AUC Disarmament Talks May be Derailed, Again

(International Relations and Security Network, 14/10/2005)

With Michael Shoemaker in Bogota


Ivan Roberto Duque (also known as Ernesto Baez), spokesperson for the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), announced on 6 October that demobilization had been suspended.


The announcement came after Colombian officials had transferred AUC leader Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, also known as Don Berna or Adolfo Paz, from house arrest to the Combita maximum security prison in Colombia's Boyaca department.


The transfer of Don Berna, whose extradition order by a New York district court was recently approved by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, came after US Ambassador William Wood stated that the embassy was "disappointed that they have decided to temporarily suspend implementation" of the extraditon order.


While moving Don Berna to Combita has momentarily calmed the US, the AUC thinks the measure is a step towards his extradition. It acted immediately to stop demobilizations until the Uribe administration "clarifies the rules of the game". Their re-engagement is based on two demands: that Don Berna be reinstated as a chief negotiator, and that no disarmed AUC leader face extradition to the US.


Though it appears that a temporary solution for the current impasse may be imminent, three enormous challenges continue to threaten to derail Colombia's most important step towards peace in the past decade.


First and foremost is the issue of extradition, which has still not been settled among the three biggest stakeholders in the paramilitary demobilizations: The AUC, the Colombian government, and the US. The US, though a staunch ally of Uribe, is an intransigent advocate of extradition, and the Colombian government has had no success so far in modifying this US position as it seeks to assuage AUC leadership demands to remain in Colombia.


Second is the problem of re-election, particularly salient in a process that has been marked by the AUC's trust in Uribe's word.


Finally, the legal framework for dealing with ex-paramilitaries, Colombia's Peace and Justice Law, will be reviewed by the Constitutional Court by early next year. If deemed unconstitutional, the demobilization process could very well crumble.


Colombia's troubled history of extradition


Virgilio Barco, as the Colombian ambassador to the US, signed the first extradition treaty between the two countries on 14 September 1979. A year later, Colombia's Congress ratified the extradition agreement. The extradition law had entered into force by 1982.


However, the mechanism existed merely on paper until the assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla on 30 April 1984. Despite the increasing power of the Colombian cartels, Lara was the only official to publicly denounce drug trafficking. He specifically named Colombia's soon-to-be-notorious drug-lord, Pablo Escobar, in these comments. Soon after, Lara Bonilla was killed by six bullets on his way home from work.


The Colombian government's response was to begin using extradition as a tool to remove drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar from the play - a move that would later be welcomed by then-US president Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, Colombia's Supreme Court struck down the extradition law on 12 December 1986 due to a formality.


The assassination of presidential hopeful Luis Carlos Galan in 1989 once again brought the topic of extradition to the table. Galan had campaigned to fight corruption and drug trafficking, and announced his intention to use extradition to forcefully deal with drug lords like Escobar. His murder prompted Colombia's next president and former ambassador to the US, Virgilio Barco, to declare a state of siege, to forego the constitution, and to place extradition decisions firmly in the hands of the executive branch, where the authority currently resides.


In the following two years, Pablo Escobar waged an all-out war against the Colombian government. Various threat letters and other communications from the group were signed "The Extraditables".


In 1991, Escobar negotiated his own surrender in order to escape extradition to the US. A year later, public outrage at the deal - which entailed a five-year sentence in a luxury estate "prison" - again raised the specter of extradition, forcing Escobar to flee. The US was soon actively involved in the manhunt. The efforts of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), together with essential intelligence provided by a shady group of Colombian mafiosi called the "People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar", or Los Pepes, brought Escobar's flight from extradition to a close. Ironically, one member of the "Los Pepes" group was Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano.


Diego Murillo, Don Berna, and Adolfo Paz


For over a decade, Diego Murillo, known as Don Berna and later as Aldofo Paz, had been a loyal member of the Medellín cartel and one of Escobar's right-hand men. However, he shifted loyalties in the early 1990s as the hunt for Pablo Escobar escalated, and joined Los Pepes, a group of former Escobar partners that had defected from his camp and later used their experience with him to undermine his operation. When the mafia in Medellín dissolved in the wake of Escobar's death, Don Berna aligned himself with the Cali cartel.


In the mid-1990s, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were imprisoned and the Cali cartel phased out. Murillo then became a member of "La Terraza", a Medellin-based street gang that eventually took control of the cocaine trade in the city. He moved again at the end of the 1990s, when he sought refuge in the region of Uraba, near the Panamanian border. There, he joined the paramilitaries and former militia members of Los Pepes who were willing to protect him.


As a member of the paramilitaries, Don Berna quickly rose through the ranks under the nom de guerre "Adolfo Paz". Presumably, his close ties to the drug trade gave him leverage to rise quickly to the top of the local chain of command. By 2001, nearly a decade after leaving Pablo Escobar's Medellín cartel, Don Berna had formed the Cacique Nutibara Block, a Medellín-based militia force.


The narco-paramilitary dilemma


Don Berna's history of narcotics trafficking and his paramilitary present are typical of the scandal that has tainted the negotiation process with the AUC from the start almost three years ago.


The phenomenon of drug magnates buying into the process through the acquisition of private armies, together with the existing extradition orders for many AUC chieftains, have made it particularly tricky to work out a deal that offers demobilization incentives while satisfying the concerns of both the US and Colombian civil society.


For the AUC, the matter is very simple. Secret tapes of the negotiations leaked last year are evidence that their primary concern throughout the negotiations has been that their final legal status would allow them to avoid extradition to the US . Any move that would jeopardize their right to serve out their sentences in Colombia will be rejected.


The US faces a more complicated decision. Ambassador Wood insisted from the beginning that the extradition of paramilitary leaders should not be negotiable, a request that has at least been formally honored. But as a devoted ally of Uribe, the US is the main supporter of the process and is also well aware of the volatility of the situation.


The extradition orders have clearly put some AUC leaders in the sights of US law enforcement agencies, including Don Berna, Salvatore Mancuso, Jorge 40, and Ernesto Baez. But there is still a struggle underway between the White House of George Bush, the State Department, the Justice Department, and certain members of Congress as to how hard the US should push for implementation, at the risk of alienating the closest US ally in the region.


But it is Uribe and his administration for whom the issue of extradition is the biggest problem. The paramilitary demobilizations are the legacy of Uribe's presidency. His potential shot at re-election will largely depend on his ability to convince the AUC to lay down its arms. In other words, the matter hinges on whether Uribe can help the warlords avoid extradition without estranging the US.


"The [paramilitaries'] suspension of the talks was probably aimed more at getting the USG [US government] to be flexible, than at the Colombian government, which has little room for maneuver," Center for International Policy Director Adam Isacson told ISN Security Watch.


The lack of legal clarity gives Uribe some maneuverability, however. It is a source of insecurity for the AUC. The Justice and Peace Law has won some legal victories for the paramilitaries in this regard. It does not exclude former drug lords; it covers all illegal actions committed while belonging to an illegal armed group; it treats paramilitary activity as sedition, a non-extraditable crime in Colombia; and it makes explicit reference to international law, stating that extradition is not obligatory if the country has adequate legal mechanisms in place.


Still, the legislation provides no real guarantees for long-time drug lords-turned-paramilitaries, like Don Berna. All they really have is Uribe's word that he will not extradite them.


The result, former High Commissioner for Peace Daniel García Pena Jaramillo told ISN Security Watch, is that "Uribe has been and is going to continue buying time, delaying the issue, and sending mixed signals". He went on to say that "if the election isn't shot down by the Constitutional Court, I think there's a good chance that he'll continue doing that for another four years, because the AUC feels that they can trust his word".


Get demobbed while the going is good


Colombia held its breath when Uribe ordered a force of 2,000 policemen, four search planes, and ten Black Hawk helicopters to find Don Berna on 24 September. He had been linked to the murder of highly respected Cordoba politician Orlando Benitez Palencia, his sister Iris del Carmen, and driver, Jose Francisco Mestra Martínez.


It seemed entirely possible that the Colombian government's pursuit of Don Berna would lead to months, maybe years of assassinations and bombings while he fought the state and tried to escape the only prospect Colombian drug traffickers truly fear: extradition to the US.


But on day three of the search, Don Berna turned himself in. Fellow AUC leaders had hidden him in Santa Fe de Ralito, later convincing him to surrender to Colombian authorities. It was decided to use Don Berna as a litmus test. The government's response to his surrender would either discredit or legitimize the verbal promises Uribe had made during the negotiations.


Officials transferred Don Berna to a country villa near Santa Fe de Ralito, where he was placed under house arrest. Since Don Berna had officially "demobilized", he, like all AUC chieftains engaged in the process, retained special legal status. The Uribe administration passed the test with flying colors.


The conditions of Don Berna's surrender are what make his transfer to Combita so symbolically important. The move causes massive uncertainty for an AUC leadership whose future relies on Uribe's word and his ability to keep the US at bay.


Don Berna's transfer now to Itagui, a prison outside Medellin, has once again removed him further from extradition and brought him much closer to his center of power. It is yet another maneuver designed to appease the paramilitaries without inciting more US "disappointment".


But the game can only go on for so long. An election year approaching in the middle of a peace process dependent on personalities instead of institutions is bound to wreak havoc. Even if the Constitutional Court allows Uribe to stand for re-election, there is no guarantee that Uribe will win a second term in office. If he is not allowed to run for office a second time, or if he loses, AUC chieftains will possibly face a new Colombian president who will be less lenient, catering more to unyielding US demands.


In addition, Colombia's Constitutional Court is expected to review the legitimacy of the Justice and Peace law early next year. As the legal framework for the current disarmament process, this law is the one binding factor that keeps all parties at the table.


Rejecting the president's re-election or dissolving the Justice and Peace law could certainly persuade AUC chieftains to return to their respective militias. Demobilization talks would be called off, and Colombia would return to the previous dire state of affairs.


But even though the AUC leadership presents a united front, it is well known that there is a real lack of solidarity between and within paramilitary units. The demobilization process, originally scheduled to be finished by January, has been thrown off schedule by the current impasse. With elections and constitutional review of the Justice and Peace Law quickly approaching, observers expect an even greater urgency on the part of AUC commanders to demobilize while the going is good, even if that means letting Don Berna hang.


"The paramilitaries don't really have a choice," Jaramillo told ISN Security Watch. "The Peace and Justice Law is incredibly lenient, and they know that it likely won't pass review by the Constitutional Court, so they'll re-engage in the process in order to take advantage of the Law while they still can."


If not, Colombia's biggest push for peace in over a decade could end up facing miserable failure. AUC leaders would "return to the mountains", continuing to battle the country's leading left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for an ever-increasing share of the drug trade.


Meanwhile, the Colombian government continues to fight a multi-front war with a powerful ally to the north that will not compromise, not even for the better of its client state - a position that has perpetuated deplorable conditions inside the most unstable country in the Americas.


The disarmament talks hang in the balance between constant demands for extradition, Uribe's chance to run again for office, and the ruling of the Constitutional Court. Don Berna's situation has temporarily put the disarmament schedule on hold, but it may not make a difference. Given the myriad obstacles in the way, it will be a miracle if the AUC talks continue through to next year.