Uribe Seeks Backing on New Law

Special to The Times

Facing criticism that he is being too lenient with right-wing paramilitary fighters, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has mounted a diplomatic offensive to win international support for legislation that grants light sentences to some of this country’s most notorious combatants in exchange for demobilizing.

On Friday, Uribe signed a controversial bill that critics say will allow members of paramilitaries engaged in peace talks with the government to get off with as little as 22 months in prison and avoid extradition to the United States. Late last month, the Colombian Congress approved the so-called Justice and Peace bill, which affects about 13,000 paramilitary fighters, including some accused of committing atrocities.

The legislation and Uribe’s government have come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups who fear that it will set the wrong precedent in Colombia’s protracted civil war involving the paramilitaries, the government and left-wing guerrillas.


The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to block as much as $3 million in aid to the demobilization process unless the paramilitaries’ mafia-like structures are disbanded and top chieftains are extradited to the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges. The committee’s decision is pending before the full Senate.

“Nobody likes the Justice and Peace law here,” said Adam Isacson, Colombia director for the Washington-based Center for International Policy, which supports demilitarization of the conflict. “Whether you care about human rights or whether you care about narco-trafficking, there’s something in there to hate.”

Formed in the 1980s by wealthy landowners and drug barons looking to combat the left-wing rebels, the main paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, is accused of deriving 40% of its profit from cocaine and committing some of the worst massacres in the history of the 41-year conflict.

The State Department has classified the AUC as a terrorist organization. Yet the demobilization bill is backed by the Bush administration, which views Uribe as its strongest ally in Latin America. Bush has invited Uribe to his ranch outside Crawford, Texas, on Aug. 4.

“The law isn’t perfect,” William Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, told the national newspaper El Tiempo. “I think it’s viable and can bring peace, justice, protect extradition and give victims reparation.”

In trips this month to Spain and England, Uribe sought to sell the legislation, even sparring at one point with the head of Amnesty International at a public event in Spain. Uribe argues that the bill marks the first time that the concepts of justice and reparation have been included in the Colombian peace process.


On the heels of that trip, Uribe sent key officials to Washington, but several senators didn’t meet with them in what was attributed to pressure from human rights groups. In a May 23 letter to Uribe, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) expressed concern that the bill wouldn’t lead to the “complete dismantlement of the [paramilitaries’] underlying structure.”

U.S. foes and international human rights groups contend that the bill has serious weaknesses. They say it will allow paramilitary commanders to escape extradition by classifying their misdeeds as political crimes, which carry lighter penalties, and by invoking “double jeopardy” protections, which shield those who have confessed and been sentenced in Colombia from prosecution for the same crimes in the United States. The U.S. is seeking the extradition of six top paramilitary warlords on drug charges.

“This is music to the ears of these thugs,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “What they fear most is extradition.”

Another point of controversy is how long and under what conditions the paramilitary members would be imprisoned for massacres and kidnappings. The bill provides for five- to eight-year sentences, but time already spent in peace talks with the government would be counted as time served.

With other reductions in prison time in exchange for work or study, some militia leaders could spend as little as 22 to 28 months in jail, human rights advocates say. The government denies that this will happen.

Uribe maintains that the new legislation offers the best formula to dissolve the right-wing militias and bring a measure of peace to this war-torn country. The same benefits would apply in eventual negotiations with the guerrillas, he said.

“It is a balance between justice and peace,” Uribe has said. “In the name of justice, when there is a peace process underway, you can’t arrive at surrender. Nor in the name of peace can you arrive at impunity.”