Colombia: Progress at a price

The murderous paramilitaries have been disbanded and "reintegrated" into society with generous benef

As we sit in the garden of his idyllic farmhouse in the mountains of north-eastern Colombia, Jon Jairo's life seems enviably tranquil. His daughter plays with a small dog in the shade of an orange tree. Behind us, pigs grunt in their sties. From the veranda, we look out over a spectacular panorama of Colombia's second city, Medellín, which sprawls messily below.

The peaceful scene could not be more at odds with the story I have come to hear. Jon Jairo, a stocky, confident 27-year-old, is telling me about his former life as a paramilitary. Today, he earns a living breeding pigs, but from the age of 20 he was on active service with one of Colombia's illegal right-wing armed groups. Set up during the 1980s and 1990s to quash the country's long-running left-wing insurgency, the paramilitaries became notorious for massacres, targeted killings and disappearances among civilians they suspected of being left-wing collaborators.

Like many paramilitaries, Jon Jairo signed up partly because he couldn't find work and partly, he says, "for revenge": his uncle and his cousins had been murdered and he wanted to hunt down their killers. He was sent into rural areas of Colombia where he was charged with "defending" the local communities from the Farc, a left-wing armed group. "There was no army presence in these areas, so we had to make sure the peasants could go about their work." This sometimes involved extracting "protection" money from the communities themselves, some of which, he says, were so poor that they "ate only cooked bananas for breakfast, lunch and dinner". He admits that when they came across indigenous tribes which refused to comply with their demands, others in his group would catch their leaders and torture them.

At first, Jon Jairo enjoyed the work and felt idealistic about the idea of fighting the left-wing insurgents. But as time went on, disillusionment set in. "We were pushed further and further into the jungle. Our rations didn't get through, so we had to live off whatever food we could find - monkey, fish, yucca." The paramilitary command was brutal - when one compañero asked for permission to leave the forces, "he was sent off straight away to dig his own grave". Jon Jairo's best friend was killed in combat. "The Farc soldiers had him on one side of the river, and I was watching from the other. I saw them cutting him to pieces."

That Jon Jairo has been able to leave his violent past behind is largely thanks to a multimillion-dollar "reintegration" programme, funded jointly by the Colombian government and the United States Agency for International Development. After handing himself in to the authorities, he received an impressive support package: professional training, educational and emotional help, healthcare, and eventually a generous grant to help him start up his own business. To complete the transformation, his business partner, Santiago, is a former member of the Farc. "We never argue about ideology," says Jon Jairo. "We share stories about what happened to us. We have a lot in common."

Sustainable lifestyle

At the high-rise offices of the high commission for reinte gration in Medellín, Gloria Nelcy Lopera Herrera explains the strategy behind the scheme. "The idea is to provide former combatants with a sustainable lifestyle which will keep them out of the armed groups for good," she says. Jon Jairo and Santiago both testify to its effectiveness. "My business and my family give me a lot of security," says Jon Jairo. "Why would I go back to fighting?"

In November 2003, after 40 years of a civil war that involved a death toll of tens of thousands, Colombian television broadcast an extraordinary scene: ranks of uniformed troops from one of the country's biggest paramilitary organisations queuing up to hand in their arms in Medellín's central square. It was to be the first in a series of "demobilisation" ceremonies across the country, and a coup for the right-leaning government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had opened official negotiations with the paramilitaries following a ceasefire the previous year. "Their moment in history has ended," announced the chief government negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo. "They are undesirable for the country."

Since then, more than 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilised, and under the terms of the agreement all of those who were not under investigation for human-rights abuses - the vast majority - were channelled straight into the "reintegration" system. "The word 'paramilitary' has ceased to exist in Colombia," the defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos Cal derón, told me when he came to London two months ago to give an upbeat presentation on the security situation in his country to British businesses. "They have all been demobilised and are either facing justice or going through a reintegration programme."

The process has, however, been hugely controversial. There have been widespread reports of non-paramilitaries "demobilising" simply to claim the generous government package, and even of paramilitary groups recruiting civilians to "demobilise" instead of actual combatants - it was originally estimated that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 paramilitary troops, and to date 30,000 people have handed themselves in. In many areas, new groups have emerged, with similar structures and aims to the paramilitaries but with names such as "the Black Eagles". Colombian human-rights organisations report that the paramilitaries are responsible for up to 2,300 murders and disappearances since the deal was announced (official figures are much lower).

Amnesty International has accused the government of promoting a culture of impunity. "We would argue that the demobilisation process represents a de facto amnesty for paramilitaries, many of whom will have committed war crimes," says Peter Drury, head of Amnesty's Colombia programme. "The idea is to remove combatants from the conflict, but if they have not been held to account for their actions, what guarantees that they will not go on to do the same again?"

For many Colombians, recent years have brought tangible improvements in quality of life. Medellín, capital of the north-eastern district of Antioquia, is best known for being the birthplace of Pablo Escobar and the centre of his drugs empire throughout the 1980s. Since the start of the reintegration programme, a remarkable transformation has taken place. When I lived there from 2001-2002, it had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world: out of a population of two million people, 13 were killed every day. The poor barrios, or "comunas", which lie in the mountains on the city's outskirts, were no-go areas for the state, and were ruled by warring armed groups. At night, volleys of gunfire were often audible from my house in the city centre. Rich people stayed in the well-heeled areas with their security guards in the north of the city, and feared venturing into the countryside because kidnappings were so common.

In the past three years, the murder rate has dropped by 40 per cent; it is now roughly equivalent to that in Washington and Detroit. People are free to travel: on a bank holiday weekend, the nearby town of Guatapé, once a war zone, was heaving with day trippers from Medellín. Most people I spoke to, left and right, rich and poor, agreed that life in the city had improved. "We can't say that the drug trade has disappeared from Medellín, and of course there are still serious problems. But there certainly has been a big step forward," says Aldo Civico, an expert in conflict resolution at Columbia University who has been conducting fieldwork among the "reintegrated" paramilitaries.

It remains to be seen whether the situation can be sustained. The local government claims its policies are helping to cement a lasting peace; in addition to the "reintegration" schemes, Medellín's popular mayor, Sergio Fajardo, has embarked on an ambitious programme of social investment. A cable car has been built, providing the poorest barrios with a direct link to the centre of town for the first time; the centre itself, formerly dangerous and polluted, is being transformed into a series of pedestrianised public spaces; and a chain of libraries is being built in poor areas to promote literacy and social engagement. "The local government is now spending 40 per cent of its annual budget on education: schools, libraries and teacher training," says Civico. "The idea is to 'demobilise' the minds of the whole community, particularly young people."

There is evidence, however, that the improvements in Medellín have been possible not because the paramilitaries have been disbanded, but because they have, in effect, been legalised. When I was first in the city, there was a vicious urban war raging between various armed groups from both right and left, all of which wanted to assert control over the barrios, which surround Medellín and are therefore sentry posts on the routes to Colombia's other major cities. By the end of 2003, one of the right-wing militias, the Cacique Nutibara, headed by the country's most notorious drug lord, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano ("Don Berna"), had won control. In this, according to Amnesty, he was aided by the Colombian army, which in 2002 sent troops into the last left-wing guerrilla stronghold, a barrio known as Comuna 13 - clearing the way for the paramilitaries to take over.

Plight of the victims

With no competitors for power in the city, the conditions were ripe for the Cacique Nutibara to demobilise: their armed patrols of the barrios were no longer necessary. After the demobilisation ceremony, Don Berna's troops were put through "reintegration" courses and then sent straight back to where they had come from. "This is a pattern we see over and over again in Colombia," says Peter Drury. "The violence will drop off sharply as one group wins control of a particular area. But the structures of the illegal armed groups are left intact, ready to re-emerge if and when necessary."

For victims of paramilitary violence, the demobilisation process offers little hope for justice. I met Yazmin Rendón Ibarra, a petite and composed young woman, in the shabby offices of Asfaddes (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos), a local association for the families of the detained and disappeared. She is now 20, and her mother, Gloria, disappeared in 1998, when Yazmin was 12. Gloria had been an activist in some of Medellín's most deprived barrios, and, like many community leaders, had received death threats from the paramilitaries. One day, she left for work with a friend and neither of them came back. The perpetrators have never been identified; their bodies were never found.

Since then, Yazmin, who is estranged from her father, has been living alone and working to put herself through school. She has had no support from the government: in Colombia there is no care system for children. Nevertheless, she passed her exams and even, with the help of Asfaddes, mounted a campaign to pressure the authorities to investigate her mother's disappearance. "At first, you feel that your world has ended," she says calmly. "But people have always been surprised at how strong I am. As a young kid, I went to look for my mother, I went to the morgue, I went to the local attorney general. My mother taught me to fight against corruption."

She is now trying to get a place at university, but without any money her chances are slim. She would like to work for a human-rights organisation, but in reality, like millions of other Colombians, she is likely to live on the poverty line, getting by with whatever work she can find. "I don't see what is happening now as progress," she says. "The peace deal has been great for the people from the militias who have been 'reintegrated' - they get free study, and grants. They don't need all these resources, and they don't deserve them. It's as if the government is paying them for their crimes."

Some names have been changed. With thanks to Peace Brigades International (http://www.peacebrigades.org)

Colombia: the long war

1948-58 The civil conflict known as "La Violencia" erupts between the Conservative and Liberal parties. 200,000 are killed

1960s Two main left-wing guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and National Liberation Army (ELN), form

1970s The drugs trade, led by Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel, starts to evolve into a multimillion-dollar industry

1980s Paramilitary groups, many state-supported, form to tackle left-wing rebels

1990s Escobar is threatened with extradition to the US and unleashes a terror campaign. In 1993 he is killed by state forces

1997 Paramilitaries form a federation, the AUC ("self-defence forces"), and move into guerrilla-controlled areas, punishing left-wing "collaborators"

1999 The US agrees to channel $1.3bn in military aid to the Plan Colombia programme

2002 Álvaro Uribe Vélez is elected president on an authoritarian, right-wing agenda. The AUC announces a ceasefire

2006 Uribe wins a second term, having changed the constitution to permit re-election