HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Colombia, Militia Start Talks
Pubdate: Fri, 02 Jul 2004
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2004 The Miami Herald
Author: Sibylla Brodzinsky, Special to The Herald
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


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.''

Hard-Line Government

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 Fe 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 Garcia-Pe=F1a,
a former government peace negotiator who worked with leftist rebels.

Return to Civilian Life

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

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 Fe 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 Monteria, the provincial
capital 30 miles from Santa Fe de Ralito. ``That's what the
negotiation is about.''
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