Are Some Terrorists Better Than Others?

Legislating impunity: Do Colombia and U.S. think some terrorists are better than others?
By Cecilia Zarate-Laun | Special to the Vermont Guardian
posted September 30, 2005

During his vacation last summer in Crawford, TX, Pres. George Bush received his most unconditional ally in Latin America, Colombian Pres. Alvaro Uribe-Velez. One of the principal topics of their meeting was the form in which the United States would be prepared to provide funds to restore to civilian life members of an extreme right-wing organization, the Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC), which is on the U.S. State Department¹s list of terrorist organizations.
This “demobilization” is to occur within the context of Colombia¹s Law of Justice and Peace. On the same day that the two presidents met, a State Department spokesman said Bush¹s support for Colombia was just waiting on a proposal from Uribe. The Colombian president has expressed his interest in training demobilized paramilitaries as guides in national parks, cultural workers, security guards in shopping centers or at public events like concerts or games.
At first glance and without understanding the historical context, converting armed men into civilian security guards sounds natural, perhaps even inspired. But the history of the Colombian conflict, together with specific provisions of the Justice and Peace law, raises serious questions.
One part of that history, a part that fear and terror prevented most Colombians and the rest of the world from knowing until recently, involves the small town of San Onofre on Colombia¹s Caribbean coast. What happened there illustrates in a Dante-esque way the tragedy of this frequently forgotten war. In “El Palmar”, the hacienda owned by Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena”, one of the paramilitary leaders presently detained with other leaders of the AUC in Santafe de Ralito, graves have been found with cadavers of persons who had been “disappeared” and murdered with shots to the head. The skulls of these people were not only fractured but also gave evidence of having been struck repeatedly.
More than 3,000 people are believed to have been buried on the grounds of Mercado¹s hacienda. They were victims of “cleansing”, as the paramilitaries call the disappearance and murder of those they accused of supporting guerillas. Commonly, these people have done nothing other than propose or carry out cooperative projects to benefit and strengthen their communities, or else they did not support the political and economic policies of the paramilitaries and their backers.
The tragedy at San Onofre followed the same formula that is devastating the Colombian countryside. Any place rich in mineral and energy resources or of strategic value for the drug trade, the main source of income for the paramilitaries, becomes a site for terrorism. San Onofre was coveted because its proximity to the sea made it a natural route for the shipment of cocaine. Paramilitaries were invited into the area 10 years ago by cattlemen and politicians. Mercado himself served as a guide for the Colombian Army, which shares personnel, weapons, and intelligence with their paramilitary brothers in its operations against guerillas. As in other regions, the goal was complete economic and political control.
The Law of Justice and Peace is not consistent with international legal principles, which seek to establish truth and to secure justice and reparations for its victims, such as those who were driven off their land in San Onofre by paramilitary terror. Rather, its application will result in de facto impunity because it drastically limits the time for investigation of crimes against humanity and does not compel the legal cooperation of those accused of committing the crimes. In addition, the sentence of five years mandated for those convicted by the law is not proportionate to the gravity of the crimes.
The guilty will also be allowed to count time spent in Ralito, a luxurious minimum-security facility, against up to one-half of their sentences. When added to other possible sentence reductions, this will mean that many criminals will serve no prison time at all.
Torture, disappearances, murders, and massacres and have forced 3.5 million people to flee their homes and farms. Nevertheless, the demobilized paramilitaries will be allowed to keep much of the land and other property they took by force and terror, or hold onto whatever fortunes they accrued by selling it off. Nor does the law provide for the dismantling of their criminal organization. Therefore, their drug trafficking operations to the United States are expected to remain intact.
The jobs program that the Colombian government wants to set up for these ex-terrorists would be vastly better funded than relief efforts to help the people they¹ve displaced. In effect, the Bush administration proposes that U.S. taxpayers pay for the day jobs Uribe is offering people whose “sideline” is exporting cocaine to U.S. cities and towns.
U.S. policy seems to be saying that some terrorists are better than others. For Bush and Uribe, both of whom have large ranches where they love to spend time, the “security” of the war on terror fails to protect the common person.

Cecilia Zarate-Laun is co-founder and program director of the Colombia Support Network (, a national organization based in Madison, WI, with a Vermont chapter.

Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI  53701-1505
phone:  (608) 257-8753
fax:  (608) 255-6621

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