Colombia Seeks Demobilization of Criminal Groups

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Colombia is evaluating two controversial proposals on how to combat and prosecute the latest generation criminal groups, which could have far-reaching implications for the country’s armed conflict and any post conflict situation, should a peace agreement be signed.

On April 16, Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office and Ministry of Justice presented proposed reforms to the criminal code that would facilitate the surrender of criminal groups known as BACRIM (from the Spanish for criminal bands), spawned from the demobilization of the country’s paramilitary groups. These groups are now the major players in the drug trade.

In an interview with El Espectador, Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre stated that the proposal would allow BACRIM to receive the judicial benefits currently afforded to individuals, like reduced sentences, but only if the groups hand in their weapons, cooperate with judicial authorities, and provide information on their criminal and economic activities. Montealegre added that the reforms seek to streamline the process for prosecuting criminal groups and encourage BACRIM to negotiate with Colombian authorities as opposed to the US.  In the US, thanks to generous plea bargain agreement, Colombian criminals have been able to get light sentences in exchange for cooperating, creating frustration in Colombia. The Attorney General told El Espectador that there had been communication with emissaries from the Urabeños and the Rastrojos, two of the country’s principal criminal groups, since January.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s national police have sent a report to the Congress arguing against a proposal that would authorize the army to combat BACRIM, reported El Tiempo. According to the police, this law would effectively convert the BACRIM into political actors and prolong the country’s armed conflict. 

In the report, the police argued that their efforts at combatting these groups have been successful, reducing the number of BACRIM to four from over 30: the Urabeños, with an estimated 2,970 members, the Rastrojos and dissidents from the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), with around 310 members each, and the Libertadores del Vichada, with 160 members.

InSight Crime Analysis

Both of the proposals highlight the fact that in the event of a successful resolution to the peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and the Colombian government, the BACRIM will become the country’s principal security threat. As such, the issue of how to combat and prosecute these groups has taken on a new urgency.

However, while Montealegre’s proposal only seeks a new set of judicial tools — rather than a new status — for the BACRIM, the congressional proposal allowing the armed forces to join the fight against the BACRIM could have serious implications for the country’s armed conflict. If the BACRIM become a military target, this could give the criminal groups status as illegal armed actors and affect how they are prosecuted. Critics of the proposed law fear this could lead to a transitional justice process like the one employed during the demobilization of Colombia’s main paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which resulted in only eight-year sentences for paramilitary leaders.

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Indeed, likely in recognition of these judicial benefits, the Urabeños have always tried to portray themselves as political actors, calling themselves the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), seeking to present themselves as successors of the now demobilized AUC, and even asking to be included in peace talks with the government. However, with the country’s history of incomplete demobilization processes spawning new criminal groups, many Colombians are likely to be wary of any legal reforms that could risk treating the BACRIM as political actors. 

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