Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe’s record at curbing the bloodshed caused by crossfire between the country’s left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries was key to his re-election in May. But in seeking to complete a demobilisation of paramilitaries that was agreed earlier in the year, President Uribe, a former lawyer, has passed a law seen by many as equally destructive.
Known as the Peace and Justice Law, the legislation was intended to regulate the process of demobilisation, but has been criticised for granting de facto amnesty to warlords guilty of massacres, kidnapping and extortion.
Paramilitary violence has made Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in South America and has threatened the future of one of the continent’s otherwise most successful democracies. For more than four decades right-wing paramilitaries have committed murder in the name of resisting the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC) and smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla groups that have committed equally gross atrocities in the name of revolution.
The violence has escalated since the 1980s, when, as part of the war on drugs, the US began destroying coca plantations in neighbouring Bolivia and Peru, giving a massive boost to Colombia’s previously modest cocaine trade. Colombia’s new status as a premier drug producer created a significant revenue stream, fought over between drug cartels, guerrilla groups and paramilitaries. As a result all three sides have upped the scale of their armies, weaponry and human rights abuses.
The Peace and Justice law is intended to continue the demobilisation that seeks to reverse this trend. However, Graham Copp, campaigns director at Justice for Colombia, observes that the law gives prosecutors just 36 hours to decide whether to prosecute following a paramilitary’s demobilisation. It then allows only 60 days to mount a prosecution if they decide to proceed. The law also sets a maximum jail term of eight years for paramilitary members, which Copp considers a grossly lenient sentence.
In July Colombia’s Constitutional Court amended the law to increase the possible sentences for those found not to have revealed all their crimes. The amendments also introduced reparations for victims and improved the participation of victims in criminal proceedings against demobilised combatants. However, Uribe has responded with a draft decree to resist the changes.
The move has been slammed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and many other groups, which are calling for Uribe to respect international standards on the rights of victims. Peace perhaps, but not justice.