Colombia Paramilitary Release Seen as Key to Ending Conflict

Colombia is beginning a critical phase in its effort to end its internal conflict, as former paramilitary chiefs, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Colombians, begin to win release from prison, according to Carlos Villamil, director of transitional justice in the Attorney General’s office.

A group of 161 former paramilitaries are now eligible to apply for release and could walk free as soon as next month if they comply with requirements under Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace law, Villamil said.

“It’s a first step,” Villamil said an interview in Bogota yesterday. “The question is will society accept these people, and how are they going to integrate? How will they show they’ve reformed?”

Colombian paramilitary groups were originally set up to fight Marxist guerrillas, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. They were disbanded under former President Alvaro Uribe and leaders were handed maximum eight-year sentences for serious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

The Attorney General’s office will examine each case on an individual basis to check whether the former paramilitary chiefs have admitted to past crimes and handed over assets, with judges making the final decision, Villamil said.

“It’s very likely that these people are going to be let out and the confession process will continue,” he said. “But if they break the rules, their benefits will be revoked and they will face ordinary penalties of 40 years and upwards.”

Negotiators for the FARC and Colombian government have held peace talks in Cuba since 2012, in a bid to end the country’s five-decade internal conflict.

The imminent release of former paramilitaries after eight years in jail would send a positive signal to members of the FARC, proving that the Colombia can stick to its side of an agreement, Villamil said.

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