July 8, 2005

Feared Colombian paramilitaries say they’ll disarm

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - Four feared Colombian
paramilitary warlords said on Friday they would lay down their
arms, raising hopes all far-right militias would disband under
peace talks the government has been forced to defend.

Ramon Isaza, Ramiro Vanoy, Pablo Mejia and Jorge 40 said in
a communique their 4,000 fighters would demobilize as part of
talks between the government and the outlaw United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC.

About 5,000 of the AUC's 20,000 members have now handed in
their arms to the government, under 2-year-old peace talks, and
commanders of 7,000 other men have also said they are about to

But the four, who command men in regions ranging from
central Colombia to the border with Venezuela, previously
expressed doubts about handing in their arms and giving up the

The warlords' announcement came after Congress approved in
June a government-sponsored law that will limit prison
sentences to a maximum of eight years for AUC members accused
of killings or other crimes.

Human rights groups have denounced the law as letting AUC
chiefs get off lightly for some of Colombia's worst human
rights abuses, including the killings of thousands of people in
an illegal war against Marxist rebels. They also say the
agreement means details of many crimes will never be known.

The United States supports the peace process by its close
ally but classes the AUC as a "terrorist" organization and says
it is responsible for a large proportion of Colombia's massive
cocaine exports.

President Alvaro Uribe has responded indignantly to the
criticism and officials argue some concessions must be made to
criminals to secure peace with the AUC and reduce violence in a
war claiming thousands of lives a year.

The AUC has its origins in vigilante groups set up by drug
traffickers and cattle ranchers in the 1980s to defend their
property from Marxist rebels, who have now been waging war
against the state for 41 years. The AUC's men often cooperated
with members of the armed forces, although the government says
soldiers helping paramilitaries are criminals.