A mass paramilitary surrender resulted in just 21 arrests this weekend in Colombia. The rest of the estimated 269 members of the group known as ERPAC who turned in their weapons were released, adding another chapter to a peace process already marred by irregularities and unanswered calls for justice.
The confusing events that resulted in the government’s release of hundreds of accused criminals left onlookers groping for answers and accurate numbers. El Tiempo said that 21 members were arrested, and 248 released. Spanish news agency EFE, said that just 17 of 284 ERPAC members had been arrested.
In either case, government representatives where the demobilizations took place insisted that those released were “easily locatable” again and promised they would submit to the rules regarding their handover. Perhaps most confusing, Colombia’s presidency did not even refer to the demobilization on its webpage.
But other parts of the government have scrambled to reverse the sense that justice has been shelved in favor of expendiency. Colombia’s Attorney General’s office on Monday announced that 51 “arrest warrants” had been issued for ERPAC members who’d been sent home by the same institution on Friday.
With an estimated 500 soldiers, the Popular Revolutionary Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC) was one of the largest remnants of Colombia’s paramilitary armies that once fought as the government’s proxyies against leftist guerrillas. The varying estimates on numbers add to the mystery and concern about this weekend’s events: What happened to the other 200 members?
[See InSight Crime’s ERPAC profile]
The group has been reeling since its leader, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias ‘Cuchillo,’ was killed in a Christmas ambush by the government last year. The handover this holiday weekend appeared to be an effort to take advantage of the expiring “Justice and Peace Law.”
The controversial law was adopted in 2004 and was designed to open the door for paramilitaries to submit to justice, but it has been used by large criminal groups to shield themselves from prosecution for criminal acts ranging from extortion to drug trafficking, to wholesale murder and displacement.
What’s more, over 30,000 paramilitaries turned themselves in, many of whom simply did not hand over their real weapons and returned to their criminal ways, forming the core of a new generation of groups the government has dubbed ‘bandas criminales’ or BACRIMs.
The ERPAC was the prime example of a BACRIM. With Oliveiro at the helm, it retained a hierarchy and military structure that allowed it to dominate a vast portion of the country’s Eastern Plains since at least 2007.
Just how the government will tabulate the criminal acts since that year is a mystery, but the release of nearly all of the demobilized members of ERPAC this weekend gives an idea of the direction it is headed.
Of the ERPAC members arrested is Jose Eberto Lopez Montero, alias ‘Caracho’ (pictured above). Colombia’s Verdad Abierta, a news organization dedicated to keeping watch of the process, says Lopez Montero could be responsible for 1,200 murders in three Colombian departments.
Lopez Montero, however, is pleading for clemency, asking the government to prosecute “for what we’ve done, not for what we haven’t done.” If tried under the legal shell of “Justice and Peace,” he faces a maximum of nine years of prison.
In an interview in November with Colombia’s Semana magazine — undoubtedly designed to lay the groundwork for this mass handover — he claimed the ERPAC did not traffic drugs and regularly fought leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Both assertions are patently false. Following its re-mobilization under Oliveiro, the ERPAC teamed with Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias ‘El Loco.’ Barrera’s drug trafficking network is intimately tied to FARC-controlled areas of production that provided him with raw material to process coca base into cocaine, which was then mostly shipped to the United States and European markets.
[See InSight Crime’s ‘Loco’ Barrera profile]
If there were battles between the FARC and ERPAC, they were over control of lucrative drug trafficking routes.
Just how deeply government investigators will probe Lopez’s murderous past and the ERPAC’s illicit businesses is at the heart of what has made the “Justice and Peace Law” so controversial.
At best, the government has applied the law unevenly, allowing criminals to go free after years of committing atrocities. At worst, the government has used the law to formalize 20 years of criminal activities in which the paramilitary armies not only killed thousands of innocent civilians but also stole their land and displaced them to mostly urban areas to live in squalor.
Meanwhile, wealthy and politically-connected economic interests have reaped the benefits of these displacements. Massive agri-business projects are booming in rural areas, alongside a rejuvenated mining sector, and helped Colombia grow close to eight percent in the third quarter this year.
To end wars, trade-offs are always necessary, and the benefits of getting hundreds of armed men to hand in their weapons are obvious. But the government needs to follow through on both the “peace” and the “justice” promises embedded in the law, or it will lose credibility and set the stage for further conflict.