The Miami Herald
Fri, Jul. 02, 2004

Colombia, militia start talks

Special to The Herald

SANTA FE DE RALITO, Colombia - Colombia's paramilitaries, blamed for some of this war-ravaged nation's most atrocious crimes, opened negotiations with the government Thursday amid deep public skepticism about their desire for peace.

Set in this remote rural village in the northern Cordoba province long dominated by the paramilitaries, the talks aim to demobilize up to 20,000 fighters in the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, one of the most powerful factions in the four-way war that pits two leftist guerrilla groups against the paramilitaries and government forces.

But to get there, the two sides will have to negotiate their way past massive stumbling blocks, including U.S. extradition requests for top leaders on drug charges and the issue of whether the fighters will walk free or pay for their crimes.

''The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia are taking a definitive step toward total peace,'' top paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso said at the ceremony launching the talks.

Flanked by six other leaders of the right-wing group, known here as the AUC, Mancuso said that a succession of weak governments unable to fight off leftist rebels forced paramilitaries to create a fighting force ``that lacks legality but not legitimacy.''


Government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo said the days of weak government are now over because of the election of President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who has vowed to strengthen the military and crush all illegally armed groups.

''This is the moment of truth,'' Restrepo said. ``The society is watching us with hope. We cannot let it down.''

But while many Colombians hope the talks will lead to a partial peace, they are wary. Although the AUC declared a cease-fire in late 2002, hundreds of people have been killed by its fighters since.

The carefully staged opening of the peace talks was attended by local and national politicians but skipped by U.S. and European ambassadors, who have expressed strong reservations about the process, as well as U.N. representatives.

Initially, 400 members of the AUC, including its top leaders, agreed to be confined to a 142-square mile military-free ''negotiation zone'' anchored in Santa Fé de Ralito.

While the talks go on and the leaders remain in the zone, the paramilitaries are protected not only from Colombian arrest warrants but also from U.S. extradition requests.

Half of the AUC's negotiators have been branded major drug traffickers by Washington, and Mancuso has been indicted for shipping 17 tons of cocaine to the United States.

''There is no doubt that there are groups with the AUC that are clearly drug traffickers that simply try to present themselves as counter-insurgents to try to get the benefits that would be awarded through some kind of negotiation process,'' said Daniel García-Peña, a former government peace negotiator who worked with leftist rebels.


The paramilitaries acknowledge they have become redundant now that Uribe has strengthened the military to fight the guerrilla forces. They say they want to return to civilian life and create a political movement.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood cast doubt on their motives. ''They have only one program -- narco-terrorism -- and only one agenda: destruction,'' he told the local newsmagazine Cambio recently.

One AUC fighter who called himself Omega said those types of comments do not help the peace process.

''They shouldn't punish us. They should thank us,'' said Omega, who lost his left leg when he stepped on a rebel mine two years ago. Since then he has been at a 32-bed paramilitary rehabilitation center in Santa Fé de Ralito.

''The military wasn't able to fight the guerrillas, but we were,'' he said. ``We should just start from zero.''

Washington has said repeatedly it would not lift its extradition requests for AUC leaders, but the Colombian government has suggested the international community consider ''benevolent treatment'' for those who work toward peace in Colombia.

The AUC's current leadership has said it will not accept extradition or prison time, sharply criticizing proposed legislation that calls for a minimum five-year sentence for demobilized fighters found guilty of gross human rights violations.

But political analyst Victor Negrete said the AUC will eventually have to accept some punishment because neither Colombian society nor the international community would allow them get away with their worst crimes, including public massacres.

''They'll have to give in; both sides will,'' said Negrete, an organizer of seminars on the peace process in Montería, the provincial capital 30 miles from Santa Fé de Ralito. "That's what the negotiation is about.''