February 7, 2006

Colombia’s paramilitary “granddaddy” gives up gun

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - The "granddaddy" of Colombia's
right-wing militias, who picked up a shotgun to protect his
farm from Marxist rebels 29 years ago and now stands accused of
drug smuggling, turned himself in to the government on Tuesday.

The demobilization of Ramon Isaza and his 990-member
fighting force brings to about 22,290 the number of
paramilitary fighters that have surrendered their arms
countrywide in a government peace accord.

Paramilitaries guilty of crimes such as massacre, torture
and kidnapping face jail terms limited to eight years in
exchange for laying down their arms -- a deal criticized by
human rights groups.

"I remember when the guerrillas were all over this area and
the state did not come. Nobody came to help," the
weather-beaten warlord told reporters before his demobilization
ceremony in the town of Puerto Triunfo, Antioquia province.

In 1977, Isaza says he recruited eight fellow farmers armed
with shotguns to ambush rebels who had been stealing their
chickens and pigs and were threatening to kill him.

Authorities say that from these humble beginnings Isaza
developed a criminal network fueled by profits from Colombia's
lucrative cocaine trade, an accusation he denies.

"Isaza is like the granddaddy of the paramilitary movement,
so his demobilization is symbolically important," said German
Espejo of Bogota thinktank Seguridad & Democracia.

The paramilitaries are guilty of some of the worst
atrocities of the Colombian conflict, in which thousands are
killed and tens of thousands are forced from their homes every
year. The militias often cooperated with members of the armed
forces to combat their common rebel foe, although the
government says soldiers helping paramilitaries are criminals.

Admitting that "we are not the biggest angels," Isaza
recently told El Tiempo newspaper that his men often killed
peasants suspected of being guerrillas.

Wearing camouflaged uniforms and trademark red bandannas
around their necks, the men and women of Isaza's Peasant Self
Defense Forces of the Magdalena Medio turned in a total of 754
weapons, the government said.

President Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by the
guerrillas in the early 1980s, has yet to open formal peace
talks with the rebels, who are fighting a four-decades-old war
against the state. The guerrillas and some opposition
politicians accuse Uribe of being allied with the
paramilitaries, which he denies.

The president, popular for reducing crime as part of his
crackdown on the rebels, is expected to win reelection in May.

Colombia's ally the United States, which has given about $4
billion in aid since 2000, says it supports the peace talks
with the paramilitaries, even though Washington classifies them
as a terrorists and human rights groups say they are getting
off too easy under the peace deal.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says the militias are not
being forced to dismantle their drug-smuggling and other
criminal networks and are gaining a veneer of political

Left-leaning politicians say the militias are using
violence and death threats to influence the outcome of March
legislative elections.

The United States says it would still like the extradition
of those with U.S. arrest warrants, although that is unlikely
to happen if the paramilitary chiefs keep to peace pledges.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Munoz)