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Last Updated:1/2/04

The New Face of “Peace” in Colombia, by Adam Isacson, January 2, 2004


The New Face of “Peace” in Colombia

By Adam Isacson, senior associate, Center for International Policy Colombia Project

In November, we were treated to what looked like a rare bit of good news from war-torn Colombia. More than 850 paramilitary fighters turned in their weapons, and their leaders promised that more demobilizations would follow. Was peace breaking out? Is the get-tough approach of President Alvaro Uribe, a favorite of the Bush administration, forcing Colombia’s armed groups to give in?

The answer, sadly, is no. To understand why not, we must go back a decade.

In 1991 Pablo Escobar, the boss of Colombia’s Medellín drug cartel, surrendered to authorities in exchange for captivity in a luxurious one-man jail, where he continued to run his illegal empire. On July 3, 1992, three Medellín kingpins visited Escobar there to demand a greater share of their ill-gotten gains. The cartel boss had them killed on the prison grounds. The incident forced the drug lord to flee his gilded cage and to live as a pampered fugitive until police found and killed him a year later.

"Don Berna"

According to Medellín underworld legend, a fourth cartel figure was to accompany Escobar’s victims at that July 3 meeting. But Diego Fernando Murillo, a famously ruthless hitman known to most simply as “don Berna,” had been given another errand that evening: taking one of his boss’s girlfriends to the beauty parlor.

Don Berna survived – and thrived – over the next decade by shifting his loyalties. He signed up with the rival Cali drug cartel and helped form a vigilante group, “Los Pepes” (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), which attacked Medellín cartel targets, gave information to the DEA, and gave the Cali group dominance over the cocaine market. When U.S. and Colombian law enforcement brought down the Cali cartel, don Berna became a leader of La Terraza, a feared street-gang-turned-mafia that dominated Medellín’s organized crime scene, especially its legions of killers-for-hire or sicarios, during the late 1990s. Don Berna came to be “the man who pulled the strings of narcotrafficking” in Medellín, according to Colombia’s main newspaper, El Tiempo. [1]

By the end of the 1990s, though, a feud within La Terraza forced don Berna to seek refuge in the Urabá region along the Panamanian border, where he joined up with other former “Pepes” in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest right-wing vigilante or “paramilitary” group.

The AUC, formed to defend landowners against Colombia’s FARC and ELN guerrillas, is known worldwide for its brutality. While the guerrillas have committed untold outrages – thousands of kidnappings and attacks on civilian populations – the AUC counter-attacked with mass killings and displacement of defenseless populations, selective assassinations of civilian leaders, and “social cleansing” campaigns to exterminate prostitutes, drug addicts, street children and petty thieves. Its bloodthirsty record earned the AUC a place on the United States’ list of international terrorist groups. Its rise and expansion owed much to support from Colombia’s U.S.-backed military, a pattern of aiding and abetting that has yet to be stamped out.

Taking the nom de guerre of “Adolfo Paz,” don Berna rose quickly, assuming the title of “inspector general,” then in 2001 forming the Nutibara Bloc, a Medellín-based unit of the AUC. His influence eased the paramilitaries’ almost seamless merger with the drug trade, a merger so profitable that proceeds from drug shipments to the United States and elsewhere allowed the militias to triple in size from 1998 to 2002. In mid-2003, a Colombian government document recognized that “it is impossible to distinguish between the self-defense groups and narcotrafficking organizations.” [2]

In this narco-paramilitary nexus, don Berna is now by some accounts the most powerful paramilitary figure, more feared than the AUC’s titular leaders, Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso (both of whom face U.S. Justice Department extradition requests for sending drugs to our shores). “Don Berna is the man … who says who can work and who can’t, the man who decides who dies and who lives,” a major Medellín narcotrafficker told a U.S. reporter in 2002. [3]

But now don Berna and the paramilitaries are talking peace. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, an archconservative elected on a pledge of an all-out anti-guerrilla fight, offered to negotiate the AUC’s demobilization if the group first declared a cease-fire. The paramilitaries, many of whom openly supported Uribe’s campaign, complied in late 2002, even though their guerrilla enemies remain strong. Talks began in earnest in June 2003.

Don Berna is an unlikely figurehead for a peace-making effort. The few pictures available of him depict a Hollywood caricature of a Colombian narco-gangster: overweight, favoring t-shirts and baseball caps; various wounds have left his face scarred and have forced him to walk with a limp. While paramilitary leaders like Castaño and Mancuso have given numerous interviews to the press, don Berna has not – and his reputation for ruthlessness has kept most reporters from seeking him out.

Don Berna is leading a wave of narcotics figures who have lately joined the AUC, in some cases buying their way into leadership of paramilitary fronts and blocs. They are signing up not out of any abiding hatred for Colombia’s guerrillas – some of them in fact are alleged to do narco business with them. [4] Instead, they hope to benefit from whatever amnesty deal might come out of the AUC’s talks with the government. As don Berna recently swore to a Colombian reporter, “I’ll never spend a day in jail.” [5]

The Nutibara Bloc turns in weapons, November 2003

Don Berna and those like him hope to emerge from the “peace process” with their freedom, a clean slate, and perhaps even their stolen landholdings and a future in politics. That is why it was so disturbing to see him on November 25, addressing the nation in a videotaped greeting broadcast live on Colombian television, asking for quick passage of a law that would grant him amnesty. Don Berna’s message, as well as those of Castaño and Mancuso, was played at a Medellín ceremony to celebrate the demobilization of 850 members of his Nutibara Bloc.

With much fanfare, the low-ranking fighters turned in about 200 weapons – mostly pistols, though the group displays much greater firepower on its home turf – and were whisked off for three weeks of “reinsertion into society” at a recreation center about an hour away. Many if not most of the ex-fighters have committed murder or other crimes in the past, and their legal status is uncertain. While the Uribe government has proposed a highly controversial law to grant amnesties in exchange for reparations, the bill is hardly moving in the Colombian congress.

Interviewed in El Tiempo, a 25-year-old fighter named “Alberto,” who ran the Nutibara Bloc’s marijuana operations in several Medellín neighborhoods, was realistic about his “reinsertion”: “Am I going to stop selling marijuana after I demobilize? Nooo!” [6] Alberto also made clear that he would not turn in all of his weapons, which would leave him defenseless on the tough streets of Medellín’s poor barrios.

While human rights groups protested, many in the United States and Colombia celebrated what the Bogotá government billed as a “step forward in disarming the paramilitaries.” The Miami Herald hailed the Medellín show as “a worthwhile, albeit risky, venture” and “a ray of hope.” [7] The State Department’s Andean Affairs chief, Phil Chicola, was cautiously optimistic: “We hope the process continues and that those who demobilize stay demobilized.” [8]

As other paramilitary units prepare for demobilizations and amnesties, supporters of the process must think long and hard about what is to be done with don Berna and his ilk. What will happen to them after a peace process? Do he and his thousands of narco-henchmen – from “Alberto” all the way up – really plan to settle down and become law-abiding farmers and tradesmen? Do they merely plan to get out of the counter-insurgency business, while continuing to send us their drugs as before?

President Uribe greets a new batch of "peasant soldiers," June 2003

Or – an even more sinister possibility – will the newly absolved warlord armies merge into the Colombian government’s rapidly growing security apparatus, serving as informants, “peasant soldiers” or other auxiliaries to the Uribe government’s plan to wipe out the guerrillas? Has don Berna’s generation of narcos found a path to legitimacy and power that eluded Pablo Escobar and his cohort a decade ago?

This awful outcome is avoidable. The United States can be Colombia’s strongest line of defense against the rise of the narco-paramilitary nexus. The U.S. government gives Colombia about $700 million a year in mostly military aid, and has been effusive in its praise for Uribe’s internal-security policies. U.S. officials have largely kept their distance from the talks, not least because of the outstanding extradition requests.

“My instructions from President Uribe are to permanently inform the U.S. government about the steps we take,” government negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo said in July. “We won’t take a step without consulting them.” [9] If Washington is consulted that closely, it has a lot of power over how the paramilitary peace talks proceed, perhaps even the ability to veto many decisions. With this power comes a lot of responsibility for the talks’ result.

It is not in the U.S. interest to see don Berna or other narco-criminals making regular political statements on Colombian television, much less to see unrepentant paramilitary leaders helping to run Colombia. Our diplomats, no matter how much they support President Uribe, cannot appear to endorse a process that allows these figures to legitimize themselves.



[1] “Guerra entre paramilitares en Medellín ha provocado 128 crímenes este año,” El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia: July 7, 2003) <http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/noticias/ARTICULO-WEB-NOTA_INTERIOR-1162924.html>.

[2] Scott Wilson, “Commander of Lost Causes,” The Washington Post (Washington: July 6, 2003) <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13583-2003Jul5.html>.

[3] Karl Penhaul, “Colombian fighters aim at peace,” The Boston Globe (Boston: November 26, 2003) <http://www.boston.com/news/world/latinamerica/articles/2003/11/26/colombian_fighters_aim_at_peace/>.

[4] Scott Wilson.

“Por primera vez, el Bloque Metro de los paramilitares tiene acercamientos con el Gobierno,” El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia: August 5, 2003) <http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/noticias/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1203850.html>.

[5] “‘No pagaré un solo día de cárcel,’ afirma ‘Don Berna,’” El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia: November 29, 2003) <http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/noticias/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1439634.html>.

[6] “Joven paramilitar que se desmovilizará reconoce que seguirá armado y en el narcotráfico,” El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia: November 17, 2003) <http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/noticias/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1324050.html>.

[7] “In Colombia, a move in the right direction,” The Miami Herald (Miami: December 3, 2003) <http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/opinion/7401006.htm>.

[8] Luis Jaime Acosta, “Far-right Colombian militiamen lay down arms,” Reuters (November 26, 2003) <http://famulus.msnbc.com/FamulusIntl/reuters11-25-064547.asp?reg=AMERICAS>.

[9] Luz María Sierra and Bibiana Mercado, “Los retos del proceso de desmovilización con los paramilitares,” El Tiempo (Bogotá, Colombia: July 21, 2003) <http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/coar/noticias/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1185251.html>.

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