The disarming of right-wing paramilitaries was welcomed by the government but criticized by rights groups, which complain that fighters will never face justice for their crimes.
BY SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY
Special to The Herald
MEDELLIN, Colombia - More than 850 members of a right-wing militia group laid down their arms Tuesday in what the government hopes will be the first step in disbanding the nation's powerful paramilitary force.
But some well-known international human-rights groups criticized the paramilitaries' demobilization, saying it makes a mockery of justice. Instead of being allowed to return to civilian life, many of the former fighters should face courts for serious human-rights abuses, they said.
The members of Medellín's Cacique Nutibara Block, many of them sporting crisp new uniforms and shiny boots, filed past government officials depositing rusted AK-47 automatic rifles, shotguns and hand guns on a platform and shedding their black arm bands.
''The path to peace is open,'' Carlos Castaño, top commander of the paramilitary umbrella group known as the AUC, declared in a recorded video message shown on two giant screens to the 855 troops gathered in a downtown convention center.
''We ask for forgiveness to civilians for the suffering and loss that we have involuntarily caused,'' said Giovanni Marin, known as Commander ''R,'' political leader of the Nutibara Block, before handing his own pistol over to the government's top peace negotiator.
After shedding their camouflage uniforms, the fighters were taken to a heavily guarded vacation spot on the outskirts of the city for a three-week crash course on how to be civilians. After their reeducation, they will be allowed to return to the neighborhoods they patrolled as paramilitaries to take up formal education, vocational training and government-sponsored jobs.
But many of the fighters were recruited from criminal gangs that have ruled the city's slums since the days of late drug-trafficking czar Pablo Escobar, and critics doubt they will be able to make a smooth transition to a life without weapons. Skeptics warn the newly disarmed fighters could join other outlaw groups.
POSING A DANGER?
Although the paramilitaries are blamed for some of the most heinous crimes in the nation's multisided civil war, government peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo said the fighters who demobilized in Medellín likely have not been involved in any atrocities.
''It is very probable that most of them don't have serious problems with the law, other than belonging to an illegal armed group,'' a crime pardonable under Colombian law, he said.
While the government touts the demobilization as the first step toward peace in this nation wracked by 40 years of civil war, José Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, called the event ``a travesty.''
''Instead of handing these criminals a microphone, the government should be concentrating on arresting them and bringing them to justice,'' Vivanco said in a statement.
Castaño has 39 arrest warrants in Colombia and at least five convictions for massacres, political assassinations and other crimes. The AUC's top military leader, Salvatore Mancuso, has been convicted in absentia to 40 years for orchestrating a massacre, and eight arrest warrants have been issued against him.
In sharp contrast to ultimately fruitless peace talks with leftist guerrillas, Colombia has little international support for this endeavor. The 34-country Organization of American States sent a representative to the demobilization ceremony here but has had no role in the process. The United Nations, though welcoming the demobilization, is staying clear of any direct involvement.
And while the United States had offered as much as $3 million this year to support the initiative, the funds are on hold while the lawyers study the legality of financing the disbanding of an organization that figures on Washington's terrorist list.
In addition, both Castaño and Mancuso are wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. Although the extradition requests have become an obstacle in the negotiations for demobilization, Washington has said it would not drop the petition for them to stand before U.S. courts.
Much of the international and domestic resistance to the process with the paramilitaries stems from government-proposed legislation that would grant amnesty to paramilitary fighters, including those who have committed crimes against humanity.
Under the government proposal -- criticized by even some of President Alvaro Uribe's most steadfast supporters in Congress -- perpetrators of such crimes would serve no jail time but pay for their crimes in cash, social work or land as reparations to their victims.
ALTERNATIVES TO JAIL
''The bill opens the door to impunity because it throws out jail time and allows those responsible not to serve a single day in prison,'' the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Office in Colombia said in a statement after the bill was introduced in August.
But the government says Colombia must find alternatives to jail if more paramilitaries are expected to demobilize. ''It is very hard to negotiate with armed groups that have tremendous firepower by saying that their only alternative is to go to jail,'' Restrepo said in a recent interview in Bogota.
''If what society wants is to send everyone to jail, then we have to
defeat them militarily,'' Restrepo said.