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Friday, October 20, 2006

Petro: Colombia paramilitaries reviving

BOGOTA, Colombia - President Alvaro Uribe's two-year-old peace pact with right-wing militias is a charade that has let the illegal paramilitary groups reconstitute and maintain dominance of drug trafficking, a top opposition leader said.

In an 80-minute Senate speech that electrified the nation, Sen. Gustavo Petro said paramilitary assassins have killed 3,005 people since Uribe began negotiating their so-called demobilization in 2002.

Petro, one of Colombia's most heavily protected politicians with nearly a dozen bodyguards, accused several fellow lawmakers, one of whom sat just a few feet away, of being corrupt lackeys of murderous paramilitary bosses.

"The president lied to Colombian society," he said during a contentious eight-hour debate Wednesday night. "Colombia is left with a new paramilitarism, trafficking, sacking and destroying democracy in a good part of the national territory."

Uribe's interior minister and peace commissioner contested Petro's claims, saying killings attributed to paramilitaries were in fact down 96 percent from 326 in 2002 to just 10 so far this year.

Despite the surrender of 31,000 paramilitaries since 2004, right-wing militias have continued to force rural Colombians off their land through killings and intimidation and have maintained cocaine-trafficking operations, according to multiple sources in government, the Roman Catholic Church and international observers.

The extent of their control over much of the country is evidenced by the contents of a computer seized in March that details the operations of a top paramilitary leader, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo.

The computer catalogues more than 500 murders ordered by Pupo or his associates, a Colombian official who has seen the data told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The computer's contents also incriminate a number of politicians, particularly in the northern state of Sucre, as being patrons of local paramilitary bosses, and describe scams in which the paramilitaries stole state funds from local health services.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Senate debate, the Supreme Court ordered three congressmen from Sucre state to submit to questioning next Tuesday. All stand accused of criminal conspiracy for allegedly organizing, promoting, arming or financing illegal armed groups.

If indicted and convicted they could receive a maximum of 12 years in prison.

Petro also accused the chief federal prosecutor who stepped down a year ago, Camilo Osorio, of obstructing justice by shielding what he called "narco-paramilitaries" from prosecution in a number of massacres of mostly poor peasants.

The demobilization process, which provides stipends to the disarmed paramilitary fighters, has cost the Colombian government more than $100 million (euro79.6 million) over the past two years, he said.

"In truth he didn't stop the killing," Petro said of Uribe. "He didn't stop the sacking. He did not stop new paramilitary structures from appearing. He let Colombian society be deceived with false demobilizations."

Petro rattled off a list of names of new paramilitary bosses in his Wednesday speech but admitted in an interview with the AP on Thursday that the information he has remains preliminary.

He also said Uribe could never been elected to a second term this year without the backing of "the friends of drug-trafficking" in Colombia's congress who voted for the constitutional amendment that changed the law so a sitting president could run for re-election.

Paramilitary leaders have in the past boasted of controlling between 30-35 percent of the Congress.

Petro is a member of the new Democratic Pole party whose candidate finished second to Uribe in May with 22 percent of the vote. He is a former leftist rebel with the M-19 group, which made peace with the government in 1990.

Unlike the peasant-heavy main rebel group currently fighting the government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, M-19 grew largely out of urban intellectual circles.

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