Colombia’s Double Standard for Terrorism, Part II
The Discreet Charm of Salvatore Mancuso and His Boys
By Laura del Castillo Matamoros
Narco News Editorial Columnist
February 8, 2005
After analyzing in the first part of this column the very peculiar treatment that Colombia’s institutions have given the cases of Rodrigo Granda and Pedro Carmona, one asks oneself, what is the secret fascination that certain terrorists provoke within the Colombian government? Why does President Uribe, for example, apply the full force of his “mano duro,” his “firm hand,” to some, while he generously opens the doors to his “corazón grande,” his big heart, to others? *
And while one asks these questions, one runs into two very talked-about cases, where it has been very clear which people are considered friends and which personas non gratas for the Uribe administration: I’m talking about Salvatore Mancuso, commander in chief of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in its Spanish initials, the main Colombian paramilitary group), and Simón Trinidad, a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), captured in Ecuador on January 2, 2004. Both were considered criminals under Colombia’s penal code, but the former seemed to have a bit more of a certain sympathy from the government than the latter. Why? Let’s look at this piece by piece.
The United States requested the extradition of both men, some time ago – Mancuso on September 24, 2002 and Trinidad on June 5, 2004 – on drug trafficking and other charges. Trinidad is also charged with several kidnappings (including the three U.S. “contractors” captured February 13, 2003), murders, and other crimes. For his part, Mancuso is accused of ordering various massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings. That is, both of them, technically speaking, could be seen as “terrorists,” right?
On November 2004, the Colombian Supreme Court approved extradition for both of these “chiefs.” At the time, President Uribe – whose favorite hobby is extraditing narcos to satisfy Washington – decided that this time he would subject the extraditions to a strange set of conditions, in which, of course, he had an ace up his sleeve, and already knew exactly what he would do to each of the two men.
The President knew how to play his cards. He placed his conditions on whether or not to extradite Trinidad and Mancuso in the context of the very questionable peace negotiations with the AUC and the highly criticized humanitarian agreement with the FARC (consisting of a prisoner exchange with the group, which receives funding from kidnappings).
And so the president, with the humanitarian agreement in mind, gave the FARC an ultimatum: the immediate release of more than 60 kidnapped prisoners before December 30 if they didn’t want to see Trinidad extradited. This is, no offense, a bit… childish, considering the FARC have multiple fronts, each with its own command hierarchy, which could never coordinate something like that in less than a month. Obviously, Uribe knew that his demands would not be met. Did this bother him? Of course not. In fact, this way he could kill two birds with one stone: extradite Trinidad, someone who wasn’t on his or the U.S. government’s side, and manipulate the Colombian public, showing how stubborn the “subversives” could be.
Meanwhile, what harsh conditions did they demand of Mancuso, working within the negotiations with the “paras?” Only that he “behave well”: turn in his guns, reenter civilian life and promise not to commit any more crimes. And Mancuso, like the good child in the family, was listening: on December 21 he handed over his gun, and, as if to show that he has a heart, too, cried in front of the television cameras and reporters who had shown up just for the occasion, begging forgiveness from the possible victims of his crimes and promising to reincorporate himself into civil society: “The man who speaks to you hear has buried yesterday’s victorious comandante. Today, the friend and fellow countryman is born. I was persuaded by Christian faith.” How sweet! He even talks like the president now.
But why is it that President Uribe’s conditions are more lax with Mancuso and harder on Trinidad? The government’s answer is simple. High Peace Commissioner Luis Carl Restrepo explained it on December 17: “In Mancuo’s case he is committed to demobilization, and is making en effort to dismantle the paramilitary groups. In Trinidad’s case, the lives of Colombian citizens are involved.” Does that mean, then, that Mancuso hasn’t killed anyone? Are the massacres, in which entire populations were wiped out, including women and children, and which he himself ordered, supposed to be considered “minor crimes?” It is a curious thing, how Uribe’s man in charge of peace understands the concept of murder.
And so, on December 31, after the FARC rejected the government’s conditions, Simón Trinidad was extradited to the United States, with a great deal of attention from the commercial media. Meanwhile, Mancuso, with a very forced attitude of indignation, threatened to take up arms again if the United States did not redefine its position on his extradition. And, curiously, Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt, an Opus Dei member with a phobia towards any expression of opposition to government policies, came out in defense of this new protégé of the Colombian establishment. On January 6, Sabas told the press that “what is clear is Law 782, which affirms that for people involved in the peace process, their capture order is suspended, whoever those people may be. So if someone is involved in a peace process the order is suspended. If someone is not involved in a peace process, the order is not suspended. These are the terms of Colombian law. There is no hateful discrimination or anything like that.”
Since November 25, 2004, Mancuso’s situation had been clear. There was no extradition hanging over his head (thanks to the work and grace of his holiness George II) and his crimes – considered crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court – had been pardoned through an amnesty law. Remember, kind reader, that amnesty is a legal recourse used all over the world with members of armed groups that have deserted or demobilized in order to pardon “political crimes,” that is, crimes committed with the goal of changing an established social and political order. Here, though, the situation is different, or should be: above all, paramilitarism doesn’t look to rebel against the established order, but rather to maintain it.
In fact, Mancuso said it himself, in an online chat-room debate held on the weekly magazine Semana’s web site. When one of the debate’s participants asked why the AUC had decided to demobilize, he answered: “Finally, we believe there is a government leading the country that is committed to guaranteeing the life, honor, and property of the Colombian people, and so we are not necessary.” Of course, this “redeemed soul” is right. With Uribe, who needs paras? He has made legal everything that they had once done illegally (just look at the rise in human rights violations over the last three years committed by the army and police against the civilian population, widely denounced by various human rights organizations, thanks to President Uribe’s “democratic security” policy). And if Uribe is reelected in 2006, who knows, the ex-paramilitaries may have a wide participation in Colombian political life.
There would be nothing strange about Mancuso being addressed years from now as “Honorable Senator of the Republic,” although right now he assures us he has no aspirations of political office. In fact, he is already quite familiar with Congress. He was there, on July 29, 2004, receiving applause as if he were some kind of national hero.
What Are Friends For?
As we mentioned before, the decision on whether to extradite Mancuso was framed by the negotiations between the government and the AUC. His amnesty agreement was as well. But what is the logic behind these agreements? Why has the government decided to establish a dialog with the AUC, whose history (a federation of armed “private justice” vigilante groups, formed or financed by rich landowners and certain sectors of the Colombian oligarchy beginning in the 1960s, aimed at protecting their property from guerrilla attacks) hardly makes them worthy of a political deal like this?
Once again, let‘s look at it piece by piece:
The Uribe administration’s negotiations with the paramilitary groups began during 2002, after the president had used a few legal tricks to reform Law 142, which required an armed group to be politically recognized before the government could begin negotiations with it. And so, negotiations with the paramilitaries were brought about the same way everything has been brought about during the Uribe administration: by force.
But the intentions that Uribe let others discover – to win the public’s heart and surreptitiously pave the way for his reelection campaign – were, of course, altruistic: to achieve complete demobilization of the AUC, which should occur no later than December 31, 2005, and to get them to commit to a “ceasefire” while the negotiations are going on.
The paras accepted the deal to avoid the extradition of their leaders to the United States – because, among other reasons, according to them, they are not drug traffickers (despite numerous investigations which have proven they are) – and to reduce as much as possible the amount of prison time they will face. Meanwhile, relations between the government and the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas were getting tense over the issue of the humanitarian agreement.
Until this point, the romance between the paras and the government seemed to be going perfectly. But, unfortunately, soon after, the worst monsters of Uribe’s childish nightmares came to spoil that idilic affair: national and international human rights organizations, who began to strongly criticize and denounce the irregularities in the negotiation process.
One of the most recent and relevant of those criticisms is the report Human Rights Watch (HRW) published on January 18, in which the organization questions, given all the irregularities that have appeared in the negotiations, President Uribe’s plan to propose a law to regulate the paramilitary demobilization during an international donors’ conference which occurred last week. The report caused so much resentment in the Colombian government that Minister Sabas dared to say publicly that HRW Americas Division Executive Director José Miguel Vivanco’s position reminded him of that of Rebelión, the Danish organization that economically supports the FARC. These statements proved so embarrassing that Vice President Santos, Sabas’ equal in intelligence (or lack thereof), and U.S. Ambassador William Wood, his equal in arrogance, were forced to look for a more diplomatic way to respond to HRW’s position.
Among the many irregularities that HRW denounces, there are really two that have to do with the decisions the government made in Mancuso’s case. The first is that the government has completely modified 1997’s Law 418, which provides amnesties, such as economic incentives, for certain crimes, to armed groups that demobilize voluntarily, but only when there have been no accusations of serious human rights violations like massacres and kidnappings.
HRW’s criticism on this point focuses on the fact that it is absurd to apply this law to dismantle the paramilitary groups. For one thing, the government ignores that those who participate in this proccess are required to participate with the authorities, give up their illegally-obtained property (especially land), and reveal information on the structure, past crimes, or operations of the group. In the current process, the paras get exonerated of all their guilt, and don’t even have to explain themselves. In fact, the only “explanation” that Mancuso has given is that what his did was not a crime, but rather “a way of defending society,” as he said during the chat on Semana.com. The nobility of this national leader is really amazing.
HRW also questions the fact that paramilitary leaders – a group that includes murderers, torturers and kidnappers – get benefits from the process, though their groups have not completely demobilized, and continue committing abuses and crimes. It would be worth remembering here that the paras have arbitrarily violated the supposed “ceasefire,” as several complaints to the nation’s human rights ombudsman have demonstrated. In the first eight months of 2004, massacres, mass murders and kidnappings were reported. And while the government turns a blind eye, and Mancuso busies himself with enjoying his new and very active social life, there are still many AUC blocs that have still not mobilized, like the northern front, led by commander “Jorge 40,” who has committed a number of crimes across northern Colombia in order to “defend society.”
But what have these criticisms of the process meant to the Colombian government? Nothing. How much does it care about the demands for justice of the victims of the savage crime wave that has ravaged every part of Colombia for more than three decades? None.
The president just does what he has to: work for those who helped him get where he is, those who, in one possible future, may end up being his political partners in a reelection campaign. And of course, he went through with the donors’ conference last week, doing what he had to for a just cause.
The negotiations fit both Uribe and the paras like a glove. While the former gets to pay back old favors, obtain new strategic allies and bathe in the popularity that his image gains from the public, the latter get amnesties, reduced (as much as possible) penalties for their crimes, and economic benefits. This all seems to be the greatest festival of impunity in Colombian history. In this country, impunity is always the oder of the day. The difference is that a few years ago, the government would hide it. Today, on the other hand, it celebrates such things.
No reasons are needed for this; President Uribe’s sympathy towards the AUC is completely appropriate. One does not think that Uribe himself is really connected to the paramilitaries, but suffice it to say that Uribe’s father, who it is said maintained strong links with narco-traffickers, was killed by FARC members on his farm in the 1980s. Since then he has waged a war of blood and fire against not just the guerrillas, but any other expression of what he considered “the left.” In other words, the paras and Uribe have a common enemy. This time, will it make them common friends?
In fact, who in Colombia does not remember the unfortunately celebrated “Coexistence” Private Security and Surveillance Cooperatives, which Uribe created by decree while governor of Antioquia in 1994, supposedly to help curb guerilla activities in the region? (Will future demobilized paramilitaries go back to that old form or organization?) And guess, kind readers, who was the lead representative of one of those cooperatives, in the department of Córdoba… none other than Saint Salvatore himself, who claims to have “never had the honor of speaking with the president.” Surely a great coincidence, just like it must be a coincidence that Uribe’s lands in Córdoba border those of Mancuso.
All of this, then, is really between friends and neighbors…
And so, while Trinidad serves his sentence in the United States (up there, they don’t let terrorists run around free), Mancuso is enjoying his reincorporation into civilian life. He spends time, accompanied by a paid government escort, at parties and in shopping malls and restaurants all over the country. He is not even confined to Santa Fe de Ralito, Córdoba (the area set aside for the paramilitaries, based on the neutral zone in Caguán where talks were held between the FARC and the Pastrana government), where these negotiations with the government are taking place, and where the AUC is supposed to stay until the government passes a law for alternative punishments. No, Mancuso, such a model of self-control for the Colombian people, deserves more than that.
That’s how we “make peace” in this country. Another reason to be proud to be a Colombian. There really seem to be more and more reasons every day to feel proud of being Colombian.
* Uribe’s campaign slogan was “Firm hand, big heart.”
Different practical issues, all of them quite boring and unpleasant (as is everything practical), stopped me from filing this article last week, as I had promised when I assumed the post of Editorial Columnist for this publication. But now, after avoiding some of the traps of everyday life, I present, for your consideration, this text, whose goal is to uncover what is hidden behind the extradition of Simón Trinidad, a commander of the FARC, and the suspension of the extradition of Salvatore Mancuso, top paramilitary leader. It is another concrete example of the hypocrisy surrounding the concept of terrorism, which I now commonplace in this strange and abysmal black hole that is my country, Colombia.
I ask a thousand pardons for my lateness and promise not to make you wait again, for any reason.
I will be here to respond to any comments, critiques or suggestions. I cordially invite you to use the Narcosphere, or to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you in advance for your understanding,
Laura del Castillo Matamoros
Lea Ud. el Artículo en Español
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