Amnesty bill criticized as shield for traffickers
Opponents of a bill that would offer amnesty to paramilitaries say the measure would shield wanted drug traffickers from U.S. extradition.
BY STEVEN DUDLEY
BOGOTA - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is facing complaints that he's trying to set up a loophole so that right-wing paramilitaries wanted in the United States for drug-trafficking can avoid extradition.
The complaints by Uribe opponents and a former ally in Congress come as the Senate debates a Uribe-backed law on amnesty for the right-wing paramilitary coalition known as the AUC. Uribe and the AUC, once 15,000-strong, have been negotiating a peace settlement since May. Thousands of AUC fighters have already handed over their weapons.
The Uribe-backed amnesty bill, among many elements, would set jail-term lengths for AUC members who have committed murders during the illegal paramilitaries' fight against left-wing guerrillas, and reparations for victims.
But the proposal also includes a section that, according to some critics, links charges of drug-trafficking and paramilitary activities in a way that could provide an escape hatch for paramilitaries indicted in U.S. courts for charges such as drug-trafficking, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
PLAN UNDER FIRE
Senator Rodrigo Rivera complained last week that the proposal would not differentiate between ''political-military actors in the armed conflict, and drug traffickers who are camouflaged as [paramilitary] commanders.'' At least four members of the high command of the AUC, the Spanish acronym for the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, are wanted on U.S. drug-trafficking charges.
AUC chiefs have long recognized that drug traffickers finance AUC units to protect themselves from leftist rebels. But in the last few years, several top traffickers allegedly all but purchased entire paramilitary units to protect their properties or assume the rank of comandantes and thereby join peace talks that could win them amnesty.
One of those is Gabriel Galindo, an alleged senior drug trafficker from the Valle del Cauca province who also helped fund the AUC's Calima Bloc in the province. Galindo was welcomed into the AUC fold by Diego Murillo, aka Don Berna, a former bodyguard in the Medellín Cartel.
Now a member of the AUC's high command, Galindo told The Herald recently in the safe haven that Uribe established for the peace talks with the AUC that he and his fellow commanders ``believe in the government.''
The AUC has reason to hope for an advantageous deal. In December, the government announced it would not extradite top AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso provided he continued supporting the peace negotiations. Mancuso demobilized most of the 4,000 fighters who answered to him.
Uribe told a radio station last week that ''there will not be any negotiation with regard to the subject of extradition.'' He has sent close to 200 suspected drug traffickers to the United States since he took office in August 2002.
But Uribe also acknowledged that the government may be forced to allow some AUC leaders and members to get away with some crimes in order to negotiate a broader peace agreement.
''Those who have entered a peace process, who are wanted for extradition, will have to show . . . that they truly repent and that they intend to give reparations, and then we'll begin to look at what can happen,'' he said.
The government has broadly insisted that it will not allow drug traffickers to benefit from the peace process with the AUC, but it has a spotty record enforcing its own decree. One reputed drug trafficker, Victor Mejia, has been allowed to participate in the peace talks, while his twin brother, Miguel Angel, who also faces many allegations of drug-trafficking, was blocked by the government.