Amid an unprecedented global health crisis, a national lockdown and uncertainty about the country’s security situation, the Colombian government is trying to encourage members of the country’s main criminal groups to turn themselves in.

But instead of appealing to entire armed factions, as happened with the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), a new decree passed by President Iván Duque gives the chance for individual members to surrender individually.

This initiative is being led by Colombia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which is charged with encouraging members of certain armed groups to come forward, checking their “desire for peace,” helping them surrender to authorities and eventually transition to civilian life.

InSight Crime sat down with Miguel Ceballos, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, to better understand how this process will work and what incentives are being offered to those who lay down their arms.

*This interview transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

InSight Crime (IC): Since this decree was passed in late April, a number of people have already turned themselves in. Can you describe how this decree works and does it have an end date?

Miguel Ceballos (MC): The first step was the issuance of Decree 601 on April 28, 2020, by the president, which adds to the powers that the High Commissioner for Peace has held since the 1990s. This means verifying the real will [of criminal actors] to reintegrate into civilian life. This began in 1994 and was reinforced in 1998 when the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace was made permanent.

But these functions were reserved for entire armed groups, whose activities were seen as political crimes. We are now making a distinction with armed groups whose actions do not fit within the framework of political crimes.

So, according to the characterization of the National Security Council, this decree distinguishes five organized armed groups: the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), dissident elements of the FARC, the Gulf Cartel, Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), who are dissidents from the original EPL, and the Caparrapos.

We will now seek to verify the will within these groups to transition to legality.

SEE ALSO: Reports show Ex- FARC Criminals Cells Taking Shape Around Colombia

The decree empowers the High Commissioner to discuss this with these groups, both with their leaders and members. The decree is being published to receive comments from the public for 15 days.

At the end of this month, we will have a clear roadmap in which the the Attorney General’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Ministry of Justice and the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN – Agencia para la Reincorporación y la Normalización) will also participate.

IC: How exactly will you verify this will for peace that you refer to?

MC: The great difficulty that has always existed in Colombia is to verify whether or not these armed groups want to reach a real and effective peace agreement. This happened when the FARC made the decision as an organization to take a step forward and it became possible to reach a peace agreement.

In the case of the ELN, we have to verify if they are still governed by their Fifth Congress of 2016, which outlined their armed and revolutionary actions. At this Fifth Congress, only the specific ELN peace delegation [sent to negotiations in Cuba that were scrapped in January 2019] was authorized to explore avenues for peace. In this sense, the will to reach an agreement is not clear.

The High Commissioner must verify a real will to move toward a peace agreement. There can always be strategies or tactical decisions by groups, which are not sincere but seek to save time or strengthen themselves.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profiles

There is also one very important thing to note: this is a route for individual surrender. The door for groups demobilizing collectively has closed in Colombia. In 2018, at the end of the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, Law 1908 was enacted, which established a period of six months for groups to express their desire for collective demobilization. That period has expired. We are creating a new path for transitioning to justice.

IC: So members of groups who want to demobilize collectively and who do not meet the definition of political crimes will only be able to do so individually?

MC: According to Law 1908, acts of collective demobilization began with the representative of a group presenting a list of people. But the rest of the procedure was individual. This is not a peace process, this is about a transition to legality. It is done through voluntary, individual acts.

That in practice is what is going to happen right now. If a group of people from an organization want to take this route, each one has to sign an individual act. The process will always remain individual.

IC: And each person will have access to the same advantages or benefits, legally and economically, in this process?

MC: There are two types of benefits that are established in this path. Some are of an economic nature, benefiting that person and his family. This program has existed for 17 years and has allowed more than 72,000 people to withdraw from armed groups: 35,000 from the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), 19,800 from the FARC before the 2016 peace agreement, 4,400 members of the ELN, and the rest from other groups.

The benefits come in two phases. The first phase lasts for three months, during which they join the Humanitarian Assistance Group for the Demobilized (Grupo de Atención Humanitaria al Desmovilizado – GAHD), which is run by the army. There, they are accompanied by experts for two to three months in homes where they can be joined by their close family.

At that time, the Attorney General’s Office is notified of this process and a prosecutor is appointed to oversee the case. At that time, a specific judicial route begins. This has a very specific name, surrender, this is not a pardon. The prosecutor will then study what types of crimes each individual has committed and what type of collaboration he will receive from the judicial system.

The Code of Criminal Procedure lays out reduced sentences of up to 50 percent of the original sentence. If the person has not committed serious crimes and is only charged with conspiracy to commit a crime or with carrying weapons, they can hope to even get probation in many cases.

Once these three months are over, the individuals begin a phase that can last five or six years, during which they receive permanent accompaniment from the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization. This agency provides them with monthly financial support based on meeting three commitments: studying, learning a trade and never committing a crime again. This monthly stipend is given for five years, at the end of which the people can receive a lump sum of about eight to 10 million pesos (between around $2000 and $2,600) in order to develop their own professional project. 

IC: Why go through all this and return to these types of incentives now? Is it related to the current political and public health context? 

MC: Well, this process is new for armed groups other than the ELN and the FARC. This route did not exist, not even under Law 1908. This new path to legality achieves real benefits, which are viable within the framework of President Duque’s public policy.

We are not simply going to give up on bringing legal actions against these people. We are giving them a route so that those who lay down their arms get special treatment within the justice system.

SEE ALSO: Six Ways Coronavirus is Impacting Organized Crime in the Americas

Now, the current situation has something to do with it. The pandemic is making many concerned in rural areas of the country. And the nearly 13,600 people who are in the five groups outlined above [7,000 armed members and some 6,600 others in support networks] could help spread the disease. Or they could contract the disease and they must think about their own health. So, the outstretched hand of the State opens.

But the most important thing is Colombia’s economic reconstruction: how to ensure there are enough jobs, enough food and access to healthcare. The existence of a large number of members in armed groups hinders this reconstruction, as well as the access citizens have to healthcare and food in areas they control.

IC: Which regions of Colombia does this plan prioritize?

MC: We are prioritizing those areas that have traditionally been most affected by armed groups, including the Catatumbo region in Norte de Santander, where the ELN, EPL and two FARC dissident structures operate; Bajo Cauca in the north of Antioquia department; ​​and the central department of Córdoba.

The priorities also include Chocó, where there is also a confrontation between the ELN and the Gulf Clan; Nariño, where the ELN and several FARC dissident groups are operating; and sectors of Putumayo and Guaviare departments. All these territories coincide with drug trafficking routes, both for cocaine hydrochloride and marijuana.

And the last area is extremely sensitive, the department of Cauca, where the ELN and FARC dissidents are fighting over drug trafficking routes, with violence seriously affecting social leaders there.

IC: Let’s talk specifically about the ELN, a group with which peace talks were underway and stopped [after the January 2019 car bomb attack on a Bogotá police training school]. Do you think this new decree will provoke a change in the ELN’s stance?

MC: There is absolutely no change with regards to the ELN. If ELN members want to demobilize, they can use the options available to them for the last 17 years and that have allowed 4,400 ELN members to demobilize. What is new is the individual route for the other four armed groups.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Government Rejection May Cement End of ELN Peace Talks

Another important thing that has hindered any peace process with the ELN is its decentralized decision-making process. Additionally, its entire Central Command (Comando Central — COCE) is outside Colombia. Of the five COCE members recognized by Colombia’s security agencies, two of them, alias “Pablo Beltrán” and “Gabino,” are in Cuba, and three of them, alias “Antonio García,” “Pablito” and “Ramiro Vargas,” are in Venezuela.

IC: Is there any chance of returning to peace talks with the ELN?

MC: We have always been very clear that the doors remain open if the ELN meets these conditions: releasing all kidnapping victims, releasing all kidnapped children [within their ranks], ending child recruitment and an immediate end to the installation of antipersonnel mines. The ball is in their court.

And there is a great consensus in Colombia, even among the press and civil society organizations, which are most critical of the government, that these three conditions are valid and need to be met.

IC: Do you think that restarting the aerial spraying [of glyphosate to destroy coca crops] can have consequences for these groups?

MC: I believe that aerial spraying is one of the tools at the disposal of the Colombian government. It was laid out within the FARC peace agreement and now has guidelines established by the Constitutional Court. Its use has an entirely legal and constitutional framework if all the conditions established by the Constitutional Court are met.

This tool is a way of confronting criminal groups, since it aims to reduce drug trafficking, which is one of their most important sources of financing.

In this sense, aerial spraying will achieve the disruption of these armed groups and seek a transition from illicit economies to legal economies.

*This interview transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.

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