Over 400 former paramilitary fighters in Colombia, including numerous ex-leaders, are slated for release from prison by December 2014, an event that could cause criminal upheaval should they get drawn back into the underworld.
After serving eight years in prison under Colombia's Justice and Peace law -- a transitional justice program implemented during former President Alvaro Uribe's administration -- 442 former paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are eligible for release before December, reported Caracol.
Among those on the list of eligible prisoners are Ramon Maria Isaza Arango, alias "El Viejo," who founded one of Colombia's first self-defense groups, and the notorious Freddy Rendon Herrera, alias "El Aleman," who commanded an estimated 2,000 soldiers in the Uraba region. Other senior figures to be released include Jesus Ignacio Roldan Perez, alias "Manoleche" -- security chief to the infamous AUC warlords the Castaño brothers -- and Ivan Roberto Duque alias "Ernesto Baez," who played a pioneering role in the development of the AUC's political networks.
The list also includes some of the leaders responsible for the country's worst massacres, which -- according to the Prosecutor General's Office -- left at least 400,000 dead.
In a last-minute effort to keep the former leaders from returning to criminal activity, the Prosecutor General's Office is preparing new charges against some of the worst offenders, according to Caracol.
InSight Crime Analysis
The paramilitary leaders released this year will encounter a very different criminal landscape from the one they left behind. The breakup of the AUC created a new generation of criminal-paramilitary hybrids known as the BACRIM (from the Spanish for "criminal bands"), who shed the AUC's political facade and quasi-military structures and focused on criminal revenues.
In this new criminal landscape, leaders like Isaza, who were part of an older generation of paramilitary fighters that were more truly counter-insurgent in their focus, will likely attempt some sort of retirement. However, if they are seen as rivals by current groups, they could find themselves drawn back in to the underworld for their own protection.
Others, like El Aleman, have close ties to successor groups and may use the influence they exerted in their former areas of operation to work with the BACRIM. In Rendon's case, the links are especially strong: Rendon's brother Daniel, alias "Don Mario," founded the most powerful of the new generation groups, the Urabeños, by recruiting many of El Aleman's former fighters.
SEE ALSO: AUC Profile
Other former leaders may attempt to regain control of territories they previously ruled, especially in areas where criminal groups have been weakened and divided. The region known as the Eastern Plains, for example, is embroiled in a bitter turf war fought by fractured BACRIM groups, which could create an opportunity for former AUC commanders from the region, such as Manuel de Jesus Piraban, alias "Pirata."