Skip to comments.Colombia Plans to Ease Penalties for Right-Wing Death Squads
Posted on 09/15/2003 1:13:06 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
BOGOTÁ, Colombia, Sept. 14 - President Álvaro Uribe, who enjoys strong public support for vowing to bring order to Colombia, is proposing a law that would effectively grant impunity to right-wing death squads that lay down their arms.
Many Colombians support Mr. Uribe, whose approval rating is 65 percent, because of his reputation as an uncompromising wartime president determined to win Colombia's 39-year conflict. But his legislation, backed by the Bush administration, faces serious objections from even his allies. It is Mr. Uribe's first significant political challenge since taking office 13 months ago.
The proposed law would allow militiamen from the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to avoid jail for widespread human rights abuses that include the mass killings of thousands of villagers and the assassination of two presidential candidates. The group's leaders, several already convicted in absentia for murder, would instead be compelled to admit their crimes and make symbolic acts of contrition, compensating victims by providing community services, turning in their land and paying fines.
In exchange, the militia - a private, antiguerrilla army financed through cocaine trafficking and donations from wealthy Colombians - would make peace.
Mr. Uribe, known as a tireless pragmatist, says the plan will deactivate a brutal confederation of regional factions with 13,000 armed fighters, saving lives and giving two leftist guerrilla groups that continue to wage war an incentive to negotiate since they, too, could be covered by the proposed law.
But the United Nations and even conservative allies of Mr. Uribe say the legislation would be a travesty, allowing some of the most brutal warlords to avoid justice.
"Society has a barrier it will not cross and it is that atrocities are not forgiven," Senator Rafael Pardo, a powerful supporter of Mr. Uribe, told Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo. "You turn in a farm and that compensates for a massacre?"
The proposed law also appears to contradict American policy in Colombia - the State Department lists the Self-Defense Forces as a terrorist group, and a federal court in Washington last year indicted three leaders for trafficking cocaine.
Western diplomats here and American officials who work on Colombia policy, though, say the United States has not only offered support for Mr. Uribe but also has been consulted as his administration drafted the legislation.
"Everybody here understands that you're not going to do a peace process unless you have some sort of arrangement," a Bush administration official who has helped shape policy toward Colombia said by telephone from Washington.
Mr. Uribe's plan, however, is sharply at odds with a growing trend among Latin American governments toward reconciliation with their violent past. Argentina, Chile and Peru have nullified or are disregarding legal amnesties enacted years ago to protect military officers who committed wide-scale rights abuses. Prosecutors in those countries are opening cases against some of those officers.
Mr. Uribe's legislation, critics say, amounts to peace at any price, even contradicting the tough-on-crime approach that has characterized his presidency. "The bill opens the door to impunity because it throws out jail time and allows those responsible not to serve a single day in prison," said a recent statement from the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in Colombia, Michael Fruhling.
Critics of thegovernment say Mr. Uribe's plan also represents a right-ward tilt for his government, which has been accused by human rights groups of using the paramilitaries as a proxy force against the rebels. Mr. Uribe's father was killed by guerrillas, and he has strongly supported military officers investigated for links to the paramilitaries.
Mr. Uribe did little to help his case when he recently excoriated some rights groups in a speech, accusing them of "doing the propaganda work of terrorists." The comments upset some members of Mr. Uribe's cabinet and prompted Western diplomats here to warn that the lives of rights workers may have been imperiled.
"This shows what we have always affirmed, that Uribe's commitment has always been with the paramilitaries," said Wilson Borja, a leftist congressman who was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in which paramilitary fighters played a role.
Less ideological critics say Mr. Uribe's legislation could set a dangerous precedent for a country with a weak justice system long exploited by drug traffickers and corrupt politicians.
One Western diplomat said the legislation had already prompted several drug traffickers to buy positions in the Self-Defense Forces in the hope of avoiding jail time and retaining their ill-gotten gains. Those traffickers, as well as paramilitary commanders who have benefited from trafficking, are unlikely to ever lose their land or drug proceeds because the proposed law offers no mechanism to ensure serious investigation. "What is happening here is the biggest legal money laundering and narco-profiting operation ever seen," the diplomat said.
However, Luis Carlos Restrepo, Mr. Uribe's peace commissioner, said the proposed law would bring in information that enable authorities to dismantle criminal organizations. He said that paramilitary commanders would also have to confess to their crimes and accept suspended sentences from a judge. Although they would avoid jail time, they would lose certain rights like running for office and carrying weapons.
The plan is popular, to be sure, with paramilitary leaders like Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, who both face charges here for mass killings and assassinations. "The government has planted an alternative, and the alternative, to us, is very viable," Mr. Mancuso said recently in an interview.
To Mr. Uribe's government, the possibility of taking the paramilitaries out of the conflict is tantalizing. The plan is to fully demobilize the paramilitary forces by December of 2005, with the first 2,000 militia members laying down their arms by the end of this year.
Such thoughts, though, are anathema to people like Jesús Tobar, a leader of the Colombia's biggest labor confederation, which has lost hundreds of activists to paramilitary gunmen.
"They need to be condemned to jail," Mr. Tobar said. "They have committed so many crimes. The violence has gotten so much worse because of the paramilitaries."
The nationwide vote, the first election under the government of President Alvaro Uribe, will take place Oct. 26. The president took power last year promising to make Latin America's most violent nation safe again. "Those who register as a candidate for the election will be declared military targets. You and your families in any place where the FARC are found will subjugated to country's armed conflict," the letter read.
Commanders of Colombia's armed forces said they were aware of the letter and would guarantee security for all of the candidates, who must register within the coming weeks to be eligible. In mid-2002, the FARC threatened to kill or kidnap all mayors and municipal government officials in a move it said was aimed at destroying the state from the bottom up. The threat forced many politicians to take refuge in distant military bases, governing remotely. Twelve Colombian mayors were killed in 2002, and police blamed most of the killings on Marxist rebels. The FARC also kidnapped 12 provincial lawmakers last year. [End]
(Paramilitary) July 29, 2003 - Castano: Colombia Violence Was Inevitable - Pledged To Demobilize ***As his United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia prepare to disband as part of a peace agreement with the government, Castano sought to justify the tactics the outlawed right-wing militia group used to fight leftist rebels for nearly two decades. In a message dated Sunday and posted on the Web site of the AUC, as the group is known by its initials in Spanish, the paramilitary chief claimed his fighters prevented guerrillas from taking over Colombia .
.Government peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo has said the government is endorsing a plan in which paramilitary leaders would avoid jail if they follow through on promises to disarm. The militia leaders could face alternative sanctions such as paying compensation to their victims' families, Restrepo said. Castano has pledged to demobilize his estimated 12,000 fighters by the end of 2005, removing a brutal element in Colombia's war, now in its 39th year. Paramilitary splinter groups, estimated at 6,000 fighters, have refused to join the peace process.***
September 15, 2003 - Four Israelis among eight foreigners kidnapped in Colombia*** The kidnappers are believed to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which has been fighting for nearly four decades to overthrow the government, the government official said. She said the rebels initially took the tourist group's guide, but later released him and he went straight to the police.
Army search teams are scouring the Sierra Nevada for any signs of the hostages, said a spokesman for the army's 1st Division, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Colombia is the world's kidnapping center, with nearly 3,000 people abducted each year. The FARC, the nation's largest and most brutal rebel group, is blamed for most of the kidnappings.
It is currently holding dozens of political prisoners, including a former presidential candidate, and three U.S. military contractors it wants to trade for rebels in jail.***
Crises in Venezuela***The influx of so many poor with great aspirations of acquiring wealth resulted in the creation of massive slums that consumed the hillsides like a cancer. Mix into these conditions the long reign of two major political parties worm-eaten with corruption and seemingly unsympathetic with the poor, and the almost inevitable resentment created when huge economic discrepancies exist, and the poor face tremendous obstacles preventing them from advancing into the "opportunity-based" middle class. Venezuela was a social powder keg waiting for a spark.
Then along came Mr. Chavez, a former army colonel and leader of an unsuccessful 1992 coup that converted him into an imprisoned criminal and heroic "champion of the poor." A foolish President Rafael Caldera granted Mr. Chavez a presidential pardon, and Mr. Chavez ran for president on a moderate platform promising sweeping reforms and a healthy house-cleaning of government corruption. This won him wide support from the poor and disarmed the fears of the more wealthy, who hoped Mr. Chavez would deliver on his promises. Mr. Chavez won the presidency with the support of just 35 percent of the electorate.
Soon afterward, the trouble began. Mr. Chavez established friendships with the most radical leaders in the world, beginning with Cuba's Fidel Castro, but also including Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein (whom he called "My brother"), North Korea's Kim Yong-Il and the Palestinian Yasser Arafat, among others. Mr. Chavez celebrated the September 11 attacks in the United States, and reportedly gave money to the Taliban and al Qaeda. He has supported terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and established close ties with Colombia's narco-terrorists (ELA and the FARC), permitting them to operate, train and rest in Venezuelan territory.
Recently, Venezuela's permissiveness - if not outright support - for terror groups inspired U.S. Army Gen. Richard Boyer to compare Venezuela with Syria. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said "the government of the United States and the people of Venezuela have a differing view of democracy than does President Chavez." Taken together, these comments are a clear shot across the bow of Mr. Chavez. Mr. Chavez's anti-democratic behavior and support of terror groups is earning him an associate membership in the "axis of evil." ***
Colombian rebel alliance*** Authorities blamed the attack on rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, a Marxist peasant army that has been fighting the government for four decades.
Meanwhile, rebel sources said Colombia's two leftist rebel groups have agreed to form a military alliance and will step up attacks against the government of U.S.-backed President Alvaro Uribe.
The landmark accord, which could herald an escalation in Colombia's four-decade-old guerrilla war, was struck after a series of secret meetings between top commanders of FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN.
"The leaders of the FARC and the ELN have agreed to join military forces against the government of Uribe. We will now carry out nationwide joint military operations," a rebel involved in the negotiations said in the mountains of eastern Colombia.***
Colombia sends message to rebels via Venezuela*** BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe said on Wednesday he had asked Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez to pass a message to leftist guerrillas that he is willing to start peace talks. Uribe's comments are the first time the Colombian president has publicly suggested a link between the left-leaning Chavez and the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC.
"Last week I told Chavez: 'President, stop worrying so much about Colombia's security policies. Tell the FARC that if they are bored with our policies, they can negotiate with me in five minutes'," Uribe told a university audience in Bogota. Colombian media have alleged that Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, the top FARC commander, has been hiding in neighboring Venezuela since the Colombian government broke off peace talks with the rebel group in February 2002.
Colombia's leftist rebels unite against government-Cuban trained ELN; Marxist FARC***The country's two main groups announced a military alliance against the government on Monday .The war cry comes in the midst of escalating violence in certain regions. On Monday, at least five people died, including a 1-year-old boy, when the FARC allegedly planted a bomb on a dock in Meta. The Cano-Limon oil pipeline in the eastern province of Arauca, where US Green Berets are training Colombian antiterror troops, was bombed this weekend for the 20th time this year. And earlier this month, the FARC allegedly detonated a car bomb in the town of Saravena in Arauca, killing four civilians, including two children.
Rangel notes that the two groups have tried unsuccessfully to work together before. The rebels once comprised the now-defunct "Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Group" that failed to broker peace with the government in 1991 and 1992.
Since then, they have operated on largely separate tracks and even fought against each other for power and recognition from the government as the dominant guerrilla force.
The FARC was founded in 1964 to establish Marxism in Colombia. It has at least 70 fronts that roam up to 60 percent of the country, mainly to the plains east and south of the Andes.
Although it was originally created to promote social justice, during the 1990s it became heavily involved in the drug trade. Along with taxing coca, the FARC earns its income from kidnappings and extortion.
The ELN was also founded in 1964, by a group of radical students and Spanish priests trained in Cuba. It has been losing power and numbers in recent years, but has been responsible for mass kidnappings and the abduction of two Los Angeles Times journalists in January.
It largely focuses on attacking infrastructure, such as oil pipelines and electrical towers. Earlier this year, the ELN condemned the February bombing of a nightclub in Bogotá, which killed dozens.***
Brazilian ranchers form militias to protect their land The MST's national leader, João Pedro Stedile, was recently recorded by a journalist describing the landless movement's activists as "our army" and calling for it to "finish with" the 27,000 ranchers and landowners facing the 23-million people involved in the "fight in the countryside" ("luta camponesa"). "That is the dispute. We won't sleep until we do away with them." In response, ranchers in fertile southern regions such as Sao Paulo state's Pontal do Paranapanema are forming militias to protect their property from invasion by landless farm workers, and police fear the tension could explode into armed conflict. Landowners are stepping up pressure on the Lula government to move against the protests to little avail. ***
Venezuelans Protest Kidnappings (Chavez suspends gun licenses--threats to jail militiamen)***Carmen Tamayo, an office worker. ``Something must be done because nobody should have to live like this.''
Forty-one people were reported kidnapped in Venezuela during the first six months of this year, compared to 39 kidnappings reported in all of 2000.
Seventeen Venezuelan kidnap victims are currently being held for ransom.
``The number of kidnappings is undoubtedly on the rise. That's why we are here demanding that the government take immediate action,'' said Jose Luis Betancourt, president of the National Ranchers' Federation.
Ranchers living along the country's remote 1,400-mile border with Colombia face the constant threat of kidnapping and extortion by Colombia's leftist guerrillas who can cross the border. Common criminals and gangs often cooperate with rebels.
Earlier this year cattlemen proposed forming private militias to fend off local criminals and rebels from neighboring Colombia. The idea was abandoned as President Hugo Chavez suspended the issuance of new gun licenses and threatened to jail would-be militiamen.***
Essentially, Uribe is proposing a broad amnesty (with conditions), which might not be a bad idea. This program has actually been going on for some time on an individual level, with the "rehabilitation" of individual guerrillas who lay down their arms.
However, I don't expect FARC/ELN to show any interest in it. The paramilitary groups, now that the Colombian army is actually fighting the guerrillas, might be interested; but the (now Chavez-supported) Marxist groups will never settle for this.
FARC just kidnapped eight tourists in Colombia this weekend, btw. Several were Israelis, and the others included a German and a Spaniard.