22 November 2007

'Colombia An Enormous Humanitarian Crisis'

Yolanda Guerrero

Maria McFarland is Human Right Watch’s expert on Colombia. The researcher admitted that the country “is probably our main priority in Latin America”. “Colombia is an immense humanitarian crisis,” she recalls and provides the reasons: “There are more than three million displaced in the country – only Sudan tops it – and the levels of political violence keep being extremely high. It is the place in the world with the highest death rate for trade unionists: already 27 this year.”

McFarland attributes “the degree of threats and pressures that affect the capacity of the civil population to express themselves fully to guerrilla groups of the Left like FARC (Spanish acronym of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and NLA (Spanish acronym of National Liberation Army) who in the areas they control create their own mini-state with their own laws. But in a less evident manner, the paramilitaries who operate as mafias do the same”.

Human Rights Watch is critical of the process of demobilisation of the paramilitary undertaken by the government of Alvaro Uribe. “The Law of Justice and Peace was designed to give a way out to those who played a part against it,” says McFarland. “In reality, the paramilitaries never had much to fear of the Colombian State; on the contrary we have documented many cases of tolerance and connivance between the military and paramilitary sectors. But the dynamics changed when the United States in 2002 sought the extradition of three paramilitary chiefs for narco-trafficking, with the inclusion of AUC (Spanish acronym for Colombian Self-Defence Units) in the list of terrorist organisations. The paramilitaries started to look for something that would let them cleanse themselves in exchange for minimum pain. And the Uribe government played the game with them”.

The humanitarian organisation denounced that the law of Uribe, as it was conceived, was a law “without credibility”. “What we have criticised from the start is that the process of demobilisation was not focussed on the dismantling of all of the group. It was not enough to have large ceremonies for handing over arms, as the government did,” adds the researcher who holds double Peruvian-U.S. nationality.

Even “the Constitutional Court responded last year to a demand against the law and managed to change substantially the law: it said there had to be a full and truthful confession; it eliminated some limitations that impeded how the prosecutors investigated and said that if the demobilised (paramilitaries) lied or did not hand over the goods acquired in an illicit manner, or returned to criminality, they would lose all benefits.

“The big question now is if the Prosecution, which is in charge of putting all this is practice, is going to have enough capacity and independence to do it as it should be… the financial structures of paramilitarism have practically not been touched: where they took their resources to, the criminal network of narco-trafficking and extortion… It has not been investigated because it wasn’t the objective of the process of demobilisation. Many reports say there are 3,000 armed men in different groups. Other reports says of up to 8,000 armed paramilitaries, which is what the figure was in the end of the Nineties”.
Abridged. Published in El Pais, Spain, November 20, 2007 Link:

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