Colombian paramilitary head confesses

Miryam Areiza traveled halfway across Colombia to hear the man who orchestrated the 1997 massacre of her father and 14 others admit to the crime.

But Ms. Areiza became angry – and ill – when former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso read out her father's name and described the massacre during a precedent-setting judicial hearing here this week.

Mr. Mancuso, currently in a maximum security prison in this western Colombian city is the first of the country's death squad leaders to confess to his crimes as part of a negotiated deal under which 30,000 illegal right-wing fighters laid down their arms.

"He seemed proud of what they'd done, not remorseful," Areiza said bitterly after hearing him narrate how the massacre was organized. She added that Mancuso described how the top paramilitary leader at the time, Carlos Castaño, handed out military decorations to the illegal fighters who participated in the killing spree in northern Antioquia Province.

Mancuso began recounting his crimes in the first stage of a judicial process set up for demobilized paramilitary leaders.

In exchange for full confessions and paying reparations to victims, the paramilitary leaders will get reduced prison sentences that can be served on special detention farms, and they can avoid extradition to the United States on drug charges. Instead of serving a maximum of 50 years, paramilitaries who confess will serve a maximum of eight years.

In a day and a half of testimony, Manusco confessed to about 50 crimes, several for which the Colombian justice system had already absolved him. Reading from the screen of the laptop computer he brought to the hearing, Mancuso listed off in chronological order murders he either committed or ordered.

Confessions may implicate many

But while victims and their families have been anxious to hear paramilitary leaders acknowledge their crimes and to agree to reparations, many in Colombia's political and military elite fear the information Mancuso or other paramilitary leaders could reveal during their confessions.

"He's starting to spill the beans and he's going to be implicating a lot of people," said Carlos Iván Lopera, head of the Redepaz human rights group, who watched the hearing on closed-circuit television in a room for victims and victims' advocates. The hearing is officially closed to the public.

In the case of the El Aro killings, Mancuso said he had met personally in 1996 with now-deceased Gen. Alfonso Manosalva, commander of the Army's 4th Brigade, and they had planned the operation to rout out alleged subversives in the area.

In 2003, a Colombian court convicted Mancuso in absentia for the massacre.

"What's interesting here is that he is talking about the active participation of high-level members of the armed forces," says Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists. "It's not that we didn't know this, but it's important that he is saying it. There is a lot to be explored here," he says.

Mancuso on Tuesday said his paramilitary group had a budget of about $450,000 a month to pay off the police and military officers in the area he controlled. [Editor's Note: The original version misstated the monthly budget Mancuso said his group received.]

Colombia's paramilitary groups were originally formed by wealthy cattle ranchers in the 1980s to fight off extortion and kidnapping by leftist guerrillas. They later turned into powerful armies and became heavily involved in drug trafficking and extortion themselves, using used murder and intimidation to rule huge swaths of the country.

Confessing or boasting?

"I was the state and I controlled everything," Mr. Lopera of Redepaz recalled Mancuso as declaring in his deposition about the area under his influence.

Mancuso detailed – almost boastfully according to victims' advocates – how the paramilitaries infiltrated every level of government and every state agency, and co-opted regional politics.

He presented to the prosecutor taking his deposition a political pact signed by about 40 politicians and paramilitary leaders on Colombia's northern coast in 2001.

The existence of the pact had been revealed by a senator in November, but the full list of signers had not been revealed.

The extent to which politicians and paramilitaries worked together exploded into a major scandal late last year when the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of three current lawmakers for alleged collusion with death squad leaders.

Six other lawmakers are currently being investigated. Mancuso has said he could reveal the names of other politicians that worked together with them.

How will victims be compensated?

But Areiza cares little for the political intrigue. She plans to stay in Medellin to listen to Mancuso as he continues his testimony this week, hoping to see some sign of contrition from the man who arranged the murder of her father.

She and other victims are expecting Mancuso to detail how he and his men took over the farmland of their victims and to map out how he will return the properties to their legal owners.

But victims could have a long wait ahead before they see any reparations. In a subsequent stage of the special judicial process, a judge will decide how much each paramilitary must pay to each victim, depending on the number of victims, from both legal and illegally gained assets.

"But no matter what we hear or what sort of reparations they give us, they are not going to give us our loved ones back, and they are not going to take away the pain," Areiza said.

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