BOGOTA, Colombia - Trading combat fatigues for business suits, three top commanders of Colombia's right-wing death squads emerged from their government-granted haven in the north to speak before the country's Congress yesterday, professing firm commitment to fragile peace talks aimed at disarming their 15,000-member paramilitary force.
Traveling with government-issued 48-hour safe-conduct passes shielding them from arrest and, in the case of one of the three, extradition to the United States on drug charges, they flew to Bogota on a military plane and were escorted to the ornate Capitol by state security forces.
Before a packed gallery of lawmakers, diplomats and reporters, Salvatore Mancuso, indicted in the United States on charges of trafficking 17 tons of cocaine, said: "I come here in an irreversible mission of peace."
"I believe in God, the God of hope, of love, of forgiveness," said Mancuso, in an hourlong speech to a chamber that usually limits speakers to 20 minutes. "I'm a man of business, head of a family, thrown into the terrible mouth of war."
Mancuso and two fellow commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Ramon Isaza and Ivan Roberto Duque, were invited to speak by Congress members who have said the paramilitary group is misunderstood. It was an invitation the three, eager to alter their reputations as mass killers and criminals, eagerly accepted.
Their appearance infuriated those who want justice for the thousands of Colombians killed by paramilitaries in their long war to erode support for Marxist rebels. The United States has classified the group as a terrorist organization, and has indicted Mancuso and four other commanders for trafficking cocaine to the United States.
In an old-fashioned speech using the flowery language of Colombia's caudillo politicians, Mancuso, the college-educated son of an Italian immigrant, cast his group as an ally of the state in the fight against rebels, who once controlled much of this vast country. Using images close to every Colombian's heart, from independence hero Simon Bolivar to God to Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he stressed his group's allegiance to democracy and Colombia's future.
"History will recognize the goodness and greatness of our cause," he said. "We are defenders of a free Colombia and its institutions."
And he said that as "compensation for our sacrifice for the fatherland," he and other commanders "cannot receive jail."
As Mancuso finished, a protester in the journalists' gallery held up a picture of Sen. Manuel Cepeda, who, like at least 1,500 other leftist politicians, was killed by paramilitary gunmen. "No more impunity," shouted the protester, Lilia Solano, a law professor, shaking and with tears running down her face. "No more laws of forgiveness and forgetting."