WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
23 May 2012 | Commentary

Interview with Adam Isacson in Colombia’s El Espectador

The following is an English translation of the interview with Adam Isacson, WOLA senior associate for regional security policy, that appeared in Colombia's El Espectador newspaper on May 23, 2012.

May 22, 2012 – 10:00 pm

Adam Isacson evaluates the Santos government

“The Military Resists Justice”
 By: Alfredo Molano Jimeno

Washington Office on Latin America outlines its concerns regarding the framework for peace and justice within the military.

What was the purpose of your trip to Colombia this time?

I came for an overview of different issues that concern my organization. The idea was to meet with human rights organizations, politicians, journalists, military officials, and members of the government to have a clearer panorama because in June we will publish a report focused on the change in the military strategy over the last few years and especially on the famous “Consolidation” plans, in which the United States has invested a lot of money.

What have you gathered?

I am trying to understand why it has been so difficult to get the military out of these zones and to bring in the civilians. In 2006 and 2007, when Plan Colombia ended, the strategy for the "war on drugs" changed. The Consolidation Plans, which had contributions from the Southern Command, created perimeters of security, so that behind the troops, at least on paper, other entities of the state would gradually be able to enter: infrastructure, prosecutors, judges, teachers, and little by little, the soldiers would withdraw, and because of this, the state would arrive in areas where it had never been. However, in this area, the hoped-for results have not materialized.

What will be the focus of the report that you will prepare?

The common theme is that there is much praise for the Santos government’s declared good intentions, but at the same time, these are very ambitious initiatives. This administration has surrounded itself with young technocrats who make perfect plans, but who have very little effect in the outlying regions. These good intentions have not yet produced good results.

What are the consolidation plans?

When Santos came to power, there already were consolidation plans in the Macarena and Montes de Maria zones, and the United States had bought the model. But the new administration decided to spend a whole year revising this strategy. In the Macarena, during the first years, they pushed the FARC out of the town centers, managed to begin some productive projects and eradicated much coca, but the soldiers are all alone. They never saw the arrival of any sufficient presence of Social Action [department of the Presidency], the Ministries of Education, Transport or Health or any of the judicial system. The FARC adjusted and are present on the outskirts of the towns. So they are a bit stuck. They need more civil governance to be safer, but more security is needed to have a civilian presence. It’s the same problem of the “good intentions.”

And concerning human rights?

In human rights, the armed forces are accused of fewer violations in the past two or three years; complaints have decreased, but despite that, the “false positives” cases are being tried very slowly, and the Armed Forces are showing great resistance to justice. We saw this in the discussion [in Colombia’s Congress] of expanding military jurisdiction, and in the statements of retired officers. They want to rid themselves of accountability to civilian courts. Their training is better, as are their internal structures of professionalism, but what happens after an abuse takes place is a serious problem: the impunity and efforts to delay, intimidate and discharge proceedings. Accompanied by some officers’ attitude of seeing justice as an enemy, this, for civil-military relations, is disturbing.

How does your office view the project of reforming military justice?

We view it with concern. We believe it is a step backwards. We also believe that the military may have a legitimate complaint. They talk about judicial security, but it seems that all they are looking for is impunity. This is why we present our concerns to the Colombian government. The United States’ foreign aid law says that 20% of military aid is frozen each year, until the Department of State certifies that there has been an improvement in human rights, and obviously if it had approved the military justice system as it was in the justice reform, the aid would be frozen.

And what do you think about the “legal framework for peace” [transitional justice bill in Colombia’s Congress]?

Colombia appears to be approaching a peace process and the FARC seems willing, but this negotiation cannot end up asking them to go to jail for ten years. This is probably condemning them to continue with their armed struggle. However, arrangements such as that which was made ​​with the M–19 are no longer possible. Jurisprudence has changed and Colombia signed the Rome Statute, so now it has obligations to international justice. I think this is a very important discussion, but one that should be deliberated when the peace process is more advanced. But now, when it may be several years before Colombia can reach an agreement with the guerrillas, it would be a kind of green light for the conflicting parties to be as bloody as they want, because the combatants will know that ultimately there will be amnesty or a minor sentence.

What do you think of the inclusion of State agents as beneficiary subjects of the law?

I think it is best not to bring it up now. The important thing is not that they spend many years in prison, but that they reveal with whom they worked, who ordered their actions and who funded them. In this way, transitional justice could be applied to the military.

And what is your assessment of the law of justice and peace?

Justice and peace was not a bad model, but what happened was that it totally exceeded the capacity of the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and those who had the most information were extradited to the United States. And the process has been very slow. Perhaps the only positive is that the paramilitaries became less violent and the number of deaths ascribed to them decreased, but there are still paramilitaries in Colombia, although they are not as strong as before. Another good thing is that at least 10 thousand of those guys were able to reintegrate and accepted the state’s help. However, there are 16 out of 32 thousand who are still in the demobilization system. The others, I gather, are 3 thousand recaptured for other crimes, 3 thousand who are dead. Of those who entered the justice and peace system, only 7 have been convicted. That’s quite disappointing after 7 years. We will see what happens with the other 4 thousand. There are several thousand who have been lost completely, many must be with the Urabeños or the Rastrojos. That’s not an exemplary record. As for the reparation of victims, and the return of stolen paramilitary land and assets, it has been a total disaster. It was an insult to the victims. Efforts to reveal the truth have progressed, but it is very difficult to obtain the truth while the conflict endures. You have to give a failing grade. Clearly it was an ambitious policy: 4 thousand confessions and 300 thousand victims registered. All with a small unit in the Prosecutor-General’s Office and a reparations office with no political weight. When the law came out, they said that they would deliver the paramilitaries’ ill-gotten gains, but if this would have happened there would be no need today for the
land reparations law, which I hope will go better.

But isn’t the issue that so far that we do not know who the real instigators of the paramilitaries were?

We know a little about “parapolitics,” about the support they received from the armed forces, but much information is still needed, and we know almost nothing about the “paraeconomy.” I am worried about the military and politicians, because they are part of the state. And there needs to be accountability and an investigation of this very cloudy issue.

Many of the complaints from human rights defenders are about the lack of cooperation from U.S. authorities to access confessions from the extradited…

The United States has not collaborated much in access to paramilitaries’ information. I do not think this is an effort to conceal information. It is because in our system, the accused are there to face drug charges. Furthermore, in our system, the accused have the right against self-incrimination. Also, the bureaucratic structure under the State [should be Justice] Department requires prosecutors to focus on the crimes they are investigating.

Is it not unfair that drug crimes have priority over the thousands of deaths and atrocities that were suffered in Colombia?

Yes, but President Uribe agreed to those conditions. He knew that he extradited them to face those charges.

What do you think about the land law that is being implemented, which has cost the lives of several petitioners?

We are very concerned about the deaths and threats against defenders of victims’ rights, and we fear that those who stole land will not respond politically and judicially, but with more violence. That’s why it’s very important to discover what happened to the twenty-something land-rights claimants killed during this time, because the best system of protection is for justice to be done. It is not just giving them cellphones, police and bulletproof vests. The state needs to demonstrate that those who are undermining the [restitution] law will face justice quickly. If for 30 murders, there are 20 convicted, that’s a high probability of being caught. With that probability, no one would want to risk it [killing a land claimant].