Colombia's International Relations and Domestic Challenges
Summary of a breakfast discussion with the Honorable Francisco Santos, Vice President, Republic of Colombia, and the Honorable Carolina Barco, Foreign Minister, Republic of Colombia, with Attorney General Mario Iguarán; co-sponsored with the Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Foreign Minister Barco described the context in which Álvaro Uribe was elected president in August 2002. The second half of the 1990s witnessed a direct correlation between expanding coca cultivation in Colombia and rising levels of violence, the relinquishing by the state of vast but sparsely populated areas of the country, and the "generous, but failed," peace process between President Andrés Pastrana and the FARC. President Uribe's democratic security policy was designed to redress this situation, and Barco outlined what the government sees as its central accomplishments. First, as part of the goal of increasing state presence throughout the countryside, the government had established police stations in all the country's municipalities, facilitating the return of over 200 mayors to their towns. Second, the number of homicides had dropped 40 percent and kidnappings had declined 70 percent, making the country safer than it has been since 1985 when drug violence began. Third, the country has held successful elections for mayors, governors, state assemblies, and city councils. Barco said that U.S. support has played a significant role in these security accomplishments.
Barco said that the Uribe administration decided to pursue the two active peace processes it inherited from the previous administration. These included talks taking place in Cuba with the ELN guerrillas, and talks with the AUC, initiated by the Catholic Church. Although Mexico's mediation of the talks with the ELN collapsed in mid-2005, she said that "new rapprochements" with the ELN were currently underway. Negotiations between the government and the AUC had taken place following the AUC's declaration of a cease-fire and were to be concluded by the end of 2005. Barco said that existing legislation governing peace talks in Colombia allowed for amnesty for political crimes, and had led to the individual demobilization of 7, 647 members of the FARC, AUC, and ELN. However, she said, the government saw the need for a more comprehensive legal framework to guide the peace process with all armed groups, in order to balance peace and justice, respond to the demands of the international community, and incorporate relevant experiences from such places as South Africa and Northern Ireland. The Peace and Justice Law that was approved by the Colombian Congress on June 22, 2005, she said, reflected two years of debate within Colombia and abroad.
Paraphrasing British Prime Minister Tony Blair's comments to President Uribe during his July 2005 visit to the U.K., Barco said that a peace process inevitably requires "a compromise between the ideal and what is possible." She said that the Peace and Justice Law was unprecedented in Colombia and supported by 71 percent of the population. It "allows no impunity," she said, but rather, subjected all demobilized combatants to a judicial process. Moreover, she argued, the law was pioneering in its focus on victims and the right to truth and reparation. Barco expressed hope that the United States and others in the international community would support the implementation of the Peace and Justice Law.
Vice President Francisco Santos emphasized that the demobilization of the AUC—to reach 15,000 combatants by year's end--is likely the largest ever undertaken in the hemisphere. He also noted that violence had been drastically reduced in areas of AUC demobilization and that the sophisticated weapons being turned in by the paramilitaries "are no longer killing Colombians." Santos acknowledged that the Peace and Justice Law is imperfect, but described it as a necessary complement to existing legal norms that seek to encourage negotiations.
In particular, Santos said that the law would serve as a vehicle to solve serious crimes committed over the past 15 years, in that information provided through confessions would complement that obtained through ongoing and past investigations. He said that a National Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation would draw up a "complete and detailed report" about abuses committed by illegal armed groups, and that "the public admission of responsibility and remorse," coupled with a request for forgiveness from victims of abuse, was unprecedented in Colombia. Santos said that the form and amount of reparation—defined as restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, moral satisfaction—would be established by judges and executed by the state. Santos also emphasized the importance of the Peace and Justice Law as an incentive for individual combatants, particularly of the FARC, to desert.
Santos insisted that the Peace and Justice Law was "not a law of impunity." He argued that, as in Northern Ireland, those responsible for serious crimes would face criminal proceedings and be punished. He described sentence reductions as the price Colombians would have to pay to achieve reconciliation and peace. He echoed Foreign Minister Barco in characterizing the law as "the result of a democratic process" involving the Colombian Congress, interested sectors of Colombian society, and representatives of the international community. He said that the law was not a means to "legalize wealth amassed by illegal means," reiterating that the legislation required combatants to relinquish all illegally obtained assets, which would be turned over to the Fund for Reparations. Furthermore, in response to claims by critics that the law would allow paramilitaries to enter politics, Santos stated that all demobilized combatants would be identified and fingerprinted as part of the disarmament process and that those prosecuted would be banned from serving in public positions. Santos concluded the Justice and Peace Law, "though far from perfect, reflects the will of a clear majority of the Colombian nation." He asked for the assistance of the international community in implementing the legislation and reintegrating the large numbers of demobilized combatants.
Subsequent discussion focused on criticism of the law's utility as an instrument to disband the paramilitaries, end illegal activities such as drug trafficking, and provide justice to victims. Asked about the current situation with paramilitary leader "Don Berna," (Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano) under indictment in the United States for drug trafficking, Santos said that "Don Berna" was working to convince his followers to demobilize and he was being held "in a little house" under the control of Colombia's penitentiary guard. In response to questions about the law's ability to ensure that full and truthful confessions were given and assets relinquished by former combatants, Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguarán stressed that the language of the law was strong and explicit in requiring confessions and the relinquishing of illegally-obtained assets in order to receive benefits, including reduced sentences. Questioned about the government's ability to investigate crimes, Iguarán said that 20 units of the Fiscalía, each with 10-15 officials, not 20 individuals, would be responsible for carrying out investigations, and that the 60-day investigation period was twice as long as that provided for in an ordinary proceeding. Santos indicated that the government would ask for U.S. assistance in training the units of the Fiscalía. He also said that the international community was supportive of the demobilization process, as evidenced during President Uribe's recent trip to Spain and the U.K. Finally, Santos said that his use of the word "jihadistas" to describe NGO's critical of the AUC peace process was in error and done out of frustration. The Colombian government, he insisted, maintained an open, serious, and fruitful dialogue with non-governmental organizations.