Beginning in 2003, the Colombian government initiated a paramilitary demobilization process through the "Justice and Peace Law," through which fighters who laid down their arms could benefit from reduced prison sentences in return for confessions about human rights violations and reparations for their victims. Nonetheless, the process has abjectly failed to ensure that such fighters are genuinely removed from the conflict, that the paramilitaries and their backers are properly held to account for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law, and to offer full reparation to the victims and their families.
The collusion of sectors of the state apparatus, and some of those in business and politics, with paramilitary groups, and to a lesser extent with guerrilla groups and drugs-related organized crime, continues to pose a serious threat to the rule of law. The most glaring missed opportunity in this respect has been the failure to effectively deal with the noxious phenomenon of paramilitarism. International human rights standards make it clear that the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparation cannot be compromised.
Supporters of the paramilitary demobilization process, both in Colombia and abroad, have said that forgoing justice for the sake of peace is a price worth paying. But the demobilization and its accompanying legal framework have brought neither peace nor justice. Amnesty International believes that justice is essential to guarantee a meaningful and lasting peace.
Amnesty International documented the emblematic case of Jhon Jairo Palacios, a member of an Afro-descendant community in the Cacarica River Basin in the northeast of the country. On July 30, 2010, Jhon Jairo Palacios was abducted after he left his home in the Barranquilla area of the Cacarica River Basin, to take a boat to the municipal capital, Riosucio, department of Choco. On July 30, he telephoned his family to inform them that he would be returning to the Cacarica River Basin the following morning. His family called his mobile phone the next day. A man answered who said he was a member of a paramilitary group operating in the region, and went on, "Tell his family that he is already dead.” The family asked where his body was, and the man told them only that he had been abducted in Riosucio and taken far away. On August 9, sources close to the paramilitaries claimed that paramilitaries had killed Jhon Jairo Palacios.
The enforced disappearance and possible killing of Jhon Jairo Palacios came days before a contract was awarded for the construction of a major road in the region. The Cacarica communities have opposed this project, and there is concern that the enforced disappearance may be an attempt to silence them. Paramilitaries have maintained a strong presence in the region despite the large presence of the armed. Paramilitary presence in the region has continued although army-backed paramilitaries were supposedly demobilized under a government-backed process during the previous government of President Alvaro Uribe. Over recent years Amnesty International has received reports of a regular paramilitary presence in La Honda and Tumarado where paramilitaries stop and search people travelling into the Cacarica River Basin. In the days preceding the abduction paramilitaries were reported once again to be in the Tumarado and La Honda areas.
Although some paramilitaries have confessed to having committed human rights-related crimes and implicated others in politics, business and the military, the demobilization process still falls short of international standards on the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparation. Some 90% of those who demobilized escaped effective investigation. Most of the 18 paramilitary leaders extradited to the USA on drugs-trafficking charges have refused to collaborate with the Colombian justice system in its investigations into human rights violations.
Moreover, victims or their families participating in the process, their lawyers and those supporting their campaigns for justice, as well as prosecutors and judges involved in the process, have been threatened or unlawfully killed.