Paramilitary commanders have said that the demobilization of some elements of the AUC was faked, with the blessing of government officials, undermining official claims that paramilitarism in Colombia is a thing of the past.
Jailed commander Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias ‘El Aleman,’ who headed the Elmer Cardenas Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), told a Bogota court last week that the first demobilization was a “farce,” faked for the benefit of powerful drug interests.
The 2003 surrender of more than 800 members of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc was staged by the head of the Medellin underworld, Diego Murillo, alias ‘Don Berna,’ with the collaboration of peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, stated Rendon. The AUC leader said that Murillo, then the AUC’s ‘Inspector General,’ hired common criminals to pose as paramilitaries, supplying them with uniforms and old guns, in order to present himself as the leader of the bloc and enjoy the legal benefits of demobilization. This was also said during interviews that InSight conducted with Carlos Mauricio Garcia Fernandez, alias ‘Doble Cero’, commander of the AUC’s rival Metro Bloc, in 2003, before he was assassinated on the orders of Murillo in 2004.
Days after Rendon’s testimony, Ever Veloza, alias ‘HH,’ former commander of the AUC’s Calima Bloc, told courts from his U.S. jail cell that the entire demobilization of the Heroes de Granada Bloc was faked, and that the organization was only created one month prior to its surrender. This was another bloc led by Murillo. Veloza said that drug traffickers such as Juan Carlos Sierra, alias 'El Tuso,’ had paid paramilitary commanders to say that they were part of the AUC so that they could demobilize and get legal benefits.
These allegations are not new, as rumors about these blocs, and numerous others in the AUC, have been circulating since the time of the demobilizations. A 2005 Human Rights Watch report said that the Heroes de Granada demobilization included members of Murillo’s Oficina de Envigado, which “has not traditionally been considered a paramilitary group,” and notes that the event “was preceded by allegations that Don Berna was recruiting people to pose as paramilitaries for purposes of demobilization.” A 2010 report by the same NGO said that officials from Medellin’s Personeria estimated that 75 percent of those who demobilized with the Cacique Nutibara and Heroes de Granada blocs were not paramilitary combatants.
What is new about the latest revelations is the fact that they are made by high-level AUC commanders who are implicating government officials in the deception. Rendon said that the government accepted the demobilization of the Cacique Nutibara even though it knew that many of those going through the process were common criminals, drug dealers and hit men who were not paramilitaries. Veloza even claimed that he had warned peace commissioner Restrepo in advance about the deceptions.
Rendon's and Veloza's statements add weight to the idea that the peace process was not a success. If drug traffickers were able to demobilize, and parts of paramilitary blocs remained active while civilians posed as fighters, then the government clearly did not ensure the demobilization of all of the AUC. Nor did it thoroughly investigate the crimes and financial links of those who did go through the system. The Oficina de Envigado remains a potent force in Medellin, with much of its leadership made up of former AUC members, while battles between Murillo's former lieutenants for control of the organization is the cause of soaring crime rates in the city.
The Uribe government’s seeming willingness to go along with these fake surrenders is part of the same determination to achieve short-term results at any price that is behind the "false positive" scandal, in which members of the armed forces were revealed to have murdered hundreds of citizens in order to increase their kill counts. The attorney-general’s office is investigating some 1,300 such cases.
This focus on superficial results was behind the botched demobilization process described in the commanders' testimonies, which in turn led to the rise of the new criminal groups ('bandas criminales' - BACRIMs) now menacing the country. Much of the leadership of the BACRIMs is made up of paramilitaries who did not demobilize and others who simply returned to criminal life after handing over weapons.
Both the Santos and Uribe administrations have insisted that the BACRIMs are not linked to the old paramilitaries, arguing that the Uribe government successfully engineered the surrender of the AUC and that the emerging groups are an entirely new phenomenon.
The latest allegations, coming from the paramilitaries themselves, may make that position more difficult to maintain.