, the capital of Córdoba, gunmen on a motorcycle killed Yolanda Izquierdo, a 43-year-old community leader who had gathered evidence to help 863 rural families regain their land, which had been seized by the paramilitaries. She was presenting the evidence under the reparations system set up by the Justice and Peace Law.

The murder of Óscar Cuadrado, the leader of a regional association of displaced persons, was reported on Feb. 1 in Maicao, in the northeastern province of La Guajira.

And on Feb. 7, Carmen Santana was shot to death in Apartadó, a banana-producing region in the northeastern province of Antioquia. After great hesitation, Santana had decided to pursue the truth about the 1995 murder of her first husband, a banana worker.

Santana had rebuilt her life with her second husband, Hernán Correa, vice-president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores central trade union.

Izquierdo, two days before she was killed, had pleaded with the authorities, for the fourth time in five days – this time in tears – for protection. But they told her that the paperwork would take a week.

Loyar Pineda, one of Izquierdo’s schoolmates from Las Claras, the Córdoba town where both were born, told IPS that “There is always someone who has to speak out. You see the injustice and you just can’t stop and you can’t keep silent in the face of all of these things that will hurt the interests of the most dispossessed and vulnerable.”

Pineda, who has lost a brother in Colombia’s civil war, is himself an activist.

The new regulations for participating in the trials for paramilitaries “have restricted access by the victims,” a member of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) remarked to IPS.

The CCJ, an internationally renowned human rights group, is defending dozens of victims of paramilitary abuses.

“The reality is that in nearly 80 percent of the cases of human rights violations, formal complaints have not been filed,” explained the CCJ activist, who asked not to be identified, for safety reasons. Merely reporting human rights abuses in Colombia can be a deadly undertaking.

In the legal proceedings against the paramilitaries, victims who have been certified as having suffered direct damages can turn in evidence, suggest questions to the prosecutor taking the confessions, and report assets that were seized by paramilitary groups and that could be returned to victims of abuses, such as the land that Izquierdo was trying to regain for the displaced families, whose struggle she was leading.

They cannot be present in the courtroom where the confession is being given, but must sit in a different room, where they can watch the trial proceedings via closed-circuit television.

“These are crimes against humanity in which the victim is humanity. Anyone should have the right to listen to the confessions and to be there, and shouldn’t have to demonstrate that they were direct victims,” said the CCJ source.

>From the start, in December, the proceedings against former members of the AUC were closed to the press. But heavy pressure from victims’ associations, human rights groups and journalists reversed that rule in practice, although not officially.

It is up to the Prosecutor General’s Office to decide whether or not to request permission to broadcast one or more of the hearings on television, either live or deferred.

The National Television Commission (CNTV), presided over by Ricardo Galán – President Uribe’s press chief until December – would then decide on whether to assign airspace for broadcasting the hearings.

Confession of crimes is the first stage in the trials against some of the former members of AUC, which grouped most of the death squads that emerged in the early 1980s, organised by landowners and members of the army.

AUC, which is heavily involved in the drug trade, according to its own leaders, is blamed by United Nations human rights officials and leading global rights watchdogs for 80 percent of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s four-decade civil war. The paramilitaries work in close cooperation with the military, as documented by U.N. officials, the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The 2,695 paramilitaries charged with crimes against humanity can voluntarily take recourse to the benefits offered by the Justice and Peace Law. The rest of the nearly 31,000 people who showed up to demobilise, according to official figures, were pardoned.

The paramilitary demobilisation process has been widely criticised as a de facto amnesty.

If it is demonstrated in the trials that the accused have not confessed to all of their crimes, they will be remitted to the ordinary courts, where they will face sentences of up to 40 years.

How is it determined that a confession is not complete? The Prosecutor General’s Office says its special prosecutors have “swept” the country to gather testimony on paramilitary abuses. But in the view of the CCJ, “not even 100,000 men could cover the entire territory and have time to register all of the human rights violations that have been committed and continue to be committed.”

Even after the AUC declared a unilateral ceasefire in December 2002 to pave the way for the disarmament negotiations, the paramilitaries have been responsible for 60 percent of the killings and forced disappearances that have been committed, according to the CCJ.

In January, the former AUC chiefs said they were opposed to broadcasting the hearings live on television, arguing that some “touchy” aspects needed to be kept in reserve because they could endanger their lives by affecting due process and creating a climate of “mistrust.”

Izquierdo’s murder was mentioned by former AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso as one of the “sinister developments” that have occurred and will continue to occur. Nearly 5,000 combatants have taken up their weapons again, he said.

He claimed that behind the rearming of the paramilitaries are several former commanders who took part in the negotiations, but who did not submit themselves to the Justice and Peace Law, as he himself had done.

Mancuso, who is also accused of involvement in drug trafficking, said that his former fellow paramilitary chiefs believe the government has failed to live up to the agreements reached with the AUC.

 
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COLOMBIA: The Limits of Paramilitary Repentance

Constanza Vieira

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Feb 9 2007 (IPS) - Former paramilitary fighter Wilson Salazar, alias “El Loro”, was impatient over and annoyed by the prosecutor’s questions and the charges put forth by the victims’ defence attorneys. He claimed he was being blamed for more crimes than he had committed.
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