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Drugs complicate Colombia's peace plan

Francisco Javier Zuluago, otherwise known as "Gordolindo," is one of Colombia's most notorious drug traffickers, having served as a trusted aide in one of the country's powerful drug cartels.

But "Gordolindo" suddenly has a new calling card: political chief of the Pacific Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country's feared right-wing death squad.

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Gordolindo and other renowned Colombian drug dealers, including Diego Montoya Sanchez, who is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List alongside Osama bin Laden, have suddenly undergone a political makeover. They have donned paramilitary fatigues and begun calling themselves "comandante."

For 22 months, the government of President Alvaro Uribe has been trying to get the country's 20,000 irregular soldiers, who have fought a decades-long battle with leftist insurgents, to lay down their weapons. The first breakthrough could come this week: the AUC has pledged to demobilize 3,000 men in what would be the biggest such move in Colombian history. Many of them could be granted a full pardon. But under Colombian law, that immunity would not extend to narcotraffickers. So some of the country's biggest drug dealers are now joining - and even buying their way into - these militias, trying to garner the benefits of a potential peace deal. This "narcoization" of the paramilitaries is threatening to undermine an already fragile peace process.

"There's a dynamic in which the drug traffickers are desperately wanting to peg their cause, their purpose, [to] that of the AUC, which is not something that the governments of the US or Colombia have bought into," says one US counternarcotics official. "There's an increased desire by these terrorists to find a way out other than a prison sentence or death."

The problem of infamous drug lords morphing into paramilitaries may have gotten worse since the creation in July of a government safe zone in Santa Fe de Ralito, where AUC warlords are allowed to live free of prosecution while negotiating peace. El Tiempo, the national newspaper, first brought the issue to light when it spied Gordolindo and another trafficker in the safe zone shortly before it opened. Also, Semana magazine reported that Mr. Montoya of the Norte de Valle cartel was suddenly sporting a green uniform and had purchased the AUC's "Heroes of Rionegro Bloc," composed of 150 men, for a whopping $5 million from a disgruntled mid-level commander.

Paramilitaries involved in drug trafficking isn't a new phenomenon - several renowned AUC chiefs have been indicted or are wanted for extradition by the US on drug-related charges. But some say the AUC is now primarily a drug cartel, a far cry from its founding as an opposition force to the heavily armed Marxist guerrillas, who began their war against the government in 1964.

"All of the paramilitary leaders are narcotraffickers," says Daniel Garcia-Peña, a former peace commissioner and critic of Mr. Uribe. Mr. Garcia-Peña says that there is no legal framework for dealing with demobilized paramilitaries who have committed bigger crimes - massacres, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. The more drug traffickers in the paramilitaries, he says, the more difficult peace negotiations become. "It affects the process in a profound manner," he says.

Renowned drug lord Gabriel Puerta Parra, wanted by the US and captured on Oct. 7, was found with a letter to the AUC leadership asking for asylum in the Ralito safe zone and a place at the negotiating table as a paramilitary commander. In the letter, Mr. Puerta pointed to his 18-year relationship as a loyal ally of the AUC and said he had the support of four AUC commanders. He was captured before he got an answer.

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As well, three of the 14 members of the AUC's negotiating team sequestered in Ralito are wanted by the US. An extradition order has been issued for AUC military head Salvatore Mancuso, while indictments have been unsealed for Diego Murillo Bejarano, who ran a gang of assassins in Medellín opposed to drug lord Pablo Escobar, and Vicente Castaño, brother of AUC founder Carlos Castaño, who was probably murdered in April by other warlords angry about his criticism of the role of drugs in the group. Several more may be under US investigation.

Making matters even more complicated, Mr. Mancuso and Mr. Murillo have made it clear they don't plan to lay down weapons voluntarily in order to serve time in US jails.

Yet the Colombian government says that extradition is nonnegotiable. The US government has been equally forceful, saying it doesn't plan to drop drug charges against demobilized drug lords but has suggested it will refrain from enforcing extradition requests while they are in the safe zone.