- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

BOGOTA, Colombia — A new law designed to disband far-right paramilitary groups is leaving their networks intact, sparking fears the country could fall under the control of criminal drug networks, a human rights group warned yesterday.

With President Alvaro Uribe set to meet with President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch Thursday, the new law has raised concerns in Congress and among activist groups about the government’s policy for ending a 40-year civil war.

“This is a major setback in the fight on terror and a major erosion in the fight against drugs,” said Maria McFarland, a researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch advocacy group.

The so-called “Justice and Peace Law,” approved in June, offered the rightist groups reduced jail time in exchange for disbanding.

Critics complain the law allows the right-wing groups, fighting a long and vicious civil war with Marxist guerrilla forces, to escape justice, regroup and finance future illegal campaigns under different guises. Jail terms under the law are too short and will cut into U.S.-backed efforts to curb the Colombian drug trade and its financial ties to terrorism, they say.

“The new law does not ensure that paramilitaries confess their crimes, disclose information about how their groups operate, or turn over their illegally acquired wealth,” according to a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday.

Colombian prosecutor Ramiro Marin, quoted in the report, said the “demobilization” of the right-wing groups foreseen in the law “does not help investigations at all.”

“It’s a way of quieting down the system and returning again, starting over from another side,” according to a former paramilitary fighter cited in the report.

Leftist guerrilla groups have rejected the law, claiming it is part of a government plot to legalize the paramilitaries in Colombia’s “dirty war.”

The Uribe government denies the accusation, though it acknowledges that some “bad apples” of the Colombian military and police have been illegally involved with paramilitaries and could be subject to prosecution.

Mr. Uribe has emerged as one of the Bush administration’s strongest allies in Latin America, and Colombia has been a primary recipient of American aid in its struggle with leftist guerrillas and illegal drug networks.

In an effort to bolster U.S. support, Mr. Uribe announced yesterday he was naming his predecessor, Andres Pastrana, as Colombia’s ambassador to Washington.

Mr. Pastrana, who has himself criticized the new law, also will create an international commission to oversee its implementation, Mr. Uribe’s office said in a statement.

Miguel Posada, an analyst with the private activist group Verdad Colombia, defended the law for preserving the president’s power to extradite both rightist and leftist forces engaged in dealing drugs.

“This is a weapon that Uribe has if they don’t behave well and if they don’t help the peace process. If they go back to crime, he can take action against them,” Mr. Posada said

Colombia Vice President Francisco Santos, in press interviews, conceded the law was not perfect, but said it was still a big step forward in the campaign to disarm thousands of outlaws.

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