Former paramilitaries and victims of their violence banded together Friday to destroy a huge cache of weapons used during the right-wing militias' decade-long reign of terror.
In a somber ceremony attended by foreign dignitaries, dozens of demobilized fighters and victims of their crimes dumped 18,051 rifles, machine guns and rocket launchers — a cache weighing 60 tons — into a giant caldron.
The arsenal, which included 2.7 million bullets and was handed over as part of a 2003 peace pact, was smelted into material that will be used to create metal sculptures to be auctioned off to compensate victims.
Colombia's government celebrated the event as proof the country's skittish peace process with paramilitaries is advancing, despite mounting evidence some militias are rearming and former warlords are breaking pledges to confess their crimes.
"Today we've buried forever 18,051 weapons that sowed terror and blood on Colombian soil," Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo told reporters at the state-owned foundry where the cache was destroyed.
Wealthy cattle ranchers financed the paramilitaries' rise in the late 1980s to protect their properties from marauding leftist rebels. The militias quickly evolved into some of the nation's bloodiest criminal organizations, amassing huge fortunes of stolen land and seizing control of much of the country's lucrative cocaine trade.
The peace accord with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group known as the AUC, led warlords to demobilize 31,000 men and confess crimes in exchange for reduced prison terms and protection from extradition.
But human rights groups have widely criticized Colombia's peace process as overly lenient toward the right-wing militias. The U.S. classifies the AUC as a terrorist organization and has requested the extradition of several of its leaders on drug-trafficking charges.