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Last Updated:1/13/04
Letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), January 13, 2004

January 13, 2004

Colin Powell
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C. 20520

Dear Secretary Powell,

For several years I have closely followed developments in Colombia, and I write to voice some concerns that we probably hold in common. I refer to recent developments in the Colombian government's negotiations with paramilitary groups, among them the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a group on the State Department's list of international terrorist organizations. I also write to request some clarification of U.S. policy toward these negotiations.

While it is almost always positive to see an armed group lay down its weapons through negotiations, the talks that President Alvaro Uribe's government is holding with paramilitaries demand particular vigilance. This is a rare case of a government negotiating with an armed group that is avowedly pro-government, and a group that has in the past received important support from the Colombian military and security forces.

Perhaps the most immediate issue is the impunity that appears to be a likely outcome of the talks. The paramilitaries are responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings, massacres, disappearances and forced displacements of populations. Yet draft legislation submitted by President Uribe last August called for the payment of reparations to victims, among other symbolic acts, as an alternative to jail time for paramilitary leaders who turn themselves in. The draft legislation does not even contemplate a Truth Commission report or similar mechanism to hold accountable those who ordered and carried out crimes against humanity.

If this law should pass unaltered, paramilitary leaders will escape punishment and those who supported them - military officers, wealthy backers and corrupt politicians - will remain anonymous. There is even a danger that paramilitary leaders will emerge from the process in control of millions of acres of prime farmland, which they stole by forcing peasants to flee. Colombia has lived through several of these "forgive and forget" peace processes in the past fifty years, with both guerrillas and paramilitaries. The sad result has been a repeated, escalating cycle of revenge and senseless violence.

I am also very concerned that paramilitary leaders might get away with sending massive amounts of drugs to our shores and key narcotics traffickers will be pardoned under the terms of the paramilitary demobilization. As the U.S. Justice Department's extradition order against them indicates, AUC leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso stand accused of sending over 17 tons of cocaine into the United States and Europe since 1997. The real extent is probably greater; in mid-2003, a Colombian government document recognized that "it is impossible to distinguish between the self-defense groups and narcotrafficking organizations." Another example, paramilitary chieftain Diego Fernando Murillo, whose Nutibara Bloc paramilitary group turned in some weapons in November, has a long history of narcotics activity and is also the leader of La Terraza, a feared street-gang-turned-mafia that dominated Medellin's crime scene; recently he vowed to a Colombian paper that he'll "never spend a day in jail."

Worse, articles in The Washington Post and Colombia's main newspaper, El Tiempo, have documented a wave of major traffickers - some of whom are alleged to have even done narcotics business with Colombia's leftist guerrillas, the AUC's archenemy - who are "buying" leadership of small paramilitary blocs throughout the country.

In an apparent show of goodwill, several hundred low-ranking paramilitaries have turned in their weapons and submitted to the authorities since November. I find this to be more worrying than inspiring, however - and not least because the weapons turned in have been largely pistols and rusty shotguns. The demobilizations are occurring without a peace accord in place, without independent international monitoring and accountability of weapons, and without sufficient funding to support a real re-integration into society. Key questions remain unanswered, such as what punishments the ex-fighters might face in the absence of an amnesty law, and how former killers can be kept from returning to paramilitarism, drug trafficking, or entry into the military, police, or the parallel security structures the Uribe government has set up.

Finally, I am concerned that a poorly executed demobilization could benefit Colombia's FARC and ELN guerrillas, who also have a murderous human rights record. I am unconvinced that Colombia's government, which is strapped for cash, will be able to prevent guerrillas from filling security vacuums left in territories formerly under paramilitary control.

I would hope the U.S. government shares these concerns, but remain unsure because the State Department and the Administration have made almost no public pronouncements of the U.S. position regarding the talks and these recent actions. While this may be the most prudent course, I hope you might help me resolve a few specific questions.

- What is the U.S. position on a possible amnesty or "symbolic" punishment for gross human rights abusers? If the administration is not declaring a position on this point, what conditions must exist for this position to become known?

- Before she left Bogotá in mid-2003, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson told Colombia's El Tiempo that "we are going to finance - I believe that in the first year it's 2 or 3 million dollars - the demobilization of the first group of paramilitaries, about 1,500 people. We are committed to the same number of people next year." Has this or any other U.S. contribution supported demobilizations or any other aspect of the paramilitary peace talks? If so, which account is financing the process, and what is it paying for? Will a request for funds for this purpose be included in the President's FY 2005 Budget Proposal? If so, in which accounts?

- Last May, the chief political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá met with an Argentine lawyer representing the AUC leadership. On January 3, El Tiempo reported that "Rodrigo 00," leader of the dissident Metro Bloc paramilitary group, is maintaining "some type of contacts" with U.S. government representatives. Is this an accurate description? And what purpose is served by such contacts with paramilitary leaders, if they exist?

- If talks with the paramilitaries succeed in disarming the groups, does the Justice Department contemplate lifting its extradition requests against paramilitary leaders? If not, how would U.S.-Colombian relations be affected if the Colombian government does not turn over amnestied paramilitary leaders? Does the Administration share my concern that major drug figures might be entering the paramilitaries in order to win amnesty?

- Does the administration share my concern about the Colombian state's ability to keep guerrillas out of formerly paramilitary zones, or is it your judgment that the Colombian government is capable of exercising authority in these zones with current levels of budget, aid and manpower?

I would very much like to join the Administration in supporting the Uribe government's talks with the paramilitaries, or any other effort to take guns and fighters out of Colombia's war. But there is no shortage of reasons to worry that the Colombian government's talks with the paramilitaries may end up doing more harm than intended good.

I look forward to receiving your response to these very specific questions and concerns. Thank you as always for your attention.

Sincerely,

James P. McGovern
Member of Congress

JPM:cmb

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