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Peace talks, hostages back in spotlight
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While paramilitaries offer a cease-fire, captives’ families seek an exchange of prisoners.

The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) declared a unilateral cease-fire effective Dec. 1, calling the move "an explicit demonstration of our constant willingness to attain peace in the country." The announcement followed an initial dialogue among government officials, AUC representatives and several Catholic bishops.

The Nov. 29 declaration, signed by AUC leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, who command about 70 percent of Colombia’s paramilitaries, said the AUC was willing to enter into negotiations with the government. It also called for the "suspension of legal action" against AUC negotiators, an apparent reference to a US request for the extradition of Castaño and Mancuso on drug trafficking charges.

According to some analysts, internal divisions might have convinced the AUC that negotiations were its best option. Meanwhile, the government’s willingness to consider talks may signal newfound confidence in the Colombian Army’s ability to battle the guerrillas. The Colombian government has frequently been criticized for its ties to paramilitaries, who have been accused of numerous human rights violations (LP, Dec. 3, 2001).

The AUC said it would suspend offensive military operations, but would defend itself if attacked. The group demanded that its members be recognized as "actors in the country’s armed and political conflict" and pledged to turn over to UNICEF the minors in its ranks, whom it claims to have "rescued" from the guerrillas (LP, Oct. 7, 2002).

It also called for the government to guarantee the security of those living in areas it controls, and demanded safe conduct for AUC representatives, release from prison for some members, and government aid in replacing its drug-trafficking profits. The government reportedly demanded that the AUC agree to eliminate coca and poppy crops from the areas it controls, respect international humanitarian law protecting noncombatants and agree that talks be aimed at disarming the group.

Several AUC groups — including the Bloque Metro, which operates around Medellín — said they would not participate in the cease-fire. Two paramilitary groups not affiliated with the AUC announced they would join the cease-fire.

Some observers worry that a deal between the government and the AUC could result in the paramilitaries shifting to rural patrol programs or becoming involved in a government-sponsored network of citizen informers (LP, July 15, 2002). Sen. Gustavo Petro of the Democratic Pole party said the AUC must be dismantled and its leaders turned over to the courts. "Anything else would be rejected by the international community," he said.

President Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned on a pledge to take a hard line against guerrillas (LP, May 20, 2002), appears to have stepped up efforts to pave the way for talks not only with the AUC, but also with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest leftist rebel force, and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). Government officials have met with ELN members in Cuba and have proposed a meeting with FARC representatives to discuss a swap of imprisoned guerrillas for politicians, police and soldiers being held hostage by the rebel group.

Peace activists and relatives of captives have been urging the government to avoid military rescue operations and continue to seek a humanitarian agreement to swap hostages for imprisoned rebels. Several thousand people are being held hostage in Colombia, which has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world. High-profile captives include Guillermo Gaviria, governor of Antioquia; former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; 12 state legislators from Valle del Cauca; and four former Congress members.

The hostages’ relatives, civil society groups and influential academics are calling for an exchange based on international humanitarian law. Opponents argue that such a deal would amount to official recognition of the rebels as a warring party, which means the Geneva conventions governing wars would apply to the armed conflict (LP, Nov. 22, 1999).

Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government’s peace commissioner, reportedly has sent two messages to FARC leaders, suggesting that talks on a hostage swap be held in Venezuela with UN mediation. On Nov. 17, FARC spokesman Raúl Reyes said he considered it "unnecessary to sit the United Nations down with the government representatives to discuss a problem that is between the state and the insurgents." Government officials said they did not consider that the FARC’s official response.

According to the Bogotá daily El Tiempo, FARC leaders have said they would release 23 politicians and 47 low-level military officers in exchange for all FARC members imprisoned in the country.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court dealt the Uribe administration a blow on Nov. 26, when it struck down restrictions imposed in areas known as "rehabilitation zones." The areas are located in the departments of Arauca, Bolívar and Sucre, where there is a strong guerrilla presence. The measures implemented shortly after Uribe took office in August were the backbone of his Democratic Security Plan.

The court ruled that the powers granted to judicial police in those areas were unconstitutional and struck down special powers granted to the military, including the right to arrest people without warrants, tap telephones and register local residents.

The most recent events in Colombia coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met with Uribe, Defense Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez and top military commanders. Powell said he would recommend that US aid to Colombia be increased from $300 million to $500 million next year. In the past two years, the United States has provided more than $1.7 billion in funding for anti-drug efforts, which have expanded to the fight against guerrillas and paramilitaries (LP, Oct. 16, 2000).


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