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Colombian Paramilitary Leaders to Get Amnesty

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And as Mark Knoller just mentioned, it's not all brush-clearing today in Crawford. President Bush meets with Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe at the Crawford ranch. Uribe wants the president's support for a law that offers amnesty to paramilitary commanders. Six thousand right-wing paramilitary fighters have handed in their weapons in exchange for partial amnesty. President Uribe says it's a step towards peace for a nation battered by a 40-year civil war. But critics say it lets those who have committed atrocities off the hook. Brian Ellsworth traveled to Colombia and sent this report.

BRIAN ELLSWORTH reporting:

Fifty-eight-year Olivia Castanio(ph) says she can't forget the day when a group of armed men tied up her husband and shot him in the small Colombian town of San Brocce(ph). Castanio said the men belonged to a federation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as the AUC. After numerous death threats, Castanio fled for the hillside slum of Asfuersos de Pas(ph), overlooking Medellin. Now she is worried that the commanders who ordered the massacre of her husband could be given amnesty rather than being punished.

Ms. OLIVIA CASTANIO (Husband Killed by AUC): (Through Translator) Yes, I think they should be punished. No one has the right to take the life of another person. But instead of punishing them, they're rewarding them.

ELLSWORTH: Government leaders acknowledge that many of those likely to benefit from the Justice and Peace Law are guilty of crimes against humanity. Some have also been identified by US authorities as major cocaine kingpins. But Colombian ministers say, despite these crimes, the only way to end Colombia's civil war is to begin a process of reconciliation and partial amnesty. Mario Iguaran is Colombia's attorney general and former vice minister of justice.

Mr. MARIO IGUARAN (Attorney General of Colombia): (Through Translator) The majority of Colombians have somehow experienced this country's violence, so they believe in peace. This is why the vast majority of Colombians support this law.

ELLSWORTH: So far, the peace process has only involved the paramilitary groups, since leftist guerrillas have refused to negotiate. But even as it stands, critics say that several key flaws in the legislation will actually make the situation worse. Around 3,000 people have died per year in Colombia's civil war. Critics say little will be learned about these massacres because the law does not require a sworn confession. It also means the state will not learn anything about the cocaine exports or the paramilitaries' underground finances. What's more, fighters would not have to give back vast amounts of land and property they stole from peasants.

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ELLSWORTH: Ivan Cepeda runs an organization that defends victims of violence by paramilitaries in the state security forces. His father was serving as a senator in 1994 when he was killed by paramilitaries acting together with state intelligence agents. While some have compared the law to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Cepeda says the law won't be successful because it doesn't dismantle the paramilitary organizations.

Mr. IVAN CEPEDA (Runs Organization Defending Victims of Violence by Paramilitaries): (Through Translator) This is not a transition law like the one enacted in South Africa. Paramilitary structures continue to operate, so we cannot think of this as a law that will end the violence.

ELLSWORTH: But many Colombians support the peace process despite its flaws.

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ELLSWORTH: The negotiations with the paramilitaries over the last year and a half have brought peace to La Sierra, a barrio in the verdant green hills outside Medellin. Father Jaime(ph), who asked not to give his full name out of fear for his safety, runs the church in La Sierra. He says he no longer lies awake at night listening to gunshots of rival gangs. Former paramilitary hit men are now working on community development projects, he says, after their commanders ordered them to demobilize.

Father JAIME (Runs Church in La Sierra): (Through Translator) Whether or not the peace process has its flaws and its defects, human life is more important than anything else.

ELLSWORTH: President Uribe is seeking financial support for the project. The Colombian government is requesting over a hundred million dollars in aid from the US Congress to pay for the demobilization effort. However, a bipartisan group of senators has said it will not fund the project unless Colombia requires paramilitary fighters to confess to all crimes and return all stolen property. For NPR News, I'm Brian Ellsworth in Caracas.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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