How Medellin is dealing with paramilitaries being released from prison

(Photo: Colombian military)

The Medellin office in charge of helping the reintegration of demobilized paramilitary fighters and commanders opened its doors to show how recently released ex-paramilitaries are shown the way back to civil society.

Colombia’s human rights community raised alarms earlier this year at the impending release of the notorious paramilitaries from the Justice and Peace Law after serving the maximum of eight years in prison.

To date, only six paramilitaries who had enrolled in the Justice and Peace Law have been released in all Colombia. Colombia Reports talked to the man in charge of reintegrating five of those six into Medellin, one of the main origin cities for the demobilized AUC paramilitary umbrella organization.

MORE: Colombia’s women victims ‘terrified’ over pending release of paramilitaries

Paulo Serna is the coordinator for the Peace and Reconciliation Program. The program is the result of cooperation between Colombia’s Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and Medellin’s mayor’s office to attend demobilized fighters that decide to return to Medellin and the greater Valle de Aburra metropolitan area.

The office is tucked away within Medellin’s Central Transit Office, right next to Prosecutor General’s complex. The floor is filled with “professional reintegrators,” who work personally with each demobilized combatant.

Within this office is Serna and a professional reintegrator whose sole job is to attend the demobilized paramilitaries being released from prison that enrolled in Alvaro Uribe’s Law 975 of 2005, also known as the Justice and Peace Law. Law 975 was the legal framework to dismantle the AUC paramilitary structure.


The government has developed a reintegration path specially designed for these high-value former paramilitaries to make sure they do not return to armed groups and illegality.

The urban context

Reintegration status of demobilized population in Medellin

  • 2090 active in reintegration
  • 5 active under Justice and Peace Law
  • 416 graduated program
  • 216 demobilized but no records of entering reintegration
  • 1336 investigation for loss of benefits (inactive 6 months)
  • 1 extradited
  • 517 dead
  • 154 inactive
  • 499 lost benefits
  • 7 voluntary retirement from program
  • 32 suspended
  • 413 finished program components

Total: 5,685

“There is a huge difference between us and other attention centers, is that our context is urban. These demobilized committed their crimes in city neighborhoods, demobilized in the city, and have been doing their reintegration process in the same neighborhoods they committed their crimes,” stated Serna.

In Medellin, of the 5,685 demobilized fighters that inhabited the city, there are 2,090 active in the process and over 500 have died. Of the 517 that have died, 411 have been murdered and 75 remain a mystery.

Medellin’s demobilized population is mostly from paramilitaries that demobilized under Law 975. Those being granted conditional freedom under Law 975 are returning to a city flooded with former combatants, of which many have died, or gone missing from any sort of government records.

Personalized attention

Commitment to the ACR reintegration program is required for a paramilitary to be granted conditional freedom. There was a fear that paramilitaries being released from jail would just be able to go home, but Serna would like to remind Colombia that the law demands more from them even after release.

There is one professional reintegrator for every 10 Justice and Peace paramilitaries. So as of now, there is one of these special reintegrator in Medellin, and more will be hired as the inmates are released. This is a unique approach to paramilitaries under Justice and Peace because normally an ACR reintegrator is assigned 30-40 demobilized fighters.

The Justice and Peace Law reintegrator is chosen from a pool of ACR’s most experienced candidates, with a background in psychology and prisons experience. Serna told Colombia Reports that this specialist must also not be afraid of working with some of Colombia’s most dangerous individuals.

This ACR specialist and a contracted lawyer are solely dedicated to the five Justice and Peace paramilitaries that have released so far in Medellin.

The specialist remains in contact with each individual daily and meets with them at least twice a week. The work done with those demobilized under Justice and Peace Law is more intensive that a regular demobilized individual. The meetings are more frequent and with an added forth reconciliation component to their program. Most demobilized have just three components; the psychosocial component, the job training component, and the education component.

Weak institutional coordination

Reintegrating demobilized paramilitaries from the Justice and Peace Law requires intimate coordination with Colombia’s prison insitution, known as INPEC. For the last eight years, INPEC been dealing with these the Justice and Peace paramilitaries that voluntarily handed themselves over and required special treatment.

According to Serna, “the coordination with INPEC has been hard because INPEC is very centralized and has very few resources.”

INPEC has been doing a resocialization program with the Justice and Peace Law inmates, but it has not been coordinated with ACR’s reintegration program and lacks financing. In the law it state that INPEC and ACR should work very closely, but doing so has been complicated.

ACR has begun a pilot program to circumvent the role of INPEC by sending to the prisons a psychologist with a lawyer to meet any paramilitary that has been approved for conditional freedom. There can be months from the moment an inmate is approved for conditional freedom to the day he is actually released due to all the paperwork and verification that must be done.

The pilot program is still in its infancy and has not reached all those covered under the Justice and Peace Law but the first step to reintegration for ACR is to profile each individual psychologically and legally. During the first two to four months whether in jail or outside of jail, ACR specialists are making a psychological profile of the subject to know more or less their mental state and to make sure there are no pending warrants for arrest.

“The handling of records on these individuals was very precarious.”

According to Serna, the records of the Justice and Peace law paramilitaries have also been left wanting. “It was hard to know how many were in the actual Justice and Peace process, how many were granted conditional freedom by transitional justice or ordinary justice, who these people were and where they were from. The records of all this were very precarious. The Prosecutor General’s office has some data, INPEC had other data, and councils had very different information,” commented Serna.

Security of released paramilitaries “in limbo”

Considering that in Medellin 10% of people who have demobilized have died (mostly from homicides), the question of security becomes very relevant for the Justice and Peace paramilitaries that are being granted conditional freedom.

“Today, it is not known what state entity is responsible for the security of individuals that get out conditionally from prison.”

These individuals gave testimonies dozens of times to government prosecutors which increases the risk of reprisals.

Of the five paramilitaries under Serna’s watchful eye, one has requested a security assessment. An assessment was conducted and his security situation was deemed to be “extraordinary” but nothing has been done because the security responsibility of these individuals has not been assigned by law.

“There is a huge elephant in the room. Because first, the National Protection Unit security is by request. Also it is in limbo who is in charge of the security for the people under the Justice and Peace law upon release. Today, it is not know what state entity is responsible for the security of individuals that get out conditionally from prison. It is a very dangerous legal void,” Serna told Colombia Reports.

Colombia’s National Protection Unit, is the government entity in charge of providing security details to at-risk individuals, but they have no differential approach to these individuals and cannot act until their services are requested.

“We are constructing peace with them”

The five paramilitaries being attended by Serna face many challenges. Even though they have just recently been released and are still in the process of “stablization,” Serna’s priority is train and educate them so they can be competitive in the job market and find employment.

“Finding these people jobs is important because that keeps them dreaming, with a plan for the future and their minds off of returning to criminality,” said Serna, adding that, “Many of these are people who were recruited when they were kids, spent 10 years in an armed group and then went straight to jail. so now they are 30-35 years old and don’t know what it is like to live a civil life. Many have complex pathologies. There is the biggest challenge in having a successful reintegration program for these people.”

These high-value demobilized paramilitaries have only been out of prison a few months and ACR is only at the beginning of the reintegration process that will last at least six years.

Serna and his team are still teaching these individuals how to use a bank card and pay their bills, but staying optimistic because these individuals have so far proven to be “functional in legality.”

“I thought it was going to be much more complex. I use to be very pessamistic and think why are they releasing these people? They’re going to run away and join a BACRIM the first chance they can. But the ones that have gotten out have been very active in the program and show a desire to continue their life legally. We are constructing peace with them,” reflected Serna.


  • Interview Paulo Serna
  • Medellin ACR statistics


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