In January 2005, I traveled to Colombia to research the demobilization process then underway with the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group with links to the Colombia Armed Forces and to the drug trade.

  • Thank you, Adolfo Paz

    The Cacique Nutibara Block in Medellin (known as BCN, for the acronym in Spanish) was the first group to demobilize. On November 25, 2003, 868 men and 10 women handed in 623 weapons. After three weeks in a retreat center, the desmobilizados returned to their neighborhoods.

    The BCN was organized in 2001 by Diego Fernando Murillo, also known as Adolfo Paz and “Don Berna, the self-proclaimed Inspector General of the AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Murillo has a long history in Medellin, beginning as one of the top drug traffickers with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, then as a leader of the Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) and the band of hitmen known as La Terraza.  Internal disputes within La Terraza, and their violent clashes with the Metro Block paramilitary group, led Murillo to organize the AUC’s BCN; he led the BCN’s efforts to consolidate the AUC take-over of Medellin from the Metro Block.  He also controlled a number of other paramilitary groups.

    In Medellin in January 2005, NGO researchers reflected on the complex panorama of paramilitarism.  

    Understanding what the paramilitaries are about is very difficult, they don’t a have a single identity. There are two extremes:  groups at the service of state policies, a state strategy and policy, part of the counterinsurgency programs of the state. The other extreme are autonomous groups that back their own interests.

    The AUC – the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia — is a federation of groups, each with their particular characteristics.

    The common factors are:  that they are inserted into local powers —  caudillos, gamonales, and commercial interests. They are at the service of the status quo, part of an authoritarian order. They are involved in illegal businesses, narcotrafficking, illegal gasoline, emeralds, smuggling.  They are linked to groups from the security forces and legal authorities and they act in an articulated way.

    In an aggressive play for power, Don Berna/Adolfo Paz bought the BCN franchise, and that is how he became a leader in the autodefensas. He played that card to demonstrate his political capability. Thanks to his control, the city is at peace. It is a paramilitarized city. There is less need to recur to violence, but more fear and intimidation. More paramilitarism and less paramilitaries.

    They took me to a barrio on one of the hillsides of Medellin, to show me the Christmas lights decorating the neighborhood, letting me take a picture out of the window of the cab.

    It is like back in the old days of the Pablo and the Medellin Cartel, like 1987. They are paying for neighborhood events, the nativity scene, community parties.

    The lights say: Thank you, Adolfo Paz, for the tranquility in Medellin.

  • Benefits

    Each desmobilizado was to receive a government stipend of COL$358,000 a month (roughly US$155, slightly lower than Colombian minimum wage) for two years.  They were also be eligible for subsidized classes through the Sena (the Servicio de Aprendizaje Nacional), a public technical training school offering classes ranging from basic construction to auto mechanics, and possibly future assistance with productive projects such as setting up small businesses. Benefits were provided through Referral and Opportunity Centers (Centros de Referencia y Oportunidades), set up small towns that were known to send young men into the paramilitaries. The Referral Center in Monteria was opened on November 29, 2004.  Charged with providing benefits and assistance to more than one thousand demobilized individuals, the center has four people on staff:  the coordinator, a former businessman; an in-take worker; a general assistant and messenger; and a psychologist.

    The morning before the demobilization of the Norte Block, the Center was filled with angry, shouting men from the Catatumbo and Calima Blocks who had returned to their home communities in Monteria after demobilizing months before. Most had not received the proper identification paperwork and their benefits had been delayed. Claiming they had been told last week that the money would arrived before the end of the week, now – on Monday morning – they wanted some answers.  The men gathered in a downstairs meeting room, and shouted demands at the Center’s coordinator.

    “You get paid on time,” one man shouted, “the government always sends your salary, you have money to pay expenses for your family, you have money to put food on the table.”  Others contrasted their treatment while in the paramilitaries with their current conditions.  “We got paid all the time, on time, before,” several exclaimed.  “We had doctors to take care of us, and always got paid, not this run around (papeleo), now we get nothing but problems.”

    Their discontent quickly translated into threats to return to fighting with the paramilitaries.  “If things go on like this, and the government no doesn’t fulfill their promises, we’ll go back to the paramilitaries again,” several shouted.  “Why would we stay here?”

    On the balcony above the courtyard was a kid from Cali prestando servicio – his required military service – as a community police officer. He had worked for nine months part of a community education team, using the DARE program — Drug Abuse Resistance Education, created by Nancy Reagan in 1983 — to talk about drug abuse. He used the English acronym, with an accent on the pronounced final EdarY – which had been imported from the U.S., he told me, and he had just started in the program. With a year to go, now other community police were giving the talks, not him.

  • Identification

    Whiteboard message: Important Steps to Follow: 1) Survey; 2) getting a cedula, if for the first time, blood test required; 3) identity card; 4) Organization of American States

    Before demobilization, the paramilitaries gathered in the “concentration zone” for several days (three to ten, officially) for registration and disarmament. Registration was run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), funded in part by USAID.  


    First, they matched the names of those demobilizing against lists provided by paramilitary commanders. 

    Local college students, all young women, interviewed the demobilizing paramilitaries, filling out a standard survey form designed by the IOM.  The questionnaire focused on personal details — level of education, marital status, and community of origin – but asked no questions about their experiences within paramilitary organizations, what they did or what they saw. 

    Some people in the process did not have — or claimed not to have — the required national identity card (cedula). They were given one by representatives of the National Registrar, who also administered the necessary blood test. 

     Once they had their cedula, they could get their demobilization identification card. USAID paid for computers and camera equipment for photographs and digital fingerprints.

    Each person received a demobilization identification card. According to USAID staff, the demobilization cards are just a formality; they are not recognized by anyone as a legal document and are essentially meaningless.  

    In the final check, the list of demobilizados was checked against the Organization of American State’s list, and then they were free to go.

    Demobilizing paramilitaries were also to be checked against a list of indicted criminals, but this list does not exist. Prosecutors had to send each list of desmobilizados to every regional court system throughout the country, most of which do not use computers or have computerized files. Only a handful of prosecutors have been assigned to the special Unit for Truth, Reparations and Justice created within the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the hundreds of thousands of cases involving paramilitaries.  

  • Letter from Amnesty International

    At the gate, by a wire fence separating inside the compound from the larger field, man standing there asks me if I work for the OAS or for the Embassy.  I say, neither.  He asks me about the legal framework, do I think that it will be ready soon?  I say, they are working on it, ask him where he is from.  He says he is a desmobilizado.  From where, I ask. The Bloque Calima; from the Valle del Cauca, that bloc demobilized in December. He has to stay here, he tells me, because of his legal problems.  There was a letter from Amnesty International. 

    He is speaking in a low voice, speaking away from me while not looking away, and it takes me a while to understand what he is saying.  At first I think he is telling me that he has written a letter to Amnesty International about his case, that it is a violation of his rights to be here in the zone without a solution to his situation.  As he speaks, I realize that Amnesty International has sent a letter about his case to the Attorney General’s Office, telling the prosecutors – he tells me – that they should not let him go.  That his case is too important. 

    He is tall, almost my height, and an eye patch covers his left eye, the lens of his glasses cracked over the patch, a small scar on his chin.  He smiles calmly as he explains that whether or not he is guilty, his cases was improperly handled, and that is why it should be dismissed.  But the lawyer showed him the letter, now they can’t dismiss the case – as they should – because of the international pressure.  Don’t I think that he should be let go?  He asks me.  Well, I don’t know about your case, I say, but I think there needs to be legal clarity.  This is a dirty war, guerra sucia, he says, where everyone’s hands are dirty. 

    What do you think will happen with the process, I ask him.  A lot, 30%, will go back to el monte, he says.  This process is not real, it is banos de agua tibia, to calm people down, calm down the war, but just for a while.

  • The Psychologist

    I first noticed her giving the workshop in the gathering area to a group of about 40 guys. Later, we talked.

    We don’t really know what we are doing.  I followed in the steps of the High Commissioner for Peace, in his academic steps. He is a great thinker, he wrote a book on the imaginario of the warrior throughout history, he said that what needed to exalted was the citizen. I wrote my thesis on that, following his book. 

    I have experience working with clients but not the big groups, which is very difficult and very different. My job is to do an hour and a half workshop with them. We emphasize:  man does live on bread alone, the family as principle building block of society, human values, appreciation of diversity. 

    We do two exercises, in one I tell a group of volunteers to close their eyes with a piece of paper and a pen in their hands, mark the lower left corner and then fold the paper, and repeat the instructions several times.  When they stand before the class and unfold the paper, every one has different markings, this shows how each perspective is different, to respect difference, because each has a different final design.

    The other is an exercise that the whole group stands, then steps forward or back depending on a series of questions – how many studied through grade school?  High school?  How many grew up poor?  And about their feelings, how many want to end the war? What do they want from the state?  What can they contribute to society?  As they step forward and back, this shows the advantages and disadvantages each has, the plans and hopes. 

    One problem is that these guys are just going to expect to take from the government, but they need to think about what they can contribute to society.

  • Jaguar


    In 1989, when I traveled this region during Semana Santa, my friend Jose Domingo proudly introduced me to the last man to hunt jaguars in the region. Arriving in the early years of the last century with nothing but a machete, he had killed un tigre as they made the jungle into farms.

    Hippos, lions, giraffes were all brought into the private zoos of the big time drug traffickers. They got a lot of press, roaming the lowlands now that their owners are dead or in jail.

     No one could tell me where the jaguar and her two cubs had come from, or why she was there. A mascota, one man said, a pet, a mascot for the boys.

  • Roadblock

    The signs read: “We support the negotiation process with the AUC,” “Security attracts social and economic investment,” “Peace: Everyone’s Commitment.”

    The roadblock was added when the official negotiation zone was established, but the paramilitaries had controlled much of the northern coast for years. Salvatore Mancuso, commander of the Northern Bloc and leader of the 940 men (all but 12, men) demobilizing, told me how they had come govern.

    Forty-two years old, he was plump and sunburned, wearing the uniform of any wealthy Colombian on his day off, khaki pants with a polo shirt, and Tommy Hilfiger docksider shoes.  The son of an Italian immigrant, Mancuso was raised within the cloistered world of the cattle-ranching barons of the Atlantic Coast.  According to his autobiography, Life Enough for a Thousand Years, he studied in Pittsburgh, traveled to Vietnam to learn about counterinsurgency techniques, and become an accomplished helicopter pilot.

     The beginning was simple, we were cattle ranchers, gente de bien.  But at a certain moment in life, things change. We met in the middle of 1997.

     I worked very closely with the state.  I set up a communications network for the army and the police. We set it up to get information to the army.  It went well in the beginning.  But the commanders changed, and they didn’t want to respond to the needs in the community.  They said they wouldn’t go into the red zone, they were afraid that they would get the soldiers or themselves killed. They have no commitment to the country, they are just looking out for their own career.

    I became the leader of a movement that centers on me.

    We became the state.  Slowly we became a substitute for the state, which had never been present.  We had to pay for water systems. We brought in friends to buy the land. We had to pay the salary for the teachers, the doctors, the nurses.  Here there were no roads, how much did we have to pay to put in the roads?  We created neighborhood associations, town councils. We got representatives, delegates and mayors elected.

    You become what you are trying to substitute, but we are more efficient, because the state has more bureaucracy, more limitations.  We have the advantage because we don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy, we can just solve problems. When we get involved, things get done. We have the resources, we put in electricity, schools.  We helped communities prepare projects that were then submitted to the governmental agencies, and approved. We directly contracted the engineers for the projects.

    It is not our fault, it is because there was no state, and there were guerrillas. I have explored all the roads, with fears, dread, uncertainty. I am like the life boat, I am traveling ahead in the dingy, looking for land, looking for a way to get out.

    In December 2006, as part of the testimony required for the legal benefits offered by the demobilization process, Mancuso provided a power-point presentation detailing his participation in the murder or kidnapping of 336 people.

    On May 13, 2008, after testifying to government involvement in numerous crimes, Mancuso was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges.