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Last Updated: Friday, 2 July, 2004, 03:51 GMT 04:51 UK
Colombia's 'drug barons' in peace talks
By Jeremy McDermott
BBC correspondent in Medellin

The leaders of Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries have gathered in a government-granted safe haven, now the venue for peace talks, where they are immune from arrest.

Paramilitary fighters man a roadblock in north-eastern Colombia
The 20,000-strong AUC is Colombia's most brutal warring faction
Ten negotiators from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC by its Spanish initials) gathered in a 360 sq km zone (147 sq miles) in the northern province of Cordoba, long a paramilitary stronghold and now the focus of a tottering peace process.

"The Placement Zone is to facilitate the consolidation of a peace process and agreements between the national government and the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia," reads the document signed by the two sides setting up the zone.

The government Peace Commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, said the zone would give impetus to a process that began in December 2002 when the AUC called a unilateral ceasefire.

'Terrorist group'

However, few share his optimism, as two seemingly insurmountable obstacles loom - amnesty and drugs trafficking.

The government Peace Commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo
Restrepo is President Uribe's man at the talks
"These talks have nothing to do with finding a peaceful solution to Colombia's 40-year civil war," said Carlos Garcia, one of the AUC founders known by the alias "Rodrigo 00".

"This is about a group of drugs traffickers looking for amnesty and immunity from extradition so they can enjoy their unimaginable fortunes."

"Rodrigo" was assassinated at the end of May on the orders of another paramilitary leader, Diego Murillo.

Murillo, alias "Adolfo Paz" is the successor in Medellin to the drug lord Pablo Escobar and one of the AUC negotiators.

The 20,000-strong AUC is Colombia's most brutal warring faction, which carried out massacres and assassinations to "cleanse" large tracts of the country of Marxist rebels.

It has long been on European and US lists of terrorist organisations.

The AUC likes to portray itself as a group of people who were forced to take up arms to defend themselves against guerrilla kidnapping and extortion in the place of a powerless state.

Others, including the US, see it as little more than a drugs cartel moving some 40% of the 800 tons of cocaine that leave Colombia every year.

Of the 10 AUC negotiators, five have outstanding US extradition warrants and another three are in the sights of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

'Underworld legends'

"The paramilitary leaders sat at the negotiating table always were and continue to be drugs traffickers and that is a source of concern," said the US Ambassador in Bogota, William Wood.

One of AUC leaders Carlos Castano. Archive picture
Carlos Castano "disappeared" in April
The men now gathered in the safe haven are the stuff of legend in the Colombian underworld.

Murillo once acted as a head of security for a key member of the Medellin drug cartel.

He then turned on Pablo Escobar and became part of the PEPES (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) - a vigilante group.

The PEPES murdered Escobar's supporters, lawyers and friends ensuring that when the security forces finally found the fugitive drug lord in December 1993, he died in a shoot-out with only one loyal bodyguard.

Murillo is one of the AUC's most powerful leaders.

He limps around the safe haven with an artificial leg. His lost his real one in a gunfight where he took 13 bullets to his body.

Another leader is Miguel Arroyave, known as the "Lord of the Liquids" for the monopoly he once held on precursor chemicals needed to process cocaine.

His "Centauros Bloc" of the AUC now numbers more than 4,000 fighters.

Vicente Castano, another negotiator, alias "The Professor" is the brother of Fidel and Carlos Castano who founded the paramilitaries.

Fidel was killed in a shootout with guerrillas in 1994, whilst Carlos "disappeared" in an attack in April this year.

Paramilitary sources said Carlos was tortured then executed by rival paramilitaries after speaking out against drugs trafficking.

Vicente is believed to have been behind his brother's murder along with Murillo.

Bogota under pressure

Whilst the establishment of the safe haven is supposed to give impetus to a dialogue that has been staggering on since 2002, the government actually has little room for manoeuvre.

A handicapped paramilitary fighter
The paramilitaries demand full amnesty
The paramilitaries have said they want complete amnesty and immunity from extradition and refuse to spend a single day in prison.

The government is under pressure from Europe to ensure that those atrocities that count as crimes against humanity do not go unpunished.

Even more constricting is the position of Washington, which funds Colombia to the tune of more than $600m a year.

The Bush administration has made it clear that the issue of extradition is not negotiable.

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