Frozen for two months, the demobilization of Colombia’s militias took a step forward Monday with the surrender of 1,923 paramilitary fighters and a large arsenal of weapons, including two helicopters.
The action by members of the Central Bolivar group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia was the second-largest since the demobilization process began in June 2003. About 13,000 paramilitary soldiers have promised to give up fighting. Roughly 8,000 remain in uniform.
The nation has been riven by factional warfare for more than four decades. Leftist guerrilla forces such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have battled government and paramilitary armies, the latter initially financed by farmers, cattlemen and businessmen.
Now, guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries fight to control Colombia’s multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking industry. The national army, which is funded in part by $600 million in annual U.S. aid, fights both of them.
The demobilization of paramilitary forces is a key element in President Alvaro Uribe’s strategy to end the civil war. Uribe hopes to complete it by mid-February, then turn his attention to defeating the FARC, which has refused to negotiate with the national government.
The other main insurgent army, the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials ELN, has expressed interest in a negotiated settlement and held preliminary talks with Colombian officials in Havana on Monday.
In exchange for laying down their arms, the paramilitary fighters are entitled to a $168 monthly stipend, housing, healthcare and schooling. Fighters who surrendered Monday will be relocated to 120 towns and given new identities, said Juan David Angel, who heads the Interior Ministry’s program for bringing the militia members back into society.
Demobilization ground to a halt in October, after the government abruptly moved a captured paramilitary leader from one prison to another. The armed groups feared that the leader, Diego Fernando Murillo, would be extradited to the United States.
U.S. officials have asked for the extradition of several paramilitary leaders, including Murillo, to face drug charges. The paramilitary organizations agreed to the peace process on condition that none would be extradited.
Angel said the government was able to convince paramilitary leaders that none would be extradited as long as they kept their agreement to disavow violence, confess to past crimes and renounce illicit assets.
The leaders are subject to trial after the demobilization deadline of Feb. 15, but Uribe has offered them reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation.