LA CEJA, Colombia – Nestled in the green mountains of central Colombia, the former vacation resort of La Ceja today hosts a different sort of clientele: 61 former far-right paramilitary commanders awaiting trial for some of the worst atrocities in the country's five-decade conflict.
After months of speculations about the conditions inside, prison authorities allowed the media to go behind the high barbed-wire fences Wednesday to see the new home of the warlords who demobilized as part of a peace process with the government. They are accused of carrying out large-scale massacres and countless assassinations, as well as shipping hundreds of tons of cocaine abroad.
Most have been here for the past two months as they wait for their cases to be heard in special tribunals. If convicted, they would face a maximum of eight years in prison, possibly as few as six.
Security is heavy around the installations. But unlike other prisons, the guards here protect the inmates from the outside, not the outside from the inmates.
"We have the elite anti-terrorist police in charge of the necessary patrols, making sure criminals or leftist rebels are not approaching," said external security chief Capt. Nestor Cepeda, referring to the paramilitaries' enemies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. A Blackhawk helicopter circled above the mountains that surround the small town of La Ceja, in the center of the country.
During the half-day visit, the paramilitary leaders reaffirmed their commitment to peace. To drive the point home, as many as a dozen prisoners wore white T-shirts with the words "We want peace."
Authorities, for their part, were eager to show that this is no longer a resort, and that the paramilitaries are really serving time under a peace process that has been criticized as too lenient.
While it was all smiles and optimism about Colombia's future Wednesday, there remain outstanding issues surrounding the deal that led to the demobilization of more than 30,000 fighters.
Many of the imprisoned leaders said the agreement is still not clear on reparations for victims, how they'll be judged and — most important — whether they will be extradited to the United States on drug-trafficking charges.