The demobilization of neo-paramilitary groups in Colombia “risks going down as a failure,” said a report published Friday by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO specializing in the prevention and resolution of violent conflicts worldwide.
The report, entitled “Dismantling Colombia’s New Illegal Armed Groups(NIAG): Lessons from a Surrender” referred to the December 2011 demobilization of the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), which was made up of former right-wing paramilitary groups.
According to the report, “Only a fraction of the group took part [in the surrender]; leaders may be getting away with short prison sentences; and the underlying criminal and corrupt structures will likely remain untouched…The impact on conflict dynamics has been limited.”
This failed surrender also leaves “the impression that an illegal armed group has again outwitted state institutions,” said the ICG.
ERPAC operated in central eastern Colombia where they reportedly murdered community leaders, displaced civilians, recruited child soldiers and engaged in sexual violence. In the departments of Meta, Vichada and Guaviare, they were the dominant illegal armed force and ran much of the drug trafficking operations in the region. The ICG claims that ERPAC was able to maintain its operations due to links with prominent community figures and security forces.
The surrender of ERPAC was the first demobilization of a paramilitary successor group and according to the ICG press release, “exposed justice system and government strategy shortcomings that unless corrected will hamper efforts to combat groups which are now top security challenges.”
The Prosecutor General’s Office only had arrest warrants for 19 members of the group at the time of demobilization. Of the 272 members who demobilized and were arrested (only about a third of the total in the organization), most were released immediately after. Security forces continue working to recapture them.
“On the ground, the surrender has achieved little else than stoking confrontations between competing groups that want to take over what ERPAC has lost”, says Christian Voelkel, the ICG’s Colombia Analyst. “It has started a new cycle of violence in ERPAC’s eastern plains strongholds, rather than laying the basis for security.”
The ICG’s report gave numerous suggestions for improving the demobilization process, namely that the government require not treat new violent groups solely as criminal organizations. The ICG acknowledged that ERPAC and other neo-paramilitary groups do not operate in quite the same way or for the same reasons as their predecessors, but argued they cannot be considered seperate from Colombia’s ongoing internal conflict.
The ICG recommended the government strengthen institutions responsible for prosecutions and pursue similar reintegration policies for NIAG members as those given to demobilized guerrillas and paramilitaries as outlined in the proposed Legal Framework for Peace reform. The constitutional reform would provide legal benefits to demobilized memebrs of illegal armed groups in hopes of reintergrating them back into society. The ICG also recommended that Colombia’s government ensure victims access to the same benefits given to victims of the armed conflict as defined in the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which went into effect in January. The law seeks to compensate the country’s 4 million victims of armed conflict. At present, it only extends to victims who have “suffered a violation of their fundamental rights” as defined by international humanitarian law at the hands of leftist guerrilla groups or right-wing paramilitaries, and not NIAGs.
“Dismantling the NIAGs and doing so while avoiding impunity, requires also closing down their corrupt networks, guaranteeing victims’ rights and preventing rearmament, in addition to punishing individual crimes”, says Silke Pfeiffer, the Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director.
Pfeiffer also said the treatment of neo-paramilitary groups has important implications for the eventual resolution of the armed conflict.
“A credible commitment from the government that it is serious about doing so – that it is taking a more encompassing approach to their surrenders – could also become a crucial part of wider guarantees ahead of possible peace talks with the guerrillas,” said Pfeiffer.