First sentences for Colombia paramilitary leaders

BOGOTA, Colombia — A Colombian court on Tuesday handed down the first prison sentences to leaders of the illegal far-right militias that demobilized under a peace pact with President Alvaro Uribe's government.

Edward Cobos, better known as "Diego Vecino," and Uber Banquez, alias "Juancho Dique," each received the maximum of eight years in prison dictated by the Justice and Peace law under which they surrendered.

They were also ordered to pay $385,000 each in restitution to relatives of their victims.

By submitting to the Justice and Peace process and confessing to their crimes, the two were able to avoid far harsher sentences of 40 years each for crimes that included ordering massacres, kidnapping and driving people off their land.

Reading the sentence, Judge Uldi Teresa Jimenez said Cobos and Banquez had committed "serious violations of international humanitarian law, attacking civilians, displacing them from their land, taking the lives of non-combatants and looting their property."


Cobos and Banquez are among some 50 warlords and 31,000 "paramilitary" foot soldiers who demobilized between 2003 and 2006. Among those, 4,100 have cooperated with the Justice and Peace process.

Despite the surrender deal, Colombia's provinces continue to be plagued by criminal bands composed in large part of former paramilitaries who profit from drug trafficking, extorting businesses and forcibly taking land from poor peasants.

The far-right groups arose when wealthy landowners and ranchers formed "self-defense" militias in the 1980s to combat kidnappings and extortion by leftist rebels.

But the militias evolved into autonomous criminal bands that coopted regional politicians and national lawmakers and infiltrated the DAS domestic security agency. Prosecutors say paramilitaries have confessed to more than 25,000 killings.

In 2008, the president extradited to the United States to face trial on drug-trafficking charges 14 top paramilitary leaders who have collectively confessed to ordering thousands of killings.

Uribe said they had continued to commit crimes from their prison cells, violating terms of the Justice and Peace law.

Cobos and Banquez were sentenced Tuesday for just three violent acts in Bolivar state on the Caribbean coast: the March 10, 2000, displacement at gunpoint of the entire village of Mampujan, the massacre the following day of 11 peasants in the village of San Cayetano and the April 2003 kidnapping of nine people in Isla Mucura.

"This is only one of the many cases for which these two men are being investigated," said Luis Gonzalez, head of the Justice and Peace unit of the prosecutor's office. "Further ahead, there will be new charges and they will receive new sentences."


However, under terms of the 2003 Justice and Peace law, the most prison time they can serve for all their crimes is eight years.

Because Cobos and Banquez laid down their arms in 2005, the two men will be eligible for release in three years.

A leading Colombian human rights activist, congressman-elect Ivan Cepeda, lamented that the sentences levied on the two men "are not proportional to the damage they have done and the crimes against humanity that they committed."


Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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