The Miami Herald
Tue, Feb. 10, 2004

Uribe woos, hits militias

Colombian paramilitaries are getting captured and killed in record numbers, despite peace talks with the government.


  BOGOTA - More than 3,000 paramilitary fighters were captured last year, even though their leaders had declared a cease-fire and were talking peace with the
  government, the Colombian Defense Ministry has announced.

  But leftist senators in Congress said paramilitary gunmen have continued to kill civilians -- some 600 in the first half of 2003, according to the human rights group Noche y Niebla.


  ''That means they keep killing,'' Sen. Antonio Navarro Wolf, a former leftist guerrilla, told reporters. ``It means the cease-fire apparently does not stop the killing.''

  The ministry figures released last week showed that in 2003 authorities arrested 3,166 members of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, a
  ruthless paramilitary group formed by cattle ranchers 20 years ago to fight back against leftist guerrillas. That was more than double the 1,356 AUC members caught in 2002, the ministry claimed.

  What made the statistics peculiar is that they came as the government continues to talk peace with the same organization whose members it boasts of killing and
  capturing -- despite widespread allegations that some security force members aid the AUC.

  AUC leaders -- many of them wanted in the United States on suspicion of drug trafficking -- opened secret peace talks with the government last year, and in November, more than 850 members of one of the AUC units disarmed amid much fanfare.

  Many experts say the armed forces attacks only certain factions of the AUC, while others are left alone with a wink and a nod. The paramilitaries' Metro Bloc, for
  example, was hit hard when its leader refused to go along with the peace process.

  ''This cease fire is fiction. It underscores that the grounds they based these peace talks on is huge hypocrisy,'' said Robin Kirk, who investigates Colombia for the
  Washington-based Human Rights Watch.


  AUC founder Carlos Castaño has said the government's recent successes in driving the leftist guerrillas out of rural areas is reason enough to quit. President Alvaro
  Uribe has advocated a controversial program for making a broad peace with the AUC, suggesting that Congress pass a law allowing the paramilitaries to pay cash fines for their activities instead of going to prison.

  Kirk compared Uribe to former President Andrés Pastrana, who was ridiculed for negotiating with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while its guerrillas continued to hijack planes, kidnap politicians and set off bombs.

  ''It's a powerful parallel,'' Kirk said. ``And it's just as vapid.''

  The government defends its dual track on the AUC, saying it is talking peace with some blocs willing to lay down their weapons and fighting others that are not. The AUC has been riven by Castaño's decision to begin negotiations.

  ''The AUC traffics in coca, hurts civilians and extorts people just like the FARC,'' Army commander Gen. Martín Orlando Carreño said in an interview with The Herald. "As long as they are committing crimes against civilians and the country, we have to attack them. The day they stop committing crimes and start negotiating for real,   we will stop attacking.''