As Colombia pursues peace, paramilitary killers walk free from jail

A 2006 demobilization of Colombia's feared right-wing militias hinged on limited jail times for those who confessed their crimes. The government and FARC rebels are holding peace talks to end five decades of civil war. 

Sibylla Brodzinsky
SAN ONOFRE, COLOMBIA - For two and a half years Victoria Berr’os suffered over the fate of her son (pictured in the middle), who disappeared in this small ranching town on the northern coast in 2002 when Colombia's paramilitary forces ruled the region with a heavy hand.

When Carlos Mario Ospina joined a rightwing paramilitary group in 1997, Colombia's militias were just beginning to extend their writ in his province. To drive out leftist guerillas, they carried out a series of gruesome massacres, forcible disappearances, and murders, often in collusion with state security forces. 

Mr. Ospina, known as "Tomate," rose quickly through the ranks, and by 2004, he led paramilitary activity in Putumayo Province, in southwestern Colombia. By the time he agreed to demobilize in 2006, he had personally overseen the murder or disappearance of more than 200 people.

His demobilization – along with that of another 30,000 members of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) – came after negotiations with the government of former President Alvaro Uribe. Paramilitary leaders were originally promised they would do no jail time, but this changed under a 2006 law that established a maximum sentence of eight years, compared to 40 years, the normal upper limit. 

There was a tradeoff: Militiamen like Ospina were expected to reveal the truth behind thousands of deaths and disappearances, and offer compensation to victims and their families. 

But eight years later, despite having publicly confessed to his crimes and faced his victims, Ospina has yet to be convicted. He says he has paid his debt to society under the terms of the demobilization agreement.

"I haven't been able to give the victims the peace that they want because there is nothing I can do to make up for the loss of a loved one," says Ospina, sitting under a tin-roofed gazebo on the grounds of Bogotá's La Picota prison.

"Many of them haven't found the remains of their loved ones because they were tossed into the river by the boys who were under my command. But I do feel that I have done right by the victims by giving them all the information I have," he says. 

At least 161 jailed paramilitary leaders, like Ospina, are eligible for parole this year after serving the eight-year maximum sentence. Only a handful have actually been convicted; five ex-leaders have already been set free.

Many Colombians are indignant over the thought of reintegrating murderers, torturers, and other violent criminals into society after such a brief period of time in prison, and without having revealed the truth behind each and every crime.

But for the government, honoring its promises is especially critical for Colombia's future. Since 2012, the government and leftist FARC rebels have held peace talks to end a half-century of war, and rebels are watching closely to see whether or not the government upholds its end of the deal it made with paramilitary combatants.

"We have the obligation to honor the commitments made in the negotiations with the paramilitaries," says Hector Eduardo Moreno, head of transitional justice in the attorney general's office. "It is an important message as well for the FARC." 

'Poorly designed'

Last month government and FARC peace negotiators broached the thorny issue of transitional justice and reparations to victims. Many Colombians feel top guerrilla commanders should be sentenced to at least eight years in prison, like the paramilitaries, but FARC leaders have resisted doing any prison time. Unlike the paramilitary process, victims are participating in the current negotiations.

Government officials are trying to learn from the pitfalls of the 2006 Justice and Peace law, which dealt with the paramilitaries. Just 36 people have been convicted out of the 2,670 paramilitary leaders who participated in the process. “[The Justice and Peace law process] was poorly designed, and the state didn't have the capacity to implement it," says María Camila Moreno, director of the Colombia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Initially, each individual was supposed to be charged for each crime, which was welcomed by victims. But prosecutors, investigators, and judges were overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases – and the process nearly collapsed.  

"It was a mistake to try to investigate and prosecute every crime by each person," says Mr. Moreno, from the attorney general’s office. In 2012, a new law allowed a change in strategy. "The new law allows us to focus on those most responsible and on patterns of criminality," he says.

With the new directive, Moreno expects to win convictions for 360 former paramilitaries by the end of the year.

Despite its shortcomings, the process has revealed vital answers to lingering questions. Paramilitary confessions have helped clear up some 40,000 crimes including 1,000 massacres and nearly 26,000 murders. The remains of close to 5,000 people abducted by paramilitary groups have been recovered, mostly in unmarked graves.

'They haven't given us anything'

But many questions remain. The body of María Cuarán's husband, Ómar, has never been found, for example. Ómar disappeared at the hands of paramilitaries in southern Colombia in 2001, and was never seen again. Ms. Cuarán says that although an ex-paramilitary member has confessed to killing her husband, the man has not revealed the whereabouts of his remains.

"How are they going to release them from jail just like that, when they haven't given us anything?" Cuarán asks. Officials stress that even if former paramilitaries are released from prison, they must still attend trials and hearings related to their cases.

These trials have served as a healing process for some, and yielded extraordinary scenes of reconciliation between victims and victimizers. In one recent hearing, former leftist Senator Piedad Córdoba came face to face with Roberto Ivan Duque. Mr. Duque, who kidnapped Ms. Córdoba in 1999, was one of the political masterminds behind the paramilitaries.

At the hearing, Córdoba recounted how the kidnapping and subsequent attacks against her had been "devastating." She offered forgiveness for her tormentors, while Duque praised her "spirit" and "courage" in the face of possible death. At the end, the two former enemies embraced. 

'I'll pay'

For Ospina, facing his victims has been the hardest part. "It's really painful. I see my family reflected in those faces," he says. Joining up in 1997, he explains, offered a way to avenge the murder of three of his brothers and an uncle at the hands of the FARC. "I know what it's like to mourn the murder of your family," he says. 

Ospina says one paramilitary commander who refused to demobilize had offered him $100 million pesos (about $50,000) if he agreed not to reveal details of paramilitary crimes in Putumayo. But he turned him down. "It took me a while to really commit to the process, to get into the habit of telling the truth," he says.

Now, as he prepares for his possible release before the end of the year, Ospina says he worries about security for himself and his family. But it's not the revenge of his victims and their relatives that he fears. 

"If I am killed by a victim, I think, well, if that's how I have to pay for what I've done, I'll pay. What I'm really afraid of is that people I have informed on will come after me," he says. "Because I know what they are capable of."

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