“Without a sentence, no one is considered guilty. Those who have not been declared guilty must be declared innocent.” As Colombia approaches the other end of the Justice and Peace process, the lack of successful trials casts a shadow over a society obliged to watch some of the country’s worst human rights violators return to its streets without so much as an official condemnation.
The end of 2013 saw the release of the first paramilitary combatant to submit himself to the Justice and Peace process, a compromise made in 2005 between the Colombian state and illegal right-wing militias allowing for greatly reduced sentencing in exchange for peaceful disarmament and extensive testimony.
This coming year will most likely mean freedom for many more of those who decided to turn themselves in starting eight years ago, after watching their organizations assume joint responsibility for a broad swath of the widespread human rights violations committed in the recent history of Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict.
John Jairo Alvarez Manco, alias “El Mono,” of the Bananero bloc of the AUC – a now-defunct paramilitary umbrella organization – is the first of a host of imprisoned militants to request his promised freedom after serving the eight-year term mandated under the terms of the Justice and Peace program.
Also expected to be released in coming months are a number of major paramilitary leaders and widely feared criminals, the majority of whom never faced sentencing.
“If the person gives themselves over to Justice and Peace, and has complied with all Justice and Peace processes, but [Colombia]s judicial system] hasn’t passed a sentence, the time to be served is still eight years, and that person can ask for freedom,” Cesar Molinares, editor of armed conflict research website Verdad Abierta, told Colombia Reports. “This is the reality.”
Following a reform to the highly inefficient Justice and Peace system — which would have lead to a century-long process if continued with the same methodology – the investigations were narrowed down to those with “maximum responsibility” for paramilitary crimes.
The armed conflict veteran explained how, even in the 16 cases that were brought to trial, whatever sentence the demobilized militant may receive will still not see them behind bars for any longer than the eight years stipulated by the agreement. The so-called “alternative” sentencing is afforded paramilitaries who have committed crimes against humanity and chose, following the 2005 law, to give up their arms and their liberty to the Colombian authorities.
To qualify, the former militants also had to agree to “contribute to their re-integration into society through work, study or by teaching during their time in custody, and to promote activities aimed at demobilizing the illegal armed group they had belonged to,” states Law 975. The law also stipulates that future commitments may be required of Peace and Justice participants by government officials at any point during the course of their lives.
Those who had committed minor crimes, meanwhile, were allowed to turn in their weapons and walk free.
Of the over 400 imprisoned human rights violators under the wing of the Justice and Peace process, a reported 16 have been officially sentenced.
The hope, following the 2013 reform by the Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office, was that the 16 paramilitary leaders being sentenced would answer for all the crimes committed by their subalterns, and that these in turn accept the charges without having to undergo a lengthy judicial process. So far, however, the 16 convictions are the only ones that will go on official records.
Though some may consider a judicial verdict to be worthless in itself, as the maximum time that the demobilized paramilitaries can serve remains eight years regardless, the legal proceeding is still a vital part of the Justice and Peace agreement.
“Someone who has not been declared guilty must be declared innocent. They cannot be in judicial limbo their whole lives … despite the fact that they admitted everything,” Molinares elaborated.
Convictions carry an important if symbolic value, for suffering victims and their family members, as well as for Colombian society at large, afflicted by what the Ombudsman for the city of Cali has called a “climate of impunity.”
“We all know that the paramilitaries committed thousands of homicides, displacements, land seizures,” Molinares said. “Without a sentence, no-one is considered guilty. As long as they haven’t been condemned, they’re not guilty.”
Convictions, meanwhile, also carry certain penalties that a loosely implied guilt cannot. A conviction, for example, would prohibit any former military from serving public office. It’s not clear that Peace and Justice participants never convicted of a crime would face similar bans.
Another issue that Molinares highlights is the fact that many of the criminals already serving time before the passage of the 2005 law will still benefit from the reduced sentencing provision, even if they “haven’t brought anything to the truth or reparation process, nor have they accepted criminal charges.”
“When they enter the Justice and Peace process […] those being investigated through the ordinary justice system, for belonging to the AUC or the guerrilla […] pass directly through to transitional justice,” Molinares affirms.
Regarding what the future holds for the freed paramilitaries, Molinares has hopes of a successful outcome for the peace initiative.
“I think that if they committed to this process, they have to come out leading an exemplary life,” Molinares said. “And society needs to give them this guarantee — the possibility to live, work, without persecution.”
Nevertheless, the process of re-integration, Molinares believes, depends on not only the state and the former criminals themselves, but on the Colombian people.
This is an entirely different sort of challenge, especially considering that those still nursing the wounds of armed conflict may feel deprived of the justice they deserve.
“The biggest challenge was not only processing the [paramilitaries], but also re-integrating them. I could [end up] living next-door to someone who committed these crimes. This can affect anybody.”
“Anybody’s next door neighbour” could very soon be infamous commanders Fredy Rendon Herrera, alias “El Aleman,” Ivan Roberto Duque, alias “Ernesto Baez” and Rodrigo Perez Alzate, alias “Julian Bolívar.”
Although these former paramilitaries will be obliged to fulfill a shifting commitment to the victims, to justice and to the truth process throughout the rest of their lives, many of these prolific human rights violators will indeed walk back into society like any other Colombian citizen, with their slate technically “clean.”
- Interview with Cesar Molinares
- Justicia y Paz comienza a dejar en libertad a ex paramilitares (Verdad Abierta)
- Ley 975, 25 Jul., 2005 (Presidential Office)
- CONCEPTOS BÁSICOS ACERCA DE LA LEY 975 DE 2005 (JUSTICIA Y PAZ) Y DE LOS DERECHOS DE LAS VÍCTIMAS (Inspector General’s Office)
- Magistrados frenan la carrera de la Fiscalía en Justicia y Paz (Verdad Abierta)
- Jefes paramilitares de Justicia y Paz saldrían libres este año (El País)