The New York Times
September 15, 2003

Colombia Plans to Ease Penalties for Right-Wing Death Squads

OGOTÁ, Colombia, Sept. 14 President Álvaro Uribe, who enjoys strong public support for vowing to bring order to Colombia, is proposing a law that would effectively grant impunity to right-wing death squads that lay down their arms.

Many Colombians support Mr. Uribe, whose approval rating is 65 percent, because of his reputation as an uncompromising wartime president determined to win Colombia's 39-year conflict. But his legislation, backed by the Bush administration, faces objections from even his allies. It is Mr. Uribe's first serious political challenge since taking office 13 months ago.

The proposed law would allow militiamen from the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to avoid jail for widespread human rights abuses that include the mass killings of thousands of villagers and the assassination of two presidential candidates. The group's leaders, several already convicted in absentia for murder, would instead be compelled to admit their crimes and make symbolic acts of contrition, compensating victims by providing community services, turning in their land and paying fines.

In exchange, the militia a private, antiguerrilla army financed through cocaine trafficking and donations from wealthy Colombians would make peace.

Mr. Uribe, known as a tireless pragmatist, says the plan will deactivate a brutal confederation of regional factions with 13,000 armed fighters, saving lives and giving two leftist guerrilla groups that continue to wage war an incentive to negotiate since they, too, could be covered by the proposed law.

But the United Nations and even conservative allies of Mr. Uribe say the legislation would be a travesty, allowing some of the most brutal warlords to avoid justice.

"Society has a barrier it will not cross and it is that atrocities are not forgiven," Senator Rafael Pardo, a powerful supporter of Mr. Uribe, told Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo. "You turn in a farm and that compensates for a massacre?"

The proposed law also appears to contradict American policy in Colombia the State Department lists the Self-Defense Forces as a terrorist group, and a federal court in Washington last year indicted three leaders for trafficking cocaine.

Western diplomats here and American officials who work on Colombia policy, though, say the United States has not only offered support for Mr. Uribe but also has been consulted as his administration drafted the legislation.

"Everybody here understands that you're not going to do a peace process unless you have some sort of arrangement," a Bush administration official who has helped shape policy toward Colombia said by telephone from Washington.

Mr. Uribe's plan, however, is sharply at odds with a growing trend among Latin American governments toward reconciliation with their violent past. Argentina, Chile and Peru have nullified or are disregarding legal amnesties enacted years ago to protect military officers who committed wide-scale rights abuses. Prosecutors in those countries are opening cases against some of those officers.

Mr. Uribe's legislation, critics say, amounts to peace at any price, even contradicting the tough-on-crime approach that has characterized his presidency. "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," said a recent statement from the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in Colombia, Michael Fruhling.

Critics of thegovernment say Mr. Uribe's plan also represents a right-ward tilt for his government, which has been accused by human rights groups of using the paramilitaries as a proxy force against the rebels. Mr. Uribe's father was killed by guerrillas, and he has strongly supported military officers investigated for links to the paramilitaries.

Mr. Uribe did little to help his case when he recently excoriated some rights groups in a speech, accusing them of "doing the propaganda work of terrorists." The comments upset some members of Mr. Uribe's cabinet and prompted Western diplomats here to warn that the lives of rights workers may have been imperiled.

"This shows what we have always affirmed, that Uribe's commitment has always been with the paramilitaries," said Wilson Borja, a leftist congressman who was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in which paramilitary fighters played a role.

Less ideological critics say Mr. Uribe's legislation could set a dangerous precedent for a country with a weak justice system long exploited by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians.

One Western diplomat said the legislation had already prompted several drug traffickers to buy positions in the Self-Defense Forces in the hope of avoiding jail time and retaining their ill-gotten gains. Those traffickers, as well as paramilitary commanders who have benefited from trafficking, are unlikely to ever lose their land or drug proceeds because the proposed law offers no mechanism to ensure serious investigation. "What is happening here is the biggest legal money laundering and narco-profiting operation ever seen," the diplomat said.

However, Luis Carlos Restrepo, Mr. Uribe's peace commissioner, said the proposed law would bring in information that enable authorities to dismantle criminal organizations. He said that paramilitary commanders would also have to confess to their crimes and accept suspended sentences from a judge. Although they would avoid jail time, they would lose certain rights like running for office and carrying weapons.

The plan is popular, to be sure, with paramilitary leaders like Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, who both face charges here for mass killings and assassinations. "The government has planted an alternative, and the alternative, to us, is very viable," Mr. Mancuso said recently in an interview.

To Mr. Uribe's government, the possibility of taking the paramilitaries out of the conflict is tantalizing. The plan is to fully demobilize the paramilitary forces by December of 2005, with the first 2,000 militia members laying down their arms by the end of this year.

Such thoughts, though, are anathema to people like Jesús Tobar, a leader of the Colombia's biggest labor confederation, which has lost hundreds of activists to paramilitary gunmen.

"They need to be condemned to jail," Mr. Tobar said. "They have committed so many crimes. The violence has gotten so much worse because of the paramilitaries."