Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Top Colombian guerrilla warlord appears in court

PART OF THE DEAL The man blamed for some of the worst atrocities in the country's half century of civil conflict is unlikely to reveal much to the court


Under heavy police escort, one of Colombia's most feared paramilitary warlords was headed to court to address his role in hundreds of murders of civilians during a decade-long reign of terror.

Salvatore Mancuso's court appearance yesterday was to be the first by a top commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), as part of a 2003 peace deal with the government that has led to the demobilization of 31,000 right-wing fighters.

Under the law that codified the peace pact, Mancuso and more than 2,000 militia strongmen must testify before special tribunals about their involvement in massacres, torture and other crimes. Otherwise, they risk forfeiting reduced jail sentences and could instead face extradition to the US on drug trafficking charges.

The tribunals kicked off last week with the testimony of a handful of midlevel paramilitaries, their victims watching on closed-circuit TVs from adjacent courtrooms.

But the appearance by Mancuso, whose violence-scarred fiefdoms encompassed much of northern Colombia, is the most heavily anticipated. Human rights groups have accused the government of being too lenient on Mancuso and other warlords blamed for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia's half century of civil conflict.

The process is a major test for President Alvaro Uribe, who has been dogged by a growing scandal linking several close political allies to the drug-funded AUC, which the US lists as a "foreign terrorist organization."

Already, three pro-government federal lawmakers have been arrested for arming and financing the paramilitaries, and several more, including the brother of Uribe's foreign minister, are under investigation by the Supreme Court.

That number could increase after Mancuso's testimony if he reveals the identities of the AUC's main political backers and beneficiaries.

"We have an opportunity to turn over a new leaf," Vice President Francisco Santos said in an interview last week. "It's going to be traumatic, but the whole truth must come out. We've got nothing to hide."

Mancuso was a national motocross champion and studied English at the University of Pittsburgh in the US before taking up arms in 1995 against leftist rebels who had extorted his fellow cattle ranchers in the state of Cordoba.

Like much of the AUC leadership, Mancuso soon strayed from the group's original aim, immersing himself in Colombia's lucrative cocaine trade -- for which he is wanted for extradition to the US -- and slaughtering enemies, real or imagined, while forcibly displacing peasants from their lands.

Mancuso is believed to have overseen deadly terror campaigns such as a massacre in the northwest hamlet of El Aro, where some 200 armed fighters in October 1997 went on a two-day rampage that left 15 farmers dead.

A court convicted Mancuso in absentia in 2003 and sentenced him to 40 years in prison. Under the terms of the peace deal, he wouldn't serve more than eight years.

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