By Eduardo Giordano – Apr 19, 2023
The government of Gustavo Petro has achieved, in a few months, important advances in its proposal of Total Peace: two rounds of negotiations with the ELN guerrilla, one in Caracas and the other in Mexico, which allowed participants to agree on the structure of the talks and opened a negotiation space with the other guerrillas who have continued the armed struggle after the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC.
Once these dialogue processes are underway, the other major focus of violence that particularly affects rural and ethnic communities is the narco-paramilitary gangs. Dismantling paramilitary organizations is a very complex task, given the strength of their firepower, their support in some sectors of society, and their presence in the territories. Most of the resources they manage come from drug trafficking, particularly cocaine, which they generally practice simultaneously with other criminal activities such as illegal mining and extortion.
These armed groups are mainly responsible for massacres, assassinations of social leaders, forced displacements, disappearances, and other serious human rights violations. The Indepaz report on the presence of armed groups in Colombia for the years 2021-2022 points, in 2022, to a dozen paramilitary organizations as “the groups that caused the greatest impact”. These are: “EPL-Pelusos, La Oficina del Valle de Aburrá, Los Pachencas, Los Puntilleros, Los Rastrojos, Los Caparrapos, Los Costeños, Los Pachelly, La Constru, Los Contadores, La Local-Los Shotas, La Local-Los Espartanos.”
This report is very forceful in analyzing the main activity of these groups and their links with state institutions: “The successor structures of paramilitarism, known as narco-paramilitaries, are understood as a form of paramilitarism for business, especially drug trafficking and money laundering—private armed groups for profit that exercise public security functions and, on occasions, counterinsurgency, relying on the complicity or omission of State agents and the security forces.”
According to a recent Indepaz report, violence against communities and social leaders decreased moderately in the months of January and February 2023 compared to the same period of the previous year, following the government’s announcement of a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities at the end of the year. However, violence has not disappeared. Paramilitarism has continued to be very active after the change of government. During the month of January 2023 alone, Indepaz counted 12 massacres in 12 departments, and the murder of 11 social leaders and human rights defenders plus one signatory of the peace agreement. In addition, as reported by the Ombudsman’s Office, the year 2022 saw the regrettable record of 215 murders perpetrated by paramilitary groups.
Given that there will be no political negotiation with these criminal groups, what advantages could they gain from their submission to justice besides a reduction in sentences? The key could be that extraditions are suspended, provided that these mafia bosses admit responsibility and abandon their illegal activity with guarantees. This proposal was advanced by Gustavo Petro shortly after taking office in August, at a press conference he gave alongside Spanish President Pedro Sanchez. On that occasion, he announced that his government had made four proposals to the US government to change drug policy, albeit still in an informal manner, not in order to reach conclusions but to brainstorm ideas.
The first point refers to extraditions and was formulated as follows: “Drug traffickers who do not negotiate with the State will be extradited. Drug traffickers who negotiate with the State and reoffend will be extradited without any type of negotiation. A drug trafficker who negotiates legal benefits with the Colombian State and stops being a drug trafficker will not be extradited.” These statements were questioned by US officials.
All in all, the possibility of suspending extradition to the United States for those drug traffickers who surrender to Colombian justice would be good news for the victims of these criminal organizations. These victimized individuals are currently deprived from prosecuting paramilitary leaders for the crimes against humanity they commit in the country. For example, the extradition of Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias Otoniel, the top leader of the AGC or Clan del Golfo, which occurred shortly after his arrest during the last months of the Iván Duque administration, prevented this leader of the largest narco-paramilitary structure from being tried for the serious crimes he committed in Colombia. In January 2023, Otoniel pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking before a US court, which sentenced him to pay $216 million after he admitted that he had smuggled more than 96 tons of cocaine through Central America and Mexico into the United States. He also admitted that “the CGA charged a fixed fee for each kilo that was manufactured or transported through the areas controlled by the group.”
The idea of holding negotiations with drug trafficking and paramilitary groups has received resounding rejection, and not only among opponents of Gustavo Petro’s government. From some sectors of the Historical Pact, discrepancies emerged regarding some of the actions of the High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, who was allegedly linked to the offers received by some prisoners from a mafia of lawyers who offered them prison benefits and not to be extradited in exchange for high sums of money. These accusations and his visits to prisons alongside the president’s brother, Juan Fernando Petro, who has also been linked to these offers, coincided with the revelations of alleged payments from two mafia bosses, Samuel Santander Lopesierra and El Turco Hilsaca, to Nicolás Petro, the president’s son and congressman for the Atlántico region, when he was in charge of raising funds for his father’s presidential campaign. The publication of the chats with his ex-wife, Day Vásquez, and the interview she gave to the tabloid magazine Semana, was a very hard blow to the government’s waterline and its anti-corruption program. Although Nicolás Petro’s ex-wife cleared President Gustavo Petro of any responsibility, assuring that her ex-partner had hidden everything from her father and had personally profited from the proceeds without contributing them to the campaign, the media machinery of the right-wing opposition found a very sensitive flank to whip the government of change.
The expected reaction of the right wing was joined by representative voices of the so-called “moderates” within the Historical Pact, such as that of the president of the Congress, the liberal Roy Barreras (who also objected to the health reform bill), who expressed his disagreement with some of the Executive’s procedures which, in his opinion, do not help the objective of achieving peace: “I ask the Government to suspend any type of conversation, dialogue or negotiation, official or unofficial, with drug traffickers, because it harms the noble purpose of Total Peace and because it is unnecessary,” he declared on March 6 at a press conference.
The president of the Congress also distanced himself from the efforts undertaken by the High Commissioner Danilo Rueda without disavowing his work, as did the head of the Attorney General’s Office, Francisco Barbosa, who stated that he never believed in Rueda’s word. The difficult balance of powers is one of the main obstacles for the government to advance on the road to peace.
Meanwhile, in the midst of so much political noise, the lawyer appointed by the narco-paramilitaries of the AGC to advance in an eventual legal process, Ricardo Giraldo, affirmed on March 9 that for his clients, the law 906 of 2004 (of Álvaro Uribe, tailor-made for the reincorporated AUC members) is more beneficial than the planned new law. In declarations to Noticias Caracol, this lawyer assured: “Based on that law of submission, they would not be willing to negotiate. They are right, there is no negotiation there, it is either they submit or they submit.”
Days later, on March 20, the president suspended the ceasefire he had declared with the AGC since January 1 and ordered the army and police to “reactivate all military operations against the Clan del Golfo.” This decision was prompted by the violent involvement of this group in the “mining strike” in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia, where they burned ambulances and transport vehicles to impose blockades, and by a rifle attack against the security forces. Petro formulated his decision in a tweet, adding: “The bilateral ceasefire with this illegal group is suspended. We will not allow them to continue sowing anxiety and terror in communities.”
The law of subjection to justice
On March 16, the Minister of Justice submitted to Congress the bill for the subjugation of narco-paramilitary groups “which establishes mechanisms of subjection to ordinary justice, guarantees of non-repetition, and dismantling of organized armed networks of high-impact crime”.
This bill, incubated during months of debates within the Historical Pact, offers a compromise solution to the systematic violence carried out by paramilitary groups in the country, offering them sentence-reduction benefits, up to a maximum of six to eight years for the leaders of these organizations, as long as they recognize their crimes and commit to dismantling the armed networks and not reoffending. Although the term “negotiations” is avoided, Chapter III of the law, which develops the “procedure for the subjection to justice and the dismantling of the armed structures,” includes a first stage of rapprochement and “conversations with the members of the criminal organization” who have expressed their intention to submit, in which case the execution of arrest warrants will be suspended.
The procedure leads to the signing of collective and individual acts by the members of the criminal organization with guarantees of non-repetition and reparation to the victims of violence. Article 35, on the “acceptance of responsibility” of the armed actors, establishes “the full identification of the assets inventoried and handed over by the members in the phase of rapprochement and conversion, and the request for extinguishment of ownership in favor of the state.” Likewise, it is required to deliver “detailed information on illicit activities and sources of financing,” including the list of front men of the organization.
Article 29 deals with the “intervention of the Attorney General’s Office in the process.” Here, it is stated that, at the request of the president of the Republic, the Prosecutor General’s Office “will suspend the arrest warrants and security measures that have been issued and those that may be issued during the stage of conversations and prosecution.” This article also establishes that this agency “will provide information to the office of the High Commissioner for Peace on the inquiries, investigations, and criminal proceedings in progress against the members of the organized armed network of high-impact crime.”
Political opposition from the attorney general’s office
The suspension of arrest warrants is one of the main points of friction with Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, who declared himself opposed to the bill shortly after it was announced, alleging that it would affect “the separation of powers and the administration of justice.” He also questioned the requirement that the Attorney General’s Office hand over classified information to the peace commissioner, stating that it would be “unacceptable to hand over data on inquiries, criminal proceedings, and investigations” against members of criminal gangs.
One of the concerns expressed by the prosecutor is Colombia’s image abroad, due to the inappropriate treatment, in his opinion, of drug traffickers. He added, citing the State Department as a source, that “97% of the cocaine that enters the United States comes from Colombia.” This assessment can certainly be interpreted as an interference of the courts in the foreign policy of the government and could be considered an attempt to sabotage the change in drug policy advocated by President Gustavo Petro. The attorney general, who reproaches the government for considering the attorney general’s office as “part of the executive branch of public power,” said in a newspaper interview that his fundamental concern “is that they camouflage a peace process in a submission to justice,” an opinion that is not supported by reading the text of the law. The Office of the Attorney General thus interferes with inflammatory statements in the prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches.
At the same time, Prosecutor Barbosa made strong objections to the government’s National Development Plan (PND), the main tool for the transformation of the country, proclaiming that some articles would affect the separation of powers and that the proposed changes in public contracting regulations were not consulted with him. One of the objections is his rejection of direct contracting by Indigenous cabildos and Afro-descendant communities, because—he assures—“they lack contractual experience” and “can be easily manipulated by unscrupulous people.” The office of the attorney general, which never flaunted so much legalistic purism under the government of Iván Duque, thus becomes the main opposing force to the government of the Historical Pact, in a clear attempt to block, delay or divert the main political changes.
In Colombia, the size and power of the Prosecutor’s Office—and also of other institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office—is disproportionate when compared to those of other neighboring countries. In spite of this, its efficiency as a judicial institution is socially questioned due to its inertia in relevant investigations during previous governments.
Barbosa is acting at a time when right-wing opposition figures are highly disgraced. Álvaro Uribe faces serious judicial proceedings, Iván Duque is already a political corpse, while Federico Gutiérrez, the last candidate of Uribismo, carries the stigma of the loser. On March 15, the attorney general held talks with the right-wing Cambio Radical party caucus in Congress, and one of the senators who participated said they were “very in tune.” In that meeting, the prosecutor asked Cambio Radical to put pressure on the government to avoid the urgent processing of the subjection to justice bill.
In parallel to the bias of the Office of the Attorney General, the Attorney General of the Nation Margarita Cabello also issed very intrusive statements against the labor and pension reforms of the government, assuring that “this does not seem to be a labor reform but a list of conditions of a union.” This was in line with the statements of the president of the National Federation of Merchants (FENALCO), for whom the reform, in addition to raising the cost of formal hiring, “brings a very important burden of unionizing the Colombian private sector.”
At the same time, both supposedly “neutral” institutions are dynamiting the support obtained by the government in the Congress among the parties located to the right of the Historical Pact, that transversal alliance of the political spectrum that was formed after the elections to advance in some reforms. A journalistic investigation of TV Caracol, broadcast on March 25, revealed that Attorney General Cabello and Prosecutor Barbosa met “with directors of the three traditional parties that joined the government coalition: the U, the Conservatives, and the Liberals, to motivate them to abandon the coalition and declare themselves as independents.”
Senator Iván Cepeda, main negotiator with the ELN on behalf of the government and one of the promoters of the law of subjection of criminal gangs, stated that the attitude of Prosecutor Barbosa was incompatible with his position: “Prosecutor Barbosa has set aside the independence of the judiciary and has dedicated himself to make, without dissimulation, political opposition to the government and to the peace policy.” Cepeda filed a complaint before the Accusations Commission of the House of Representatives because “he has publicly said that he is not going to let the bill to subject criminal structures to justice pass in Congress, which could affect the autonomy and independence of the legislative debate” and for making use of the position for “political and electoral purposes,” among other reasons.
Iván Cepeda, an esteemed figure in the defense of human rights, was much more explicit in a tweet he sent to Barbosa on March 22: “Prosecutor Barbosa, the central question about the Clan del Golfo is the following: Why so much interest in avoiding the judicial submission of their leaders? Could it be that they fear that when they tell the truth they will be implicated? That is the real reason for the opposition to the subjugation law.” In April 2022, in the middle of the electoral campaign, Cepeda denounced the prosecutor Barbosa for intervening in politics during the race with serious disqualifications to Gustavo Petro, presidential candidate at that time.
Colombia: Petro and Duque Clash Over Compliance With 2016 Peace Accords
Drug trafficking will stop with Petro’s government
It is likely that today there are objective conditions that favor the subjection to justice of drug trafficking organizations. The Colombian cocaine business has been in sharp decline since Gustavo Petro arrived at the Casa de Nariño in August 2022. The main thermometer of this situation is that drug trafficking groups have substantially reduced the purchase of coca (coca leaf and coca paste) from the farmers who usually supplied them. One of the presumed causes would be the changes made by the Petro government in the leadership of the public forces, which may have led to the interruption of contacts of mafia organizations with their old allies in the Army and the Police. The big mafia bosses who invest on a large scale in the cocaine business would therefore have substantially reduced their purchases.
The economic problem derived from this situation is perceived with extreme gravity in the southwestern departments, especially in Cauca and Nariño, whose peasants depend on the sale of coca for their survival. Victor Ocampo, a social leader from the Cauca region, stated at an event organized in Bogotá by MOVICE on April 10, 2023: “For those of us who live in the region, it is no secret that the illicit economy is what makes the region dynamic. The department of Cauca has no sources of employment, beyond informality and jobs derived from public contracting.” Given that “this is what moves the region’s economy,” Ocampo sees “with concern that there is a blockage— let’s put it this way—in terms of the purchase of coca leaf from the peasants who are currently planting and who do not have many more options for life.”
The diagnosis is similar from other sources and in other coca-growing departments. Journalist María Jimena Duzán dedicated a program on April 10 to this issue, presented as follows: “There are already several territories where the peasants who used to grow coca leaf are keeping their crops.” The price of coca leaf has dropped and people are beginning to go hungry. Duzán introduced, in her program, two journalists from the alternative media outlet El Cuarto Mosquetero, Lina Álvarez and Shirley Forero, who interviewed many farmers in the Guayabero region, between Meta and Guaviare, and produced an excellent report titled “Hunger and Uncertainty in Coca-growing Territories.” This report documents how the peasants have lost the former security that allowed them to use pieces of coca base paste, weighed with scales, as currency—the so-called “white money.” This has vanished in the last six months. There is no longer anyone to buy their products. The money has completely disappeared and there is an enormous shortage of basic products.
Alirio Uribe, senator for the Historical Pact and one of the founders of MOVICE, also participated in the aforementioned meeting of this organization in Bogotá. His considerations on the subject were similar: “There is a freeze in the purchase of coca leaf, coca paste, and, of course, also in the circulation of cocaine. In my opinion, the investors who manage the whole cocaine business do not feel safe, in these areas, to transport the drug due to some measures taken by the government… This is the case of the Clan fel Golfo, which has been the group that has most protected the cocaine distribution networks. Also, the war in some territories between the Clan del Golfo and the ELN, and with some dissidents, has led to the cocaine business being at a low at the moment. This is a historic opportunity for the Colombian government to come up with real substitution proposals.”
However, although the context is favorable to a crop substitution policy, the government should act faster to take advantage of the opportunity.
Indeed, large-scale drug trafficking investments have shifted in part to Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia. Coca production and cocaine laboratories have also recently been discovered in Central American countries with no coca-growing tradition, that were previously only transit points, such as Honduras.
The deactivation of high-impact criminal groups inherent to the existence of drug trafficking does not seem possible today, neither in Colombia nor in the rest of Latin America, without a substantial change in global drug policy that will dry up the financial sources of narco-paramilitary organizations through the decriminalization of consumption and the regulated commercialization of coca and its derivatives.
Eduardo Giordano is an Argentine journalist based in Barcelona. He was director of the communications magazine Voces y Culturas between 1990 and 2003. He writes on geopolitics, international politics, media and conflict.
(Resumen Latinoamericano – English)
Additional translation by Orinoco Tribune
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/June 1, 2023
- Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window)
- Click to share on Telegram (Opens in new window)
- Click to email a link to a friend (Opens in new window)