TIBU, Colombia - The commander of Colombia's paramilitary forces wept and apologized Friday for his role in a war against Marxist rebels as 1,400 fighters surrendered their weapons in the largest demobilization of an outlawed armed faction in the country's history.
The fighters demobilized at a ranch in remote northeast jungles near the border with Venezuela, where the main road is marked by crosses, burned vehicles and blown-up bridges - the scars of a protracted and bitter battle between the right-wing faction and leftist rebels for control of the local cocaine industry.
"With my soul flooded with humility, I ask forgiveness from the people of Colombia," Salvatore Mancuso told government officials, representatives of the Organization of American States and heavily armed paramilitary fighters who stood in formation under a sweltering sun.
"I ask forgiveness from the nations of the world, including the United States of America, if by action or omission I offended," Mancuso said, his voice cracking and tears streaming down behind his aviator-style sunglasses.
Mancuso, the chief of the paramilitary umbrella group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), then handed his Beretta 9mm pistol to government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, beginning the formal demobilization of the AUC's Catatumbo Bloc.
Muscular fighters in camouflage uniforms snapped to attention and one by one handed their M-60 machine guns, AK-47 rifles and grenades to Restrepo.
Restrepo called the ceremony "a historic event."
"This ... is now recorded in the memory of Colombians as the largest collective demobilization that has been seen to date in our country," he said, a baseball cap shielding his face from the sun.
Mancuso's comment about the United States was pointed - he is wanted in America for trafficking tons of cocaine to U.S. shores. But the Colombian government has given him and other paramilitary leaders safe-conduct passes while they participate in the peace process.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Mancuso said he wanted the extradition issue resolved.
"I hope these problems will be solved and that the people of the United States and their government can understand why we were involved in this conflict - and that we have the will to advance in the construction of peace," Mancuso said late Thursday in an interview at a jungle camp.
The Catatumbo Bloc, which has been battling Marxist rebels in this cocaine-producing region for five years, is the largest AUC faction to give up its arms under a peace plan that envisions the total demobilization of an estimated 10,000 outlawed paramilitary fighters by 2006.
Colombia's paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s to combat the rebels. But like the rebels, they turned to drug trafficking to finance and enrich themselves.
A rights group says the Catatumbo Bloc killed more than 200 people from July 2003 to July 2004. But the government has not yet decided whether a general amnesty should be granted to the former fighters.
"There is a sea of confusion at this time ... but there is one certainty: the only path to peace is the one we are traveling on now," Mancuso said.
But the paramilitaries' opponents, rebels who have waged 40 years of warfare in Colombia, are not demobilizing, creating a challenge for government forces to provide stability and security for the bloodied region. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the largest rebel group and main enemy of AUC, so far refuses to surrender its arms.
The war claims 3,000 lives every year.
Restrepo urged the FARC and the National Liberation Army to also commit to peace.
"The path of violence is a closed one," he said.
President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who has vowed to restore order to this South American nation, said in Bogota this week that government security forces would remain in Catatumbo.
The government has deployed 700 troops and police to maintain order in the wild, isolated area, where dirt roads snake into thick jungle, which are dotted with clandestine coca processing labs.
Critics of the peace process that began in July say they fear it will allow the paramilitary bosses to keep fortunes earned from drugs while escaping justice for trafficking and killing.