Getting off Too Easy; Amnesty Offers for Paramilitary Fighters Is Reviving Talk That the Country Could Again Become a Narcostate

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Ambrus

The dusty hills above the Colombian city of Medellin once crackled with the staccato bursts of automatic-weapons fire. Yuber Anderson remembers those days when he fought in the ranks of a right-wing paramilitary group called Cacique Nutibara, which he joined in his teens. In the fall of 2003 he and his comrades in arms heeded President Alvaro Uribe's call to hand in their weapons, and Anderson then spent his days in a neighborhood community center studying auto mechanics. His bloodshot eyes and tattooed forearms still give him the air of a hooligan. But he voices optimism about his country's future. "We want to show everyone that when we surrendered our weapons, we did so with all our hearts," says the 20-year-old.

Others aren't convinced. Several of the 800 fighters who came in from the cold along with Anderson are finishing high school, training for careers and under- going therapy at great expense to Medellin's municipal government. But their neighbors in the slums of the city say others still exercise control in many poor neighborhoods through threats and beatings. At least 30 have been arrested on criminal charges since they handed in their weapons, and in April 2004 many former fighters and their allies swept into power in neighborhood councils on the hint of reprisals against opponents.

Their leader, a former triggerman for the Medellin cocaine cartel named Diego Murillo, was detained in May for the assassination of a state assemblyman and his two traveling companions. But intelligence officials believe Murillo still uses speedboats on the Pacific coast to ferry cocaine to Central America and Mexico for shipment to the United States. And they say he continues to oversee nearly all criminal activity in Medellin, using still active troops and hit men to run extortion rackets and narcotics sales.

The demobilization of paramilitary soldiers and commanders underscores the challenge for Colombia as authorities try to prod what is essentially a drug-financed death squad toward peace. More than 4,000 other fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary confederation that included the Cacique Nutibara, have demobilized since the fall of 2003. …