BOGOTA, Colombia – One veteran of Colombia's disbanded far-right militias admitted to ordering or taking part in at least 3,000 killings, mostly targeting leftists, and incinerating many of the corpses to destroy evidence.
Another ordered a hit on a prominent intellectual who had been unjustly accused of backing insurgents and whose laptop held evidence that helped convict Colombia's then-national spy chief in the killing.
Those two men and about 400 other right-wing paramilitaries are due to walk free this year after serving eight-year sentences for crimes that normally carry more than triple the prison terms. The first is expected to be released within days.
Their lenient sentences were enshrined in a 2005 "Justice and Peace" law that provided a legal framework for the militias' supposed dismantling under a peace deal with the government of then-President Alvaro Uribe.
Human rights activists say the releases, expected to begin this month, are both premature and perilous for a country that many believe is on the cusp of making peace with leftist rebels. Activists also say prosecutors failed the nation by neglecting to completely investigate the paramilitaries' crimes and ensure that they paid just restitution to their victims, as the law stipulates.
Victims of the paramilitaries fear they won't just go back to committing nonpolitical crimes such as drug trafficking and extortion but will also resume killing displaced peasants who are trying to reclaim land that was stolen from, most often, by far-right militias.
"They've told us they are afraid of the paramilitaries getting out," Ivan Cepeda, a leftist congressman and longtime victims' rights advocate said of the victims. "It's a feeling of great concern and anxiety."
There are also fears that, with 14-month-old peace talks with the FARC progressing, right-wing death squads could re-emerge and target guerrillas who put down their guns and take up electoral politics.
Prosecutors say the releases will be gradual and vow to keep a close eye on the newly freed and throw them back in jail if they break a single law.
Formed by ranchers and drug traffickers to counter rebel kidnapping and extortion, far-right paramilitaries killed at least 156,000 people between 1980 and 2004, prosecutors estimate. They also violently stole land, which President Juan Manuel Santos' government is trying to restore. Many of those due to be released this year were second-tier militia commanders. Several were top honchos.
Ramon Isaza, who is due to be released in October, created the first of the right-wing militias at the end of the 1970s in the Magdalena Valley, where they received training from corrupt military officers and foreign mercenaries led by the retired Israeli military officer Yair Klein. Some of the students went on to bomb civilians on behalf of the late cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar as he fought efforts to extradite him to the U.S.
It was from such beginnings that the United Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, gained purchase, committing a series of horrific massacres in the late 1990s — at the very time rebels of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were gaining strength, consistently routing the country's regular armed forces on the battlefield.
With the close financial, logistical and intelligence support of the United States, Uribe reversed the litany of armed forces' defeats and, a provincial rancher himself, persuaded AUC leaders, many of them major drug traffickers, to demobilize.
One second-tier leader, Edgar Ignacio Fierro, kept files in his computer detailing 550 murders and other crimes committed across Colombia's entire Caribbean coast by the AUC. The most prominent victim was Alfredo Correa de Andreis, a human rights defender shot dead by assassins in September 2004 in the coastal city of Barranquilla.
State agents had months earlier trumped up subversion charges against Correa, later discredited, claiming he was a key rebel ideologue.
Seven years after his murder, the documents from Fierro's laptop helped convict Jorge Noguera, then director of the DAS domestic intelligence agency, for the crime. Noguera was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Fierro, by contrast, received only eight years and is slated to be freed this month.
"Those were the rules of the game," said his lawyer, Hernando Bocanegra.
Little restitution has been paid, however, and little land returned.
A leading human rights lawyer, Alirio Uribe, says only 140,000 hectares have been returned out of the more than 2.5 million hectares they stole.
The head of the unit in the chief prosecutor's office in charge of Justice and Peace law cases, Carlos Villamil, did not provide a figure for the total amount of restitution paid despite repeated requests by The Associated Press.
His office did, however, note that Isaza handed over property worth a total of more than a half million dollars.
In addition to 2,000 paramilitaries due eventually to be freed, another 2,000 surrendered but were never jailed. Others never put down their weapons.
Hundreds from among the estimated 31,500 paramilitaries who disbanded between 2003 and 2006 went on to join new criminal gangs.
The investigative director of the chief prosecutor's office, Luis Gonzalez, estimates that 14 percent of the 3,438 known gang members in Colombia are former paramilitaries, and police say some have been used as enforcers by regional powerbrokers, just as the paramilitaries were.
The man who confessed to the 3,000 killings, Jorge Ivan Laverde, served as the paramilitaries' strongman in the coca-growing Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela.
The AUC commander who dispatched him, Salvatore Mancuso, was among 14 paramilitary warlords who surrendered under the peace deal but were extradited to the United States in 2008 because the government said they were continuing to commit crimes from jail. They are now serving hefty U.S. prison terms averaging more than 20 years.
In his confession to prosecutors, Laverde said he had been ordered to exterminate anyone who smelled like a guerrilla while installing far-right politicians in local leadership posts.
Laverde, better known as "El Iguano," also admitted to "social cleansing," a euphemism for killing thieves, drug dealers and other "undesirables."
Deputy Justice Minister Miguel Samper says the Santos government will honor the commitment made by its predecessor to adhere to the Justice and Peace law and free paramilitaries.
"But it will be honored with some limitations, restrictions and conditions," he said, including the stipulation that the convicted paramilitaries have confessed to all their crimes and paid restitution to their victims.
Samper said judges could also set restrictions, such as stipulating that some freed paramilitaries wear ankle bracelet to track their movements.
Villamil insisted that the releases would "not be automatic" and the paramilitaries won't have it easy on the outside.
"They are going to be watched."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.