In 2016, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization – signed a peace agreement that promised to bring an end to half a century of internal armed conflict. This decades-long conflict—a triangulated war between guerrillas, paramilitaries and government forces—was devastating. An estimated 262,000 people were killed, and 120,000 went missing. Victims of the conflict have endured enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and forced displacement. Over the course of the conflict, more than 5 million fled the violence, making Colombia home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world.
Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, over 13,000 FARC guerrillas have demobilized. Despite this, internal conflict and the enduring presence of armed groups continues to undermine the rule of law and efforts for justice, truth and reparations in Colombia. Insurgency and counterinsurgency operations continue to be financed by the deadly drug trade, and the lines between drug cartels and guerrilla and paramilitary groups remain blurred. The main victims continue to be civilians living far from city centers and caught between struggles for regional control by armed actors. The most affected groups have been Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and campesino (rural working-class) communities, and human rights defenders. Although Colombia has made strides in its accountability and justice processes, impunity remains high and the citizens of Colombia continue to be targets of extreme violence.
Political pacts to demobilize paramilitaries
The Peace Accord of 2016 was the latest in a series of efforts by the Colombian government to demobilize unlawful armed groups and create mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations. Between 2003 and 2006, the Colombian government implemented an accord with the right-wing paramilitary organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), Colombia’s largest paramilitary group.
Starting in 1965, the Colombian government permitted – in and some instances, encouraged – the proliferation of paramilitaries in an ill-conceived effort to combat guerrillas in areas where the government was largely absent. By the 1980s, drug traffickers, large landowners and ranchers, among other groups, took over these groups and created illegal armies in the service of their private interests. Financed by drug trafficking, the paramilitaries formed a national paramilitary network in 1997: the AUC. Aiming to exert control over land and to monopolize drug trafficking and production, the AUC waged a campaign of brutal violence against anyone who stood in its path. AUC combatants forcibly displaced, tortured and killed thousands of civilians.
While all sides of the conflict perpetrated human rights violations, the AUC and other paramilitaries are responsible for the vast majority of the 70,000 civilian killings and millions of forced displacements since the 1980s. In 2001, the United States government designated the AUC a terrorist organization, as well as a foreign narcotics kingpin organization.
Amnesty for Abuses: Neither Peace, nor Justice
After Álvaro Uribe was elected President in 2002 and the United States indicted the first round of AUC commanders for drug-related crimes, the AUC entered into negotiations with the Colombian government. These negotiations produced a demobilization plan for AUC members. In 2005, Colombia enacted the Justice and Peace Law, establishing a legal framework for reintegrating AUC combatants into civilian life. This law offered leniency to paramilitary members of any rank who agreed to disarm, forfeit assets and testify to their human rights abuses. Paramilitaries who complied with these terms were eligible for reduced sentences, regardless of the severity of their crimes. According to the Colombian government, approximately 31,000 paramilitary fighters had demobilized by 2006. Of these, 3,712 applied for leniency under the Justice and Peace Law.
International and domestic human rights observers argued that the Justice and Peace Law provided a de facto amnesty to human rights abusers and failed to guarantee the rights of victims to truth and redress. In 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court addressed some of these concerns when it limited the scope under which demobilized paramilitaries could benefit from the lenient sentencing scheme that the Justice and Peace Law created. Under the revised law, victims were allowed a limited role in the proceedings and perpetrators were required to give full confessions in order to enjoy the law’s benefits. Despite these formal revisions, the Justice and Peace Law has not resulted in meaningful accountability and has yet to fully integrate survivors into the process.
Peace and justice in Colombia today
Since the 2016 Peace Accords, transitional justice efforts continue in Colombia, with mixed results in providing comprehensive accountability and reparations for victims. According to a report by the Kroc Institute, by February 2019, only 23% of the measures required by the Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC-EP had been fully implemented. Moreover, while accountability initiatives have provided some measure of justice to some victims, their effectiveness has been reduced by the ongoing conflict.
Power vacuums created following each demobilization failed to be adequately addressed by Colombia’s government. As a result, successor illegal armed groups emerged after the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas in 2017 and the demobilization of the AUC paramilitaries in 2005. With the continued presence of these groups, serious human rights abuses, including killings, disappearances, and rape, continue in Colombia. Indeed, among the critical failings of the 2016 Peace Accords has been the Colombian government’s inability to reinstate civilian governance in areas previously controlled by the FARC. This has created opportunities for paramilitary successor groups, dissident FARC, and drug trafficking networks to re-occupy areas that the Colombian government failed to aid. Efforts to demobilize other armed groups and hold perpetrators accountable continue.
Persistent Impunity and Lackluster Implementation
Impunity and corruption are prevalent in Colombia, in part because of its history of close collaboration between government forces with paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Despite demands from civil society to properly implement the 2016 Peace Accords, the process has faced delays and severe setbacks. Meanwhile, judges, prosecutors, and human rights defenders are routinely intimidated and assaulted. Between the Peace Agreement’s signing in 2016 and June 2019, nearly 500 human rights defenders have been killed. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders highlighted “the lack of political determination and failure to allocate sufficient funds for the implementation of the Peace Agreement” as a key structural factor keeping human rights defenders at risk.
The United States and Accountability in Colombia
In July 2008, Colombia extradited fourteen demobilized paramilitaries, including the most important leaders of the AUC, to the United States to stand trial on charges of narco-trafficking, money laundering, and provision of material support to a terrorist organization. The first to be extradited was Carlos Mario Jiménez Naranjo, known as “Macaco,” former leader of the Bloque Central Bolívar (BCB), a ferocious arm of the AUC. Macaco is the defendant in a civil case initiated by CJA in June 2010: Cabrera v. Jiménez Naranjo a/k/a Macaco.
These extraditions—which interrupted human rights proceedings against the paramilitary leaders—drew criticism from local and international monitors, who pointed out that they ignore the grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the paramilitary chiefs and seriously undermine Colombia’s transitional justice process. While the United States generally has jurisdiction to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses such as torture and extrajudicial killing, the terms of these extraditions appear to only contemplate drug trafficking and related offenses. Because the subject of an extradition may generally only be prosecuted for the offenses for which extradition was granted, the U.S. government effectively closed the case on the serious human rights crimes committed by paramilitaries.
CJA’s Colombia work aims to support the courageous transitional justice efforts undertaken by our Colombian partners, and to hold perpetrators accountable for the totality of their crimes, re-centering accountability for human rights abuses.