The perils of “parapolitics”
Mar 22nd 2007 | BOGOTÁ AND MARÍA LA BAJA
From The Economist print edition
After four years in which he transformed his country, Álvaro Uribe is running into problems. Some of them are symptoms of success.
ON THE outskirts of María la Baja, a nondescript town on Colombia's swelteringly hot Caribbean coast, the road is lined with palm-thatched mud huts. They are the new homes of some 7,000 people displaced by violence from their small farms in the nearby hills. They say that their problems began when the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) appeared in the hills in 2000, stealing their cattle. Matters deteriorated further when right-wing paramilitaries began to kill people whom they thought were guerrillas and forced others to sell or yield their land at gunpoint.
But in the past couple of years “things have improved a lot,” says Carlos Ortiz, one of their leaders. The reason: on July 14th 2005, the local paramilitary group handed over its weapons and disbanded under a peace agreement with the government of President Álvaro Uribe in which some 30,000 of the militiamen have demobilised across the country. As part of Mr Uribe's security build-up, marines have set up a base on the edge of the town, while police patrol the main road north to the port of Cartagena.
“We go back to our farms by day now,” says Julio César Azeredo, another of the displaced. But, he adds, “it's not safe to stay at night.” If this corner of northern Colombia is no longer marked by the bloody massacres of a few years ago, its new-found peace is fragile. “The people have lost confidence in everyone, they don't trust any authority,” says Giuseppe Svafrena, an Italian Catholic priest who is helping them.
Fragile it may be, but the improvement in security in places like María la Baja is real enough. On the strength of it, Mr Uribe secured a second four-year term with a landslide 62% of the vote in an election last May. But his second term is proving to be more complicated than his first.
Mr Uribe faces two immediate problems. One involves the future of the former paramilitaries, and the risk that many return to violent crime. The other involves their past: the government has been rocked by a series of revelations of links between politicians, officials and the paramilitaries. Those revelations (dubbed “parapolitics”) risk doing serious damage to Mr Uribe's standing abroad, and especially in the United States. But for most Colombians the more pressing issue is consolidating the gains in security. In opinion polls some 70% of respondents continue to support Mr Uribe, despite the parapolitics scandal. To understand why requires some recent history.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the left-wing guerrillas of the FARC and its smaller rival, the ELN, grew steadily, reaching a peak of almost 20,000 troops. Their expansion owed much to money from drugs, kidnapping and extortion. They were also helped by Colombia's impossible geography and relatively weak state. The flip side of a long democratic tradition has been that Colombia's politicians never allowed the army to become strong.
In response, some army commanders and landowners formed paramilitary militias (known as “self-defence” groups) to fight the guerrillas. Yet some of these were quickly taken over by drug-traffickers and many imposed a reign of terror equal to or worse than that of the guerrillas. Colombia began to look like a failed state. That prompted Andrés Pastrana, Mr Uribe's predecessor, to start to strengthen the security forces and to seek American aid.
Mr Uribe was elected on a pledge to get tough after the FARC had shown no interest in peace in three years of talks with Mr Pastrana. He has expanded the security forces by a third, adding 60,000 troops and 30,000 extra police. He placed permanent police detachments in 150 municipalities (out of a total of 1,080) that lacked them. He created a new force of 20,000 part-time “popular soldiers” for local guard duties. Six new mountain battalions occupied the high Andean massifs which had served as corridors and refuges for the FARC. He turned the army into an offensive force, with nine new mobile brigades.
All this changed the course of the war. The FARC were driven from central Colombia, from the populated triangle marked by its three main cities, Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. For the first time in years, Colombians can drive between most of the country's cities without risk of kidnap or hold-up. Partly as a result, the economy has rebounded as businesses from oil companies to manufacturers ramp up investment (see chart). “My administration began the process of taking back the country,” Mr Uribe says.
This security build-up and Mr Uribe's reputation as an implacable foe of the guerrillas enabled his government to persuade the paramilitaries, grouped in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), to disarm. They did so under a controversial Justice and Peace Law. This stipulates that those accused of massacres or other barbarous acts can benefit from a reduced sentence (of no more than eight years) if they confess and surrender illegally obtained assets. The biggest incentive is that the government will not extradite them to face drugs charges in the United States as long as they co-operate.
This peace process has been highly controversial. One set of criticisms concerns its terms and another its implementation. Many human-rights groups, the paramilitaries' victims and much of the opposition considered the law too lenient and its application too lax. So did the Constitutional Court, which stiffened the law.
Only last August were the top leaders jailed pending court hearings. Rafael Pardo, a Liberal senator who broke with the president over the law, says that he thinks the paramilitaries have demobilised their counter-insurgency apparatus and moved out of drugs to avoid extradition but are moving, unchecked, into other crime rackets.
Mr Uribe's defenders argue that Colombia is doing something which no other country has managed. “It's a peace process with an undefeated military group in which justice is being applied with no amnesty,” says Eduardo Pizarro, who heads the government's reconciliation commission. Mr Uribe accuses his critics of double standards, since they never complained about (and some benefited from) past peace talks with guerrillas in which total amnesties were offered.
But the process is certainly a messy one. The attorney-general's office—a branch of the judiciary rather than the executive in Colombia—has been swamped. A special unit of 35 attorneys has been set up, but it needs more staff and resources. Some 25,000 people have registered as victims of the paramilitaries. Mario Iguarán, the attorney-general, says that charges may eventually be brought against up to 400 of the leaders; he hopes to begin cases against 57 jailed chiefs this year.
The government's scheme to integrate the former paramilitaries into civilian life has been flawed. They receive a monthly stipend of up to 358,000 pesos ($162), but two-thirds of them have yet to receive promised training and only two-fifths have jobs. The government did the demobilisations “with a system which was only just being created and the system collapsed,” says Frank Pearl, whom Mr Uribe recruited from the private sector last year to sort out the programme.
The big fear is that many will return to violence. The best estimates are that between 2,500 and 3,600 have joined “second-generation” paramilitary groups. But officials say that some of these are drug-trafficking outfits or purely criminal bands.
For all its flaws, Colombia's peace process has quickly acquired a momentum of its own. One of the strongest signs of that is the parapolitics scandal. This began when police arrested a paramilitary leader who had failed to rendezvous in a designated area, confiscating his computer. This contained a treasure trove of information concerning the political contacts of the paramilitaries, who once boasted that they controlled a third of Colombia's Congress.
The revelations are an embarrassment to Mr Uribe. The ten politicians (nine legislators and a provincial governor) so far arrested, all from the north coast, belong to parties that support him. But most of the allegations against them date from 2002, when they backed the official Liberal candidate against Mr Uribe, who ran as an independent. More damaging is the arrest of Jorge Noguera, whom the president named to head the intelligence service.
Mr Uribe's critics have seized on all this to argue that the president is in cahoots with the paramilitaries. But there is no evidence. The president counters that he has supported judicial investigations and full confessions by the paramilitaries. “The country needs to know in depth the tragedy...to realise what is the future we need: a country of institutions, without guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug-traffickers and corruption,” he said in an interview with The Economist. If Mr Noguera is found guilty, Mr Uribe promises to apologise.
That the parapolitics investigations have got so far is in part a result of greater security. “Witnesses are coming forward because they do not have to fear,” says Mr Iguarán. “Who would have dared before to go to the district attorney or the judge and declare that the chief of the AUC was in league with the government, the mayor or a congressman? It's an unanticipated consequence of the Justice and Peace Law.”
It also shows how widespread penetration of politics and government by the paramilitaries was. Officials are quietly attempting a similar clean-up of the armed forces. A decorated colonel was charged before the civilian courts last year after subordinates said that he passed off murdered civilians as dead guerrillas. The defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is easing out other officers and working on reforms of military training. He says that control of territory, rather than bodycount, will henceforth be the army's performance criterion.
Colombia is only at the beginning of a long and difficult road to peace. Cleaning up the army is a necessary condition for vanquishing the paramilitaries completely, argues Alejandro Reyes, a sociologist at Bogotá's Rosario university. “Otherwise the civilian population won't collaborate with the security forces.”
Such collaboration is vital. The FARC are diminished but unbeaten. They think history is going their way: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has expressed sympathy for them in the past; so has Rafael Correa, Ecuador's new president. It will take more fighting to persuade them to negotiate, let alone submit to the Justice and Peace Law.
And parapolitics risks weakening Mr Uribe's grip on Congress. A tax reform that would have raised government revenues has been watered down. The government did manage to renew a wealth tax which should provide $4 billion over the next four years. That money will go into more helicopters, and surveillance gear to try to track down the FARC leadership.
The other task is to achieve lasting security in places like María la Baja. There Pedro Vásquez, a former policeman who spent seven years as a paramilitary leader, says that townspeople still come to him to complain of crimes and extortion “because they don't trust the police”. Some of his former troops want to return to action, something he doesn't want to do.
Carlos Gaviria of the centre-left Democratic Pole, Mr Uribe's defeated opponent in last year's election, says more is needed than just the presence of the army. The state should be present, too, with “schools, hospitals and job-creation”.
Colombia's peace process has hitherto relied on the driving will of the president, a workaholic whose face is grey with permanent fatigue. Lacking are teamwork and institutions. Luis Alfonso Hoyos, who heads the president's social-development agency, points proudly to a situation-room next to his office where representatives from 13 ministries co-ordinate policy and action. But that is in Bogotá, a long way from places like María la Baja.