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Desde Washington

Once a Terrorist, Always a Terrorist?

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 14, 2004; 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- Both U.S. presidential candidates have made it clear that fighting terrorists is a matter of hunting them down, detaining them and, when necessary, killing them.

Such discourse leaves little room for questions about the origins of terrorism or the long-term effects of such a tough-minded approach. Perhaps one should not hope for a nuanced discussion in these politically charged times, but today one simple question is in need of an answer -- can a terrorist stop being a terrorist?

Marcela Sanchez also reports daily in Spanish about local Washington news on Univision. Watch the Video
Read Marcela Sanchez's previous Desde Washington columns.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally, has been so successful fighting narco-terrorists that more than 5,200 of them have turned in their weapons and sworn off their fight against the government. These ex-terrorists, better known as "demobilized,'' are becoming a new challenge in Colombia's search for peace. To keep them demobilized, Colombian and some U.S. officials want to provide them with alternative means of survival or employ them as allies against narco-terrorism. But the transition from rifle-wielding fighters into legal and productive members of society is currently on hold.

At issue is whether U.S. aid can be used to assist former members of what the State Department calls foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). Under U.S. law, it is illegal to knowingly provide "material support or resources'' other than medical or religious materials to a designated FTO and its members.

It would seem unnecessary to ask a lawyer if someone who had renounced an FTO is no longer part of that FTO. However, Bush administration officials have decided to err on the side of caution and suspend assistance to the demobilized in Colombia pending clarification of this "legal ambiguity'' by the Justice Department.

The FTO blacklist includes Colombia's two largest leftist guerrilla movements, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, which have been on the list since its inception in 1997. The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) was designated an FTO in 2001.

Uribe wants to demobilize 20,000 combatants before December 2005, and has already started peace talks to that end with some in the AUC. Initially, the Uribe government believed that the Bush administration supported such efforts, but the State Department suspended funds over the legality of helping former members of FTOs. This cannot help but weaken Colombians' faith in the U.S. commitment.

Some in Washington see no ambiguity. Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno says rightly that assistance would not go to "support terrorists but to help dismantle terrorist groups.'' On Tuesday, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., sent a letter to the Justice Department requesting a prompt resolution of the "ongoing confusion'' of whether U.S. assistance can benefit those who have agreed to demobilize. Hyde is particularly interested in allowing the Colombian National Police to use U.S.-provided planes to transport demobilized individuals willing to assist in intelligence gathering and eradication of illegal crops.

If the Justice Department fails to resolve this question soon, even the most harmless policy proposals could be impeded. Hyde and eight other U.S. representatives are proposing to direct funds for diverse efforts such as long-term assistance in agricultural training, swine-fever elimination, and blueberry cultivation. These and other projects that could provide legal opportunities to the demobilized and those displaced by the conflict.

The current situation is the direct result of the loose application of the terrorist label, a practice that "doesn't contribute to good U.S. foreign policy,'' said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a key player in providing U.S. assistance to Colombia. As opposed to Central America's peace processes that Washington supported generously, Colombia's peace will have to take place in a different context, one of FTO lists and the war on terrorism. Such context, however, should not be allowed to make Colombia's peace all the more difficult.

One would hope that the suspension of U.S. aid could be lifted quickly by recognizing that the terrorist label no longer applies to the demobilized. The longer it takes, though, the more likely that Colombians and others will conclude that the Justice Department's inaction is convenient cover for a Bush administration suspicious of Uribe's demobilization effort.

So while Uribe has clearly answered "yes'' to the question of whether terrorists can stop being terrorists one day, Washington still hasn't. And unless it does it soon, Washington could put in jeopardy its more than $3 billion investment in Colombia over the last four years to strengthen the government's hand against illegal combatants supported by the illegal drug trade. Until then, as one congressional staffer and long-time Colombia observer said "we will be shooting ourselves in the foot.''

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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