BY SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY
Special to The Herald
In an extraordinary appearance before Colombia's Congress, leaders of right-wing paramilitary groups facing charges of brutal crimes and drug trafficking Wednesday said a peace deal with the government should not include jail time.
It was the first time that active commanders of Colombia's warring factions spoke to lawmakers, wearing civilian clothes instead of their usual camouflaged uniforms.
Critics condemned the appearance as granting legitimacy to those responsible for some of Colombia's most vicious crimes, from political assassinations to massacres of peasants suspected of being leftist guerrillas or sympathizers.
''In return for our sacrifice for the homeland, for having liberated from the rebels half the country we cannot receive jail time,'' said Salvatore Mancuso, the leader of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC.
The AUC was founded in the 1980s by wealthy ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers to protect themselves from kidnappings and extortions by Colombia's two leftist guerrilla groups, known as the FARC and the ELN.
Colombian and international human rights groups have blamed the AUC for scores of massacres. The U.S. State Department has listed it as a terrorist organization, and U.S. prosecutors have indicted a half-dozen of its top leaders on drug-smuggling charges.
AUC leaders and the government of President Alvaro Uribe formally launched peace talks July 1 in an enclave in the northern province of Córdoba, where about 400 paramilitaries have concentrated during the negotiations. The talks aim to demobilize as many as 20,000 AUC fighters by 2006.
Mancuso, AUC political leader Iván Duque and Ramón Isaza were given special permission to leave the enclave under tight security measures to address the Congress. They arrived early Wednesday in the Colombian capital on a military plane.
Mancuso claimed the paramilitaries were victims of the war, and were forced to take up arms to fight off rebel advances because of the weakness of the Colombian government in much of the countryside.
''The first responsibility for the political, social, economic and military conflict in Colombia is due to the weakness of the state. The state and its leaders are responsible for the conflict and they have to respond to, and make reparations to, society,'' said Mancuso, who is wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges and in Colombia on allegations involving numerous massacres and murders.
Arrest warrants for the AUC negotiators have been suspended while they are in talks with the government.
''It is important for us to help the state to make reparations to all of the victims, including us,'' said Mancuso, wearing a dark suit and red striped tie.
The presence of the paramilitary leaders in Congress -- Mancuso once boasted that the AUC had helped elect 30 percent of the lawmakers -- sparked a heated debate among legislators and the ire of families of victims of the AUC's fight against the leftist guerrillas.
Throughout Mancuso's speech, several people in the chamber held up water-color paintings of Manuel Cepeda, a leftist political leader gunned down in 1994 on a Bogotá street. The AUC has admitted responsibility for the crime.
Following his address, Lilia Solano, holding one of the paintings, began shouting her demand for ``reparations for the victims of the paramilitaries.''
Outside the Congress building, clusters of balloons in the colors of the Colombian flag adorned Bolivar Square, where several hundred supporters of the negotiations with the AUC gathered with banners calling for peace.
But families of AUC victims also gathered on the square shouting, ''Murderers!'' Around the Congress building, posters read: "I accuse Mancuso.''