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In Colombia, Peace Talks With Paramilitaries Don’t Quell Fear

Special to The Times

While most Colombians quietly approve of nascent peace talks with a dreaded paramilitary umbrella group, a lack of pomp surrounding the initiative underscores concerns that the negotiations will not soften the violence in this war-ravaged country.

The peace process opened quietly and unceremoniously last week, when the government posted a joint statement on its Web site announcing formal talks with a core group of about 13,000 illegal paramilitary fighters, known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

Funded by wealthy landowners and helped along by proceeds from Colombia’s thriving cocaine trade, the right-wing AUC has been locked in battle with two main rebel armies for more than a decade.

Details of the talks were sketchy, and even the government’s peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, sounded a cautionary note.

During his first news conference since formally launching negotiations Tuesday evening, Restrepo spoke about what the difficult process feels like. “I’m traveling at 11 p.m. along a narrow road. There’s a cliff on one side. It’s foggy, and I can only see 10 meters in front of me. I don’t know what’s coming next. We’re taking it step by step.”

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Analysts say success hinges on the government’s ability to establish control over vast, lawless regions currently under paramilitary control.

Others fear that Marxist rebels may take over drug crops and gun-running corridors as the paramilitaries move out or that paramilitary leaders who are responsible for gruesome massacres may be granted immunity from prosecution.

Created in the 1980s as a network of private armies to battle rebel extortion and kidnapping, the paramilitaries are responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia’s lengthy civil conflict.

As President Alvaro Uribe sees them, they “filled a vacuum that the state, gravely, had abandoned. Their disappearance demands that the state strengthen itself and recuperate the institutional empire.” Indeed, in the absence of government troops and strong institutions, paramilitaries and rebels often preside over disputes in areas under their control -- from complaints of wife beating to squabbles over land -- creating what Uribe has called “feudal” states.

The president spoke from the turbulent eastern savannas of the Arauca region during a trip meant to display government control over the most remote and battle-scarred corners of this Andean nation. Yet the trip helped to illustrate the government’s uphill battle against illegal armed groups.

The number of violent deaths in Arauca continues to rise, including that of the local registrar, who was gunned down last weekend. Half of Arauca’s journalists have fled under threat of death, and rebels temporarily cut off power to Arauca city by dynamiting two electricity pylons during the president’s visit. The attacks persist despite U.S. training of elite counterinsurgency troops in the area

Uribe, who campaigned on a law-and-order platform, has boosted military spending and manpower since taking office a year ago. His more controversial initiatives include a network of paid informers in the countryside along with a home guard of lightly trained “farmer-soldiers.” Such programs will be tested under the new peace process as paramilitaries migrate to “concentration zones,” where their territory will be limited and their activities more easily monitored. Plans announced Tuesday call for demobilization to begin before year-end and be completed by the end of 2005.

In addition, the AUC has vowed to support government efforts to crack down on drug production and to cease all hostilities in return for government help to integrate fighters into civilian life.

The United States, which issued an extradition order against AUC leader Carlos Castano on drug-trafficking charges last year, has pledged $3 million to the demobilization process.

“There is still weakness on the part of the government to guarantee security for its people,” said military analyst Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation. “The causes that gave rise to the paramilitaries are still active: a guerrilla [movement] that controls territory and pressures the population.”

Rangel predicted that only one-third of the fighters belonging to the AUC would disband, and he warned that others might take their places.

Experts also point out that commanders controlling up to 7,000 additional paramilitary fighters have refused to participate in the talks.

A breakaway commander known as “Rodrigo,” who is among the most vocal critics of the process, has accused some AUC factions of shielding drug traffickers and working with the same cocaine buyers as their rebel foes.

With the peace process, “the paramilitaries’ mask is going to come down,” Rodrigo said from a mountain hide-out where his troops loitered in doorways, wearing black bandannas and brandishing automatic rifles.

“The country will see them not as counterinsurgents but as drug traffickers, and in some cases as partners to the guerrilla.” As long as drug trafficking exists, the argument goes, there will be a need for private armies protecting the traffickers’ interests.

Human rights monitors, meanwhile, said they would be watching carefully to ensure that AUC leaders such as the husky-voiced Castano and his masked lieutenant, Salvatore Mancuso, are brought to justice.

Both men are thought to be pushing for a peace pact in hopes of winning immunity from U.S. extradition orders pending against them, not to mention numerous charges filed in Colombian courts.

The government is already drafting legislation that would allow combatants who are guilty of crimes against humanity, such as torture and massacres, to serve “alternative punishments” to prison.

“Alternative penalties are normally a benefit available for first-time delinquents involved in petty crimes,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “In a civilized society, those kinds of benefits are not granted to serial killers.”


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