U.S. Threat Is a Blow to Colombia's Easy Terms for Death Squads

Colombia's new law to demobilize paramilitary death squads suffered a serious blow this week when lawmakers in Washington threatened to block aid money President Álvaro Uribe's government needs to put the law into effect.

The powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, incensed that Colombia had approved a law its members see as highly beneficial for paramilitary commanders, said Congress would not finance a disarmament of paramilitary fighters unless Colombia guaranteed the group's complete dismantling while moving to extradite key commanders.

Those conditions, though, are unlikely to be met under the framework of the legislation, called the Justice and Peace Law, approved by Colombia's Congress on June 22. The law offers the paramilitaries loopholes that the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and some members of the United States Congress say will permit commanders to avoid extradition on drug trafficking charges, keep their ill-gotten gains and ensure that part of their army remains intact.

The guidelines in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which were made public on Tuesday and are legally binding on the foreign appropriations bill the Congress will pass this fall, could jeopardize Mr. Uribe's plans because Colombia is hoping the United States will finance much of the disarmament of up to 20,000 fighters. Colombia has not made a formal request for the money, but the authorities here say $8,000 is needed per paramilitary member, up to $160 million.

"The issue is to send a message to the Colombian government, and our government, that we're serious about wanting to fund something that's going to be effective," said a senior Republican aide in Congress who works on Colombia policy. "What's been passed by the Colombian legislative body just won't provide for an effective demobilization."

The Senate committee is not closing the door to financing, but is leaving it to Mr. Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America, to take steps to change the legislation, which he has yet to sign.

In recent months, Mr. Uribe has received harsh criticism of the paramilitary disarmament from senior American lawmakers. "The intent is to reaffirm the standards, saying if you want help from Washington, here are the standards," said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch.

The aid is important because Mr. Uribe's government expects little help from the Europeans or the United Nations, which are opposed to the law. "It would mean it would have to come out of Colombia's coffers, and they don't have the money for this kind of thing," said Adam Isacson, a military analyst in Washington.

The law is a cornerstone of Mr. Uribe's efforts to demonstrate here and abroad that Colombia is doing something to curtail a paramilitary army that has killed thousands in its war against leftist rebels.

But the Appropriations Committee, noting the paramilitaries have been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, called on Colombia to extradite paramilitary commanders. Several are sought by American prosecutors, but Mr. Uribe told the Voice of America on Friday that "in some cases, extraditions will have to be suspended."

The committee said Colombia needed to investigate paramilitary crimes and severely penalize commanders who lied about their criminal activities. It also called for an interagency group to be established that would include the United Nations to submit a report ensuring that a cease-fire had not been violated and illegal activities had ceased.

[Source: By Juan Forero, The New York Times, Usa, 06Jul05]

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