Colombia's balancing act for peace

The government proposes 'reparations' instead of jail for right-wing paramilitaries.

In its quest to end four decades of war, the Colombian government is trying to strike a delicate balance between justice and peace.

Last week's accord with right-wing paramilitaries was a major victory for the year-old government of President Alvaro Uribe. Some 13,000 combatants agreed to disarm by the end of 2005.

But the government says that instead of jail time for some of Colombia's most notorious insurgents, many of whom have been accused of committing crimes against humanity, they may simply have to make "reparations" - anything from monetary compensation to victims' families to facing a truth commission in which they would reveal their crimes.

It's a dilemma faced by governments from from South Africa to Northern Ireland: how best to move beyond a complicated and sordid history. Experts say that trying and jailing tens of thousands of Colombian combatants is not feasible. But in a country where acting with impunity has long been the rule, many fear a public backlash if some of the prime actors are not held accountable.

'Symbolic' reparations

At a press conference last week, High Commissioner for Peace Luís Carlos Restrepo suggested that the government planned to propose to Congress three types of penalties for demobilized paramilitaries, also known as the United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

For those accused of taking up arms illegally, there would be blanket amnesty. For those alleged to have committed crimes against humanity, they would not go to jail but instead pay some sort of "symbolic, economic, or social" reparation to their victims. Only three top paramilitary leaders, including Carlos Castaño, the group's founder and head, and Salvatore Mancuso, its political leader, would face extradition to the United States for drug trafficking.

In a televised interview with a Colombian TV station on Monday, Mr. Castaño conceded that the AUC had committed "regrettable excesses" in its battle against leftist guerrillas since its inception in the 1980s as a self-defense force financed by wealthy landowners to fill a vacuum left by a weak state.

But citing the murder of his father by rebels, he also claimed to be a "victim" of Colombia's violence.

"I, too, demand justice," he said.

Public fallout

But there could be significant fallout from the Colombian public, the international community, and human rights groups if the government decides to pursue reparations instead of jail time for the most brutal combatants, some of whom have been charged with dozens of murders. The AUC has committed infamous massacres of hundreds of civilians suspected of being rebel collaborators, and by some accounts, 40 percent of its finances come from drug trafficking.

Furthermore, whatever punishment the government metes out to the paramilitaries will set the standard for future peace talks with the 17,000-strong leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Robin Kirk, a Colombia specialist for Human Rights Watch, based in Washington, calls the government's plan a "cash for impunity deal" that would simply not fly with the international community or human rights groups.

"The Colombian government is speaking out of two sides of its mouth," says Ms. Kirk. She says that the government claims it wants to punish the country's worst criminals, but then offers them a chance to buy their way out.

"I don't think it's viable" not to send murderers and drug traffickers to jail, says Fernando Cepeda, a former government

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