Colombia: para leader testifies at tribunal; dialogue stalled

Salvatore Mancuso, top chieftan of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) began testimony Dec. 19 before a special tribunal about the paramilitary newtwork’s role in massacres and assassinations. Under a peace deal with the government, the AUC leaders will serve limited prison sentences and receive protection from extradition to the US on drug charges. Some 30,000 fighters have officially laid down arms. (VOA, Dec. 19)

Mancuso’s testimony, which is expected to last several days, has not been made public. Under the peace deal, paramilitary fighters are eligible for terms of no more than eight years if they give details of their involvement in torture, killings and other crimes. The deal is criticized by human rights activists who say it amounts to an amnesty. As Mancuso was led into the court, relatives of those killed by the paramilitaries held banners demanding justice. (BBC News, Dec. 19)

“This is a farce,” said Maria Victoria Fallon, a lawyer who has brought a case against Mancuso before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for the 1997 massacre in which men under his command slaughtered 15 farmers in the northwestern hamlet of El Aro (municipality of Ituango, department of Antioquia). In 2003, a Colombian court convicted Mancuso in absentia in the massacre, sentencing him to 40 years in prison.

Miladis Restrepo Torres, who watched as armed men raped her sister and burned down her family’s house during the two-day rampage, traveled three hours by bus from the town of Yarumal to attend the proceedings. Two sisters traveling with her said they were barred entry by judicial authorities who allowed only one victim per family to enter the courthouse.

“Being here surrounded by other victims gives me hope the truth will come out,” said a soft-spoken Torres, holding the only photo she was able to rescue of her 14-year old brother Wilmar, who was also killed. “Whoever committed this massacre will never be able to forget it.” (AP, Dec. 19)

Meanwhile, the president of the peace commission from the Colombian house of represntatives, Mauricio Lizcano, made a visit to the top-security prison at Itagüí, outside Medellin, where 59 AUC leaders were transfered Dec. 7 from the “reclusion zone” they had been granted for the dialogue at La Ceja, Antioquia. AUC broke off dialogue when the men were imprisoned, but Lizcano said there is “good will” for re-initiating talks after meeting with the para bosses. (El Tiempo, Dec. 14)

The US Ambassador William Wood, now on his way home after serving since August 2003, was accused by María Jimena Duzán, columnist for the Bogota daily El Tiempo, of being “one of the most interventionist North American embassadors we have had.” She accused him of being an open ally not only of the hardline President Alvaro Uribe but of the AUC: “When the opposition began to denounce that the demobilized narco-paramilitarues were assassinating and embezzling the regional governments, Ambassador Wood, very stiff and smart, said without blushing that that was a lie because the AUC ‘had finished.'”

She concluded: “Bye-bye, Mister Wood. The uribistas are already crying.” (El Tiempo, Dec. 14)

See our last posts on Colombia and the paramilitary scandal.