- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 2004

CAMPO DOS, Colombia - As the first of up to 3,000 right-wing paramilitaries that are expected to demobilize by the end of this year, 435 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) recently surrendered their weapons in this violent part of northwestern Colombia known as Uraba.

With church hymns playing in the background and paper doves waving in the air, members of the AUC’s “Banana Bloc” turned in their rifles and flak jackets to Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government’s peace commissioner, as their commander looked on.

That yielding of weapons was expected to be repeated up to 11 times before the end of this year, including Catatumbo — a war-torn jungle region in Norte de Santander department near the border with Venezuela that is rich in illegal plantations of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine. There, 1,600 AUC fighters are expected to give up their guns. The AUC has been engaged in a rocky peace process with the government since December 2002.

“Today, we can say that Colombia is viable. We have recovered hope,” Mr. Restrepo said. “We can contain terrorism without overstepping the limits of democratic law that we live under.”

Some victims of AUC killings and brutality participated in the ceremony and said they were willing to forgive. When the AUC first arrived at Campo Dos, members burned down several houses and killed residents considered sympathizers of the leftist FARC — the Spanish acronym of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“You don’t forget that,” said Eunice Cano, whose husband was one of the first victims of the AUC here. “You can say you forgive, but that’s a lie.”

Ironically, the demobilization came on the same day Colombia’s Supreme Court approved the extradition to the United States of Salvatore Mancuso, the AUC’s military chief, who presided over the recent arms-surrender ceremony.

However, there was media speculation that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe might decline to sign extradition warrants, concerned that it could derail his effort to collect weapons and demilitarize the countryside.

Mr. Mancuso and at least three other paramilitary chiefs are wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. Though created to fight the FARC, in recent years the AUC has become heavily involved in the drug trade. AUC leaders say they hope to avoid extradition, and indeed jail time in Colombia, by making peace.

“We hope that our proof of peace, the will, the path that we are constructing, permits us all to live in peace in Colombia,” Mr. Mancuso told a radio station. But he added that until a solution is found, he would still fear extradition.

Hernan Hernandez, the Banana Bloc commander, said that if convicted of crimes, he expects to be detained in an open-air camp rather than a jail. “We have done a lot to defend ourselves and the country,” Mr. Hernandez insisted.

After spending eight days in Campo Dos, a special zone created for demobilization, the ex-fighters-turned-civilians will simply return home.

Most will likely be pardoned, but there is no consensus yet on how to deal with those who have committed crimes like massacres and kidnappings. Some are already talking about forming networks of government informants to continue their war against the FARC.

For many of the fighters, this isn’t the first time they have given up their weapons. A large group belonged to the Popular Army of Liberation (PLA), a leftist group associated with the FARC. But after the PLA disbanded in the early 1990s, many of its former combatants got into a war with the FARC and joined the AUC.

The AUC has firmly controlled the zone in which they demobilized last week since the late 1990s. It has a violent history: Between 1993 and 2002, there were 65 massacres that claimed 449 lives. But most residents now sympathize with the paramilitaries and fear the FARC may return.

“We are not going back to live under the guerrillas,” said Gustavo, a bar owner in Apartado. “If they come back, we will give them bullets.”

But the region will hardly be without AUC influence. The Elmer Cardenas Bloc has a heavy presence in Uraba and is not negotiating with the government.

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