Colombia disarms fighters - again

Its latest demobilization campaign is under way.

High in the mountains, two hours from this famously violent city, "Stein," a young paramilitary fighter, prepares to disarm after three years at war.

Surrounded by 10 soldiers in fatigues, Stein, who would not give his real name, fingers his US-made Colt rifle. He says he has dreams of becoming an airplane pilot.

"Since I was little, I have always liked planes," he says, wistfully recalling the toy aircraft sent to him by his aunt, who lives in New Orleans, when he was a little boy, untouched by Colombia's civil war.

But between then and now, his life took a decidedly violent turn. He joined Colombia's Army at age 20, but became bored and left. He then enlisted in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a loose network of paramilitary fighters formed in the 1980s to battle the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who wanted to topple the Colombian government and install a Marxist regime.

Now, Stein says enthusiastically, he is ready to leave war behind for good.

"I want to study. I want to move forward," he says. "I want to lay down my weapons and build myself as a person - I have goals, fixed plans."

On Nov. 25, Stein got that chance. He was one of 855 right-wing fighters who headed out of Medellín's slums and turned in their guns as part of the first phase of a government-sponsored peace plan.

In July, AUC commanders and national peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo signed an agreement that would demobilize the nation's more than 13,000 paramilitary troops by the end of 2005. Mr. Restrepo and President Alvaro Uribe say they hope the surrender of these fighters will encourage other AUC factions to follow suit. It's the latest demobilization campaign in a country that has tried such efforts to bring an end to the 39-year conflict before, usually with mixed results.

'The road to peace is open'

Dressed in bright new uniforms, the former warriors gathered in Medellín's convention center last week and bowed their heads in a moment of silence for the thousands of war victims they helped to create. Troops heard a videotaped message from their top commanders before literally laying down their arms in front of Restrepo and their commanders.

"The AUC believes in the process that we are starting," AUC leader Carlos Castaño, who is wanted in Colombia on multiple charges of murder and torture and in the US for drug trafficking, said on the tape. "The road to peace is open in Colombia."

But there are multiple stumbling blocks along that path. Many paramilitaries have committed murder and massacres, and there is no consensus on what to do with them. Uribe has proposed a controversial plan that would allow the most violent criminals and drug peddlers to pay vague reparations rather than jail time, sparking criticism from international human rights groups and the US.

Furthermore, critics say the process as now configured is haphazard, with no real way to guarantee that fighters are truly laying down their arms. Skeptics are concerned with the safety of the paramilitaries and the fate of civilians in territory they once controlled.

"There is no clarity about what is going to happen" once they return to their neighborhoods, says ex-Medellín peace commissioner Luis Guillermo Pardo, recalling the deadly experience of Medellín militias who demobilized in 1990 and were allowed to form security companies; 100 of them soon ended up dead. "It is very rushed. There is a lack of strategy."

José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, based in the US, calls the taped message from AUC leaders a "travesty."

"Instead of handing these criminals a microphone, the government should be concentrating on arresting them and bringing them to justice," Mr. Vivanco says.

Three weeks of adjustment

After the disarmament ceremony, the fighters were bused to La Ceja, a lush Medellín suburb where they will spend three weeks adjusting to their new civilian status, learning job skills, and clarifying their judicial standing. The government claims that none of the 855 troops have committed "crimes against humanity," so under Colombian law they will be pardoned for belonging to an illegal armed group.

But critics question whether three weeks is enough time to turn hardened warriors into good citizens. The history of peace processes in Colombia is not encouraging. In 1998, former President Andrés Pastrana offered the FARC a large chunk of territory as a site for talks, but revoked it in 2002 after the group used it to stash kidnap victims and traffic in drugs. In the early 1990s, FARC members demobilized and formed a political party, but many of them were killed by paramilitaries.

But Stein, sitting in a hollowed-out building filled with red AUC graffiti, insists that this time, there is reason for hope. "Colombians aren't bad people," he says. "I am a warrior. But we are not killing machines. The heart of a warrior gets tired. It also needs love," he adds, saying the first thing he plans to do once back on the streets is visit his mother, whom he has not seen in a year and a half. "I miss my mother."

Yet he also is nostalgic about leaving the AUC behind. "I have very beautiful memories of fighting for the farmers. Although people don't believe it, we helped them," he says. "I feel melancholy leaving my friends." Still, highlighting the dilemma of the entire process, he notes, "Many of us are going to take very different paths."

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