(Today Colombia) The recent surrender of several gang members in Colombia is raising questions about the application of a legal reform meant to facilitate peace negotiations between the government and politically motivated guerrilla groups.
According to a November 3 report by El Colombiano, several members of criminal gangs known as “combos” have turned themselves in to authorities in recent months, asking for special treatment under a legal reform passed in July.
The reform, which came as a presidential decree, allows the suspension of arrest orders and prison sentences for members of armed groups engaged in peace negotiations with the government.
The text specifies that the measure does not constitute a halt to legal procedures, and that individuals whose arrest warrant or detention has been temporarily suspended would have to present themselves to authorities every time the negotiation process renders their presence necessary.
The individuals also have to prove that they are contributing to the construction of peace by sending a monthly report on their activities to the High Commissioner for Peace (Alto Comisionado para la Paz). Non-compliance with these requirements can lead to the revocation of the individuals’ special status.
President Juan Manuel Santos issued the decree after the June arrest of an ex-leader of the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN), Carlos Arturo Velandia, alias “Felipe Torres.” Santos’ administration was working toward advancing a negotiating process with the leftist guerrilla group at the time, and according to El Colombiano, Felipe Torres was designated as a “peace advocate” and released under the terms of the reform as a show of good will.
However, authorities have denied the existence of a formal peace process with the “combos” whose members have recently turned themselves in, and have stated that the suspects have not been granted “peace advocate” status. Instead, El Colombiano reports, officials have attributed their surrender to pressure from security forces.
As El Colombiano points out, the vagueness of the July decree leaves it open to interpretation, creating a potential loophole that members of non-political criminal groups may be attempting to take advantage of. The text states that the status of “peace advocate” may be conferred on members of “armed groups operating outside the law.” And although the reform may have been aimed at facilitating peace talks between the government and ideologically motivated groups like the ELN, it could also arguably be used in negotiations between the government and criminal groups like the “combos.”
While officials have publicly denied the existence of negotiations with the “combos,” the government has in the past negotiated with crime groups. One of the most famous examples is the negotiated surrender of the infamous boss of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar, who turned himself over to authorities in 1991 in exchange for promises that he would not be extradited to the United States and that he would be incarcerated in a prison he designed and whose guards he chose. More recently, the inheritors of Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, a collection of groups known as the Oficina de Envigado, sought to open negotiations with the government. However, the attempt apparently fell apart after the official in change of the negotiations was abruptly transfered to a different position.
The issue of whether or not the above-mentioned reform should be applicable to members of non-political crime groups is fraught with legal and political complications. Allowing gang members conditional relief from arrest or detention may facilitate negotiations with authorities that could help dismantle such organizations. However, according to some estimates, there may be as many as 8,000 gangs operating in Colombia. Negotiating with the ELN and their guerrilla cousins the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) has proven a significant challenge for the government. Negotiating with dozens, or hundreds, or potentially thousands of smaller groups would likely pose insurmountable logistical challenges.
In addition, opening the door to granting “peace advocate” status to members of non-political crime groups runs the risk of encouraging such groups to commit acts that they believe will pressure the government into negotiating with them. The most powerful criminal organization in Colombia, the Urabeños, recently asked to be included in the negotiations between the FARC and the government. President Santos has stated that his administration will not open talks with groups like the Urabeños, who are considered a purely criminal group without a real political agenda. However, the Urabeños maintain significant political sway in many areas where they operate, as evidenced by an “armed strike” the group mounted earlier this year that affected dozens of municipalities.
It is possible that groups like the Urabeños may attempt to use similar actions as a means of pressuring the government into negotiations, if they believe that this will allow their members to take advantage of the conditional relief from arrest and detention offered by “peace advocate” status.