COLOMBIA: PARAMILITARY AMNESTY PASSES, NEW AID PENDING
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
AMNESTY LAW PASSES
On June 20, the last day of ordinary sessions for the Colombian Congress, the Senate approved the "Justice and Peace" law, which paves the way for a "demobilization" and amnesty process under negotiation with the country's right-wing paramilitaries since last July. The law grants the paramilitaries political status, allowing them to potentially benefit from pardons. Under the demobilization program, paramilitary commanders are supposed to confess all their crimes in order to benefit from reduced sentences of 4-8 years in prison. The Chamber of Representatives approved the law on June 21 in an extraordinary session. Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries have historically been strongly supported by the state. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, June 21 from AP; Inter Press Service, June 22)
Under the "Justice and Peace" law, which President Alvaro Uribe Velez signed on June 22, a group of 20 prosecutors will investigate within a maximum period of 60 days the crimes of each of the 10,000 paramilitary members who are eligible to demobilize from now through December.
Congressional representative Gustavo Petro of the leftist Independent Democratic Pole (PDI) party accuses Uribe of pushing through the "Justice and Peace" law in order to benefit relatives linked to paramilitary groups in Antioquia, where Uribe served as governor from 1995 to 1997. Petro said that Santiago Uribe Velez, the president's brother, formed and financed a paramilitary group called "The 12 Apostles" around 1993-1994. The group, based out of the Uribe family's La Carolina ranch in Yarumal, Antioquia, killed at least 50 people. Santiago Uribe was interrogated in 1997 about the group but the case was archived in 1999 for lack of evidence. Relatives of the victims of the June 1990 Campamento massacre, in which four people were killed and two disappeared by "The 12 Apostles," have brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Petro also said two first cousins and an uncle of President Uribe led a paramilitary group known as "Los Erre," linked to the killings of another 50 or more people in Titiribi and Armenia-Mantequilla municipalities in Antioquia. Carlos Alberto Velez Ochoa, Juan Diego Velez Ochoa and Mario Velez Ochoa were initially sentenced in the case but were released from prison after a year for lack of evidence. President Uribe and his family also apparently had close ties to Antioquia drug lords Pablo Escobar Gaviria and Fabio Ochoa Vasquez, who is related to the Velez Ochoa family.
(ENH, June 23 from correspondent; IPS, June 22)
On June 20, Colombia's Congress approved two other laws pushed by Uribe's government: a pension reform law which will take effect in 2010, and a law providing foreign investors with legal guarantees protecting their contracts from any changes in law or policy. But Congress rejected four legislative proposals presented by Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, including one which would have unified the state's intelligence services and another which would have increased the length of obligatory military service from 18 to 24 months. The defense minister narrowly avoided being fired the previous week when the Chamber of Representatives--but not the Senate--passed a vote of censure against him. (ENH, June 21 from AP)
Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 26
U.S. HOUSE OK'S NEW MILITARY AID
On June 28, the US House of Representatives voted 189-234 to defeat an amendment which would have cut $100 million in military aid for Colombia from a $734 million "Andean Counterdrug Initiative" in the 2006 foreign operations appropriations bill (HR 3057). The amendment to cut funding for the US-sponsored "Plan Colombia" military program was introduced by Reps. James McGovern (D-MA), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Dennis Moore (D-KS). The Washington-based Latin America Working Group (LAWG) described the Colombia amendment as "the single most hotly-debated issue on the foreign operations bill." Congress members who spoke out against it included Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who noted how Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by Colombia's ongoing internal violence, and amendment co-sponsor McCollum, who pointed out that in Colombia, "90% of violent crimes...go unpunished, and human rights abuses among Colombia's military are all too common."
Later on June 28, the House voted 393-32 to approve the full bill, officially titled the Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2006. In addition to the $734 million Andean Counterdrug Initiative, the bill will provide military aid of $2.3 billion for Israel and $1.3 billion for Egypt. In order for the bill to become law, a final version must be passed by both the House and Senate and then signed by the president. A subcommittee met June 29 to begin work on the Senate version. (LAWG Update, June 30; News from Lutheran World Relief, July 1; US Department of State Press Release, June 29 via allAfrica.com; Press Release from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, June 28 via US Newswire)
Weekly New Update on the Americas, July 3
SOLDIERS CHARGED IN MASSACRE
The Colombian attorney general's office has ordered the arrest of six soldiers to face homicide charges for the killing of five civilians on April 10, 2004, in the village of Potosi, Cajamarca municipality, Tolima department. The army claimed the five villagers were killed in crossfire as a military patrol was pursuing a group of leftist guerrillas; the soldiers argued that they hadn't been able to distinguish the victims as civilians because dense fog limited their visibility. The attorney general's office ordered the arrests after an autopsy on 17-year old campesino Albeiro Mendoza showed he was shot at a distance of between 30 and 60 centime