The Miami Herald
May 3, 2001

 Colombia shows off 2 rightist guerrillas

Paramilitaries deny massacre


 BUENAVENTURA, Colombia -- In a grisly show-and-tell that may have been prompted by U.S. pressure to distance itself from a right-wing paramilitary army, the Colombian government for the first time this week put two of the group's captured soldiers on display for journalists.

 The two spent most of their time denying that they massacred peasants and hacked them up with chain saws -- even as reporters uneasily eyed a captured chain saw on display among rifles and camouflage uniforms seized from the paramilitaries.

 The news conference was the latest fallout from a long Easter week's killing in the zone around this Pacific Coast port. The paramilitary group -- the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials of AUC -- is accused of massacring 19 peasants, mutilating some of them in the process.

 The lurid reports of the killing have horrified a country that is no stranger to bloodshed and deeply embarrassed the Colombian government, which has frequently been accused of using the paramilitaries to do the dirty work in its war against Marxist guerrillas.

 Whether the news conference will help the government open some distance between itself and the AUC remains to be seen. But the encounter with journalists -- in which the two AUC soldiers denied their victims were peasants or had been mutilated, but otherwise expressed pride in their lethal handiwork -- certainly cemented the paramilitary group's reputation as a cold-blooded killing machine.

 One of the captured AUC soldiers, who called himself "Junior,'' said a mere four of the 19 victims were killed after being captured: ``Bullet by bullet. Not a massacre.''

 A second captured paramilitary put the death toll at 15 and said they were all executed, but insisted they were guerrillas identified by a defector and claimed, like Junior, that no chain saws were used.

 Without a trace of remorse and at times even defiant, the two men gave their version of the killings at a Colombian Navy base in this Pacific port 200 miles southwest of Bogotá.

 The event occurred Tuesday, one day after the U.S. State Department added the AUC to its list of terrorist groups around the world, in effect increasing pressure on the government to distance itself from the AUC.

 Accused repeatedly by human rights groups of doing little to rein in the paramilitaries, President Andrés Pastrana flew to the news conference to boast that the 62
 captures over the past week proved the complaints wrong.

 The arrests "are a clear answer to the world . . . that the armed forces of Colombia are committed to fight all those outside the law, be they guerrillas or paramilitaries,'' Pastrana said.

 The 62 arrests bring the total of AUC fighters captured in the first four months of this year to 330, nearly equaling the about 350 captured in all of 2000, Navy spokesmen have said.

 Financed largely by drug lords and wealthy farmers to drive guerrillas off their turf, the AUC grew from 850 fighters in 1992 to 8,000 today. It was blamed for more than 800 killings last year, most of them executions.

 Nineteen bodies have been recovered from the Easter Week rampage by a 160-man AUC column along an isolated patch of the Upper Naya river, 20 miles southeast of Buenaventura. Survivors say the death toll was more like 45, and that all the victims were peasants.

 Some 1,200 Marines and army troops were deployed by fast river gunboats and helicopters to hunt down the AUC column as it escaped down the Naya river toward the mangrove swamps of the Pacific coast.

 While it was not one of the largest massacres registered in Colombia's decades-old civil war, it drew intense media attention because of survivors' claims that at least two victims were killed or mutilated with chain saws.

 Junior claimed the chain saw seized with his 15-man AUC squad when they were captured by Navy Marines had come from a guerrilla-run cocaine-processing laboratory raided by his squad during the Naya operation.

 "First of all, there was no massacre. Everyone was killed in combat,'' he told journalists, claiming that all the victims were members of the leftist National Liberation Army, known as ELN. Later, however, he said four of the victims were shot after being captured.

 Junior, a 22-year-old native of the coffee-growing Risaralda region northeast of Buenaventura, said he joined the AUC three months ago, with a monthly salary of $150, because guerrillas killed three of his relatives.

 Navy officers in command of the campaign to track down the Easter Week killers, Operation Dignity, said the AUC members fled downriver after the slaughter but became stranded and were captured in the vast mangrove swamps.

 What was most shocking about the news conference was the cold-blooded manner in which Junior and the second AUC member who spoke with reporters, also in his early 20s, described their operations.

 "The self-defense forces do not kill just for killing. We only kill militias,'' said the second man, using AUC terminology for guerrillas in civilian clothes.

 Speaking in a defiant tone, the man said he was ``proud to be in the AUC'' and even took some jabs at the armed forces, accused by many Colombians of doing little to fight the guerrillas and thereby fueling the need for the illegal self-defense units.

                                    © 2001