THEIR leaders say they are self-defense groups formed to fight Colombia's leftist guerrillas. But human rights activists and some government officials say they are really death squads financed by drug traffickers. Government officials accuse some members of the groups of perpetrating some of the worst massacres and other political violence in Colombia's recent history.
Now, the extreme rightist groups based in the Central Magdalena River region have offered to lay down their weapons. Woven into their peace rhetoric, however, are calls for increased military presence in the zone and suggestions that the government should grant amenesty to citizens accused of committing atrocities.
``We want the government to know that we are neither assassins nor drug traffickers,'' says Puerto Boyaca Mayor Gustavo Londono. ``We are proud residents of the anti-subversive capital of Colombia.''
Mr. Londono and other representatives claim to be speaking, not about death squads, but about self-defense organizations, which have completed their mission of ridding the zone of leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers.
And the administration of President Virgilio Barco is apparently listening to their proposals. Interior Minister Horacio Berpa told El Tiempo newspaper last week that ``accepting the offer of self-defense groups not linked to common crime is an important step toward national harmony.''
Some human rights observers, however, see a Trojan horse in the making. They express fears that the government's eagerness to see the groups disarm may lead it to disregard atrocities committed by fanatical members.
``If the government accepts the disarmament proposal, it could generate a tendency to drop official charges against paramilitary squad members accused of mass killings,'' says Gustavo Gallon, a Bogot'a lawyer and human rights investigator.
Minister Berpa, however, said in the El Tiempo interview that the government has no intention of forgiving massacres such as the murder of 20 peasants in 1988 in the Uraba region of northern Colombia.
After carrying out an investigation into the massacre, the country's secret police accused Luis Rubio, then mayor of Puerto Boyaca, and two of the town's citizens, Gonzalo P'erez and his son Henry, of being its masterminds.
The suspects were all officials in Acdegam, a self-described association of cattle ranchers that officials say directs the region's paramilitary groups. A judge issued arrest warrants for the men, as well as for several military officials and two Medell'in cartel leaders implicated in the massacre.
But the town's mayor, Londono, says the suspects are honest citizens who fought valiantly against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel group that dominated the region until 1983, when the self-defense forces were formed.
Londono, also a member of Acdegam, says the so-called self-defense groups want peace more than anyone. ``After they lay down their arms, the government will no longer be able to blame them for every massacre committed in the country,'' he says.
Ivan Duque, a Liberal Party Deputy Senator from Puerto Boyaca and the former head of Acdegam, says leftists in the Congress and the courts conspired to bring false charges against ``defenders of our nation.''
Mr. Duque says some 5,000 men in the Central Magdalena have offered to disarm to show their commitment to peace. ``These self-defense groups have been charged with massacres that they never committed,'' he says. ``The groups must respond to the accusations by demobilizing themselves to prove to the country that they don't have anything to do with death squads, massacres, and drug trafficking. They are simply armed peasants.''
Duque pounds his fist on the table as he describes what he calls negotiations between the groups and the government. He says he has carried messages from one of the accused men, Henry P'erez, to Interior Minister Serpa. The police have accused P'erez of providing security for Medell'in cartel cocaine processing labs.
Colombia's interior minister did not return reporter phone calls. But Barco peace adviser Rafael Pardo emphatically denies the government has been talking to the right-wing groups.
``There are not, nor will there be negotiations with them,'' Pardo says.
Alejandro Valencia, a political scientist at Bogota's Los Andes University suggests that ``the disarmament proposal is likely a trick to legitimize the paramilitary groups in the region and consolidate their power. ``The groups have nothing to lose and everything to gain by offering to lay down weapons.''
Others see the proposal, not as artifice, but as a response to government pressure on the rightist groups. The Barco administration has increased military operations in Central Magdalena as part of its anti-drug crackdown.
The secret police, known as the DAS, have exposed paramilitary schools operating near Puerto Boyaca and financed by the Medell'in cartel. Warrants have been issued for mercenaries who entered the zone allegedly to train at the schools.
Analysts say the civilian forces in Magdalena Medio may be reacting to what they perceive as an even darker future. Colombia's president-elect, Cesar Gaviria, has said the country's paramilitary groups are one of the main causes of its violence. He has promised to move to dismantle them after taking office on Aug. 7.
``The paramilitary groups are afraid that Gaviria will move against them and are trying to seize the initiative to prevent it,'' says Luis Orujuela, a political science professor at Los Andes University.
Leaders in Puerto Boyaca, national officials, and independent observers all agree that disarming the groups will not solve the region's problems. The government must increase its presence if it wants to resolve the problems, they say.
Acdegam and the forces it directs gained power by providing an alternative to the control exercised by the FARC. Acdegam runs 35 community schools and provides a number of other community services, including medical care and legal advice, to Puerto Boyaca citizens.
``We took the place of the state here,'' says Deputy Senator Duque. ``Now in exchange for disarming the self-defense groups, we want the state to provide community services.''
Emilio Aljure, the government's human rights counselor, adds: ``The government must find ways to increase its nonmilitary presence in the Central Magdalena. It must replace illegal organisms with legal ones.''