The drug-trafficking bands competing for territory near the Colombia's Caribbean coast may be willing to negotiate their surrender to authorities, according to the bishop of Monteria, whose diocese, the department of Cordoba, is one of the most violent and troubled in the country.
Bishop Julio Cesar Vidal, who was one of the observers of the peace talks between the government and paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) in the early 2000s, told InSight that he has been in touch with "the top levels" of command of drug-trafficking groups, including the Rastrojos, the Urabeños, the Paisas and the Aguilas Negras, about negotiating a "nationwide" disarmament.
But the alleged negotiations may be a bid by criminal groups to gain political legitimacy, or to ease increasing pressure from the security forces, which have launched a surge of 4,000 military, police and judicial personnel into Cordoba.
Vidal said he has been in contact with intermediaries from the criminal groups, but he has not at any time met with criminal leaders like Luis Calle Serna, alias 'Comba,' commander of the Rastrojos, or the Usuga brothers, who head the Urabeños.
"Over the past year we have been in communication, and they have sent us letters expressing a desire to begin a process of disarmament, of opening a space for negotiations," he said. "They've said, 'We're tired of this. We're tired of being persecuted by the government, of moving from one hideout to another. We don't want Colombia to become another Mexico.'"
In February 2010, Vidal began reaching out to criminal bands ('bandas criminales' or BACRIMs) apparently with the authorization of then-president, Alvaro Uribe, reports Semana. Since then, he said he has received nine letters from criminal groups about a possible disarmament process, the last one received in January. The statement was reportedly written by intermediaries from the Urabeños, Paisas, Aguilas Negras and Rastrojos, expressing their willingness to turn themselves over to authorities and even face extradition to the U.S., the bishop said.
"They're not asking for special treatment or special laws," said Vidal. "As a representative of the Church, I have nothing to offer them besides the space needed for dialogue."
Vidal told InSight that as a gesture of good faith, the criminal bands in Cordoba agreed to a temporary ceasefire in December, which convinced him of the legitimacy of the negotiations. According to statistics from the Cordoba provincial government, December registered the lowest number of homicides in 2010, with 32 deaths, down from 63 in November, and 35 in October.
Vidal was a key intermediary during negotiations with the AUC, which began in 2002 and culminated in their disarmament in 2006. The AUC, a right-wing group ostensibly dedicated to the elimination of Colombia's leftist guerrillas, instigated some of the worst massacres in Colombian history and profited extensively from criminal activities like drug trafficking and extortion.
The AUC was treated as a political group during the negotiation process, and many top commanders were initially granted reduced sentences in exchange for disarming. This inspired other drug-trafficking groups, with no formal connection to the AUC, to try to enter the peace process in hope of gaining concessions from the governmen and protection from extradition to the U.S.
If drug trafficking groups with no political agenda like the Rastrojos are going through the motions of a supposed negotiation, this is likely another bid for political recognition which the central government is unlikely to concede.
"They can turn themselves in and submit [to the justice system], but not as part of a peace process," Minister of the Interior German Vargas Lleras told El Tiempo .
The failures of the AUC demobilization process created the space for Colombia's current generation of drug trafficking gangs, the BACRIMs, which have no political agenda and whose main concern is business, be it with the FARC or Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
Previous efforts by the Church or other civilian authorities to "negotiate" with the current criminal bands have led nowhere. Last year in Medellin, a group of civilian negotiators including the city's archbishop, said that they had brokered a "ceasefire" between warring factions of the fractured Oficina de Envigado cartel. Homicide rates dropped for a month but then continued to escalate, until the city finished the year with close to 2,000 murders.
Attention has been fixed on Cordoba since two university students from Bogota were murdered, allegedly by the Urabeños, in early January, while conducting field research in a rural area. The deaths shocked the nation's elite, and the government fast-tracked a plan to boost the security forces in the violence-stricken department. In a surge known as "Operation Troy," 1,000 police officers and 3,000 army, marine and judicial officials have been deployed to Cordoba's 19 municipalities, reports El Colombiano.
A video of Bishop Vidal talking to Colombian media about negotiations with Cordoba's criminal bands is available below.