Colombia's ambitious peace plan hits roadblocks

The 24 nations that were asked to fund disarmament last week said Colombia must stiffen penalties for ex-fighters.

When right-wing fighters abandoned La Gabarra late last year as part of a government-sponsored peace process, weary residents who were forcibly displaced five years earlier looked forward to finally returning home.

But there were some surprises waiting for them when they got back to their small town in northern Colombia. It turns out that the paramilitaries, who commandeered 105 farms and 58 homes in a 1999 raid, ran up thousands of dollars in utility bills and didn't pay the property taxes. Worse, it is unclear how residents can reclaim property that was once theirs, as many of the original owners didn't have official land titles.

Meanwhile, the former fighters weren't faring much better. A lack of jobs and the funds to reintegrate them into society have also contributed to a fading of the initial euphoria over President Alvaro Uribe's ambitious plan to demobilize 20,000 right-wing paramilitaries by the end of this year.

"There isn't work," says Fabio Rincon Calisto, an official with the mayor's office in Tibu, about two hours from La Gabarra. "That's our worry."

The United Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed by wealthy landowners in the 1980s to combat leftist rebels but now derives a large portion of its profits from the drug trade. Since November, 3,674 fighters have demobilized, leaving behind 4,510 weapons. But according to a survey of 2,624 ex-fighters taken by the office of the peace commissioner at the end of 2004, 12.5 percent of the demobilized are illiterate, 50 percent have no more than a fifth-grade education, and 88 percent own no possessions whatsoever. This, say observers, illustrates the long-term challenge to ending Colombia's 40-year civil war.

Mauricio Romero, an AUC expert at External University here, argues that the government moved too quickly to demobilize thousands of young troops, putting political considerations first. "The national government has acted in an impromptu way and has even given priority to the political benefit of demobilization instead of what's going to happen to these boys," Mr. Romero says.

He notes that the government has not given local municipalities the appropriate technical and financial assistance - such as work and education programs - that would allow successful assimilation of the ex-fighters into society. Thus, bigger cities with more resources are likely to have better support programs than smaller towns. Romero argues that the $156 a month government stipend, paid to ex-combatants for 18 months, isn't sufficient for young men used to earning a living from crime. "These boys might be satisfied for the moment, but that's not going to last for very long," he says.

But it's unclear whether the government can even afford a massive demobilization. At a conference late last week in the seaside city of Cartagena, 24 countries that Mr. Uribe asked to help pay for the peace process said that Colombia must punish the former fighters before these countries will contribute funds. Under Colombian law, the majority of fighters will be pardoned for illegally taking up arms, but there is no consensus on what to do with those who have committed crimes for which they can't receive amnesty, such as kidnapping, killing, and drug trafficking.

The government sparked an outcry when it suggested that those AUC members could be confined to a jail in Santa Fe de Ralito, a safe zone where AUC leaders are living free from prosecution while negotiating with the government. Critics have suggested that it might be more of an open-air detention center than a jail.

The demobilization process is also rife with holes that could lower its chances of success, say observers. Before demobilizing, fighters are given cursory interviews in special concentration zones. A list of their names is sent to the attorney general's office in order to establish which fighters have arrest warrants, but no further investigation is done.

The vast majority of ex-fighters are allowed to return home, while those with warrants for unpardonable crimes are sent to Ralito to await passage of legislation to decide their fate. But reports that 11 of these fighters disappeared from Ralito without permission throw the efficacy of this system into doubt.

The ex-fighters who do return home are required to appear at least once at a "reference center." There they can receive job training and some education, but there is no comprehensive rehabilitation program currently in place. Members of the attorney general's office are present to take voluntary testimony, but nothing more is required to receive benefits.

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