Colombia Paramilitary Peace Process Sags Print
BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombian lawmakers hid ? then headed for the exits ? to avoid voting on a contentious provision of a bill that would have helped shield paramilitary leaders from extradition on drug charges. The measure was ultimately rejected.

At one point during the Monday night vote in Congress, Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt ran across the chamber and stood in front of the exit as some lawmakers prepared to leave. Their departure would have postponed any vote on the government-sponsored bill.

Two lawmakers hid behind a pillar until they were spotted and asked to return to their seats and vote.

The rejection by special Senate and House commissions of the provision dealt a blow to President Alvaro Uribe's efforts to remove one of the most brutal forces from Colombia's battlefields.

The bill's Article 64 would have classified paramilitary actions as political crimes, allowing chieftains accused of drug trafficking to escape extradition to the United States.

Monday's vote "closes any chance that drug traffickers within the paramilitaries' ranks can avoid extradition," said Sen. Antonio Navarro, a left-wing opposition leader.

Pretelt acknowledged the vote was a setback to the government but said he did not think it would sink the entire bill or put an end to the peace process.

"This bill still provides very important benefits, with alternative punishments," Pretelt told RCN radio Tuesday. The legislation calls for warlords to serve a maximum prison term of eight years for crimes that would normally carry up to 40-year sentences.

Ernesto Baez, spokesman for the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, on Sunday said 2-year-old talks with the government are threatened by the bill because it mandates prison sentences of up to eight years for fighters convicted of atrocities. Paramilitary leaders wanted in the United States for drug trafficking would face far stiffer penalties if they are extradited there.

Pretelt denied that he tried to physically stop lawmakers from walking out before the vote, but insisted that it was necessary for Congress to make a decision one way or another because debate on the bill was holding up other important legislation.

"One of the minister's jobs is to ensure that Congress functions effectively," he said.

Uribe's administration has been caught in a bind between paramilitary commanders who say they won't demobilize if they face lengthy prison terms or extradition, and opposition leaders who demand warlords be held fully accountable for their crimes.

The outlawed paramilitaries were created in the 1980s by cattle ranchers to attack leftist guerrillas, but the militias quickly wound up massacring suspected rebel sympathizers and trafficking in drugs.

More than 3,000 people are killed every year in Colombia's conflict.