More than a hundred former members of Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups who have spent years behind bars might soon regain their freedom.
These erstwhile combatants of Colombia’s long-running civil war have confessed at public hearings to thousands of crimes and abuses. The political deal that led to their testimony included a provision allowing ex-paramilitaries who have spoken truthfully, made adequate reparation, and renounced crime to petition for their freedom, with each case to be reviewed and certified individually. That process has now begun.
Some 174 former paramilitaries who have served the maximum sentence of eight years under a law that demobilized their groups will be eligible to apply for release this year. This month, 69 of them will face probationary hearings to determine their liberty, according to a report by the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, a special mission of the Organization of American States.
One of the most feared commanders of the paramilitary force known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Edward Cobos Téllez, a.k.a. Diego Vecino, could be free by the end of October.
After the Colombian government’s war against leftist guerrillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) worsened in the 1970s, paramilitary groups and right-wing militias supported by rich landowners, sympathetic politicians, and drug-smuggling cartels emerged in the following decades. Among various abuses, they massacred civilians suspected of helping the guerrillas and helped displace hundreds of thousands of people.
These militarized squadrons were largely disarmed between 2003 and 2006 during a controversial demobilization process under former President Álvaro Uribe, who has been accused of having close paramilitary ties, which he has denied. Since the demobilization, former paramilitaries have confessed to more than 40,000 crimes.
The so-called Justice and Peace Law — a series of legal measures put in place between 2005 and 2006 to formalize the demobilization process with paramilitaries — gave many former combatants five- to eight-year prison sentences in exchange for their cooperation and penance.
Peace talks to end Colombia’s war began in Norway in October 2012, and have since moved to Havana, Cuba. The negotiations have made considerable progress toward a deal, but have been hampered in recent weeks by a string of attacks on infrastructure targets like oil pipelines and electricity grids that the Colombian government blames on FARC rebels.
Despite the relatively small number of sentences delivered under the Justice and Peace Law, former paramilitaries are looking to involve themselves in the country’s politics. Former AUC members have discussed forming a political party to represent its interests.
Extreme-right groups have already participated in politics in Colombia, of course, but illegally. In the phenomenon known as “parapolitics,” paramilitaries formed alliances with congressmen, mayors, and governors, allowing them to commit crimes with impunity.
Pablo Hernan Sierra, a.k.a. Alberto Guerrero, an imprisoned former commander of an AUC unit, declared last year on the Venezuelan network Telesur that Uribe — who served as president of Colombia between 2002 and 2010 — was effectively the “head of Colombia’s paramilitary groups.”
“The massacres, the disappearances, the creation of an [AUC] group: he is responsible,” Sierra said.
Sierra had earlier claimed that he operated a militia that used Uribe’s family ranch as a base after leftist rebels stole livestock.
Uribe, who is currently a senator in Colombia’s congress, has vigorously denied the accusations.
Many Colombians wonder how the country will assimilate ex-paramilitaries that are released. Former right-wing combatants have published letters in the Colombian press asking to be included in the ongoing peace talks, and some within the country fear that past militants might attempt to form and arm private security forces.
When they leave their cells, former paramilitaries who implicated collaborators in their abuses will likely immediately seek protection for themselves and their families.
“The danger lies with the military, the DAS [Administrative Department of Security], the Sijín [Colombia's National Police], everyone that participated in the homicides with us. The state used us,” an incarcerated man who could soon be released told the Bogotá-based magazine Semana. “We gave up the names of colonels who are now generals, businesses that gave us money. Today they are our enemies.”
It has become increasingly apparent that some former paramilitary leaders yearn to transition into the political arena. Political representation for FARC rebels is also on the table, although a constitutional court ruling issued last week disqualified rebels guilty of committing war crimes from holding public office. Only former rebels who were involved in lesser crimes can seek election.
What is certain is that imprisoned former paramilitary commanders are formulating a scenario for the future.
In a letter directed at the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in Cuba, former paramilitary commander Carlos Mario Jiménez, a.k.a. Macaco, who has been incarcerated in the United States since his extradition in 2008, asked the negotiators to create a commission to foster conciliation between the FARC and ex-paramilitaries. He also demanded the same political and judicial guarantees for former paramilitaries as those promised to the FARC guerrillas if the talks succeed.
“Yesterday, we were bitter enemies of those who are seated at the table with the national government,” Macaco wrote. “Today we are sorry, and all that we offer is a helping hand to build a country for everyone.”