The Washington Post
Thursday, June 26, 2003; Page A01

Colombian Fighters' Drug Trade Is Detailed

Report Complicates Efforts to End War

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service

BOGOTA, Colombia, June 25 -- A confidential assessment prepared for the president of Colombia on whether peace talks should begin with the nation's main
paramilitary force has concluded that the group, which frequently fights alongside the Colombian military, is a drug-trafficking organization, according to a copy of the

A six-month review commissioned by President Alvaro Uribe to evaluate the possibility of peace talks with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as
the AUC and listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, reports that "it is impossible to differentiate between the self-defense groups and narco-trafficking
organizations." The review also contends that paramilitary leaders seek to exploit peace talks to protect their drug-trafficking profits.

The paramilitary organization was founded in the late 1980s, initially funded by large ranchers and private businesses that were targets of kidnappings and extortion
at the hands of Marxist guerrillas. The first units formed in rugged northwest Colombia and along the central Magdalena River basin where the guerrillas also

In recent years, however, both the paramilitary forces and the guerrillas have turned to drug trafficking to fund their operations. The government report states for the
first time officially the scope of drug trafficking by the paramilitary forces. Through a handful of drug kingpins posing as paramilitary commanders, they control about
40 percent of Colombia's drug trafficking. The AUC "sells its franchise" to regional drug traffickers, who rely on the group for security in exchange for a cut of

The report also estimates that as much as 80 percent of the AUC's funding comes from drug trafficking. Members of the group have said in interviews that up to 10
percent of the drug proceeds go toward the war effort, with the rest enriching individual commanders. Colombia accounts for as much as 90 percent of the cocaine
that reaches the United States.

The report's conclusions appear to challenge Uribe's plan to grant political legitimacy to the paramilitary forces by beginning a formal peace process that would lead
to their disarmament. The report also reveals a deep split between Colombia's civilian government and the military leadership over the wisdom of demobilizing the
11,000-member AUC at a delicate moment in the country's 39-year civil war.

The Colombian military uses the paramilitary forces to carry out offensive operations against the country's two Marxist rebel insurgencies, but the irregular forces also
are accused by international human rights organizations of massacring civilians.

"The Armed Forces are the principal enemy to a peace process with the self-defense groups," the analysis concludes. "Opposition exists at the highest ranks to
permit demobilization."

A government official familiar with the preparations for peace negotiations characterized the analysis as "very real, and a step forward" in helping address the
administration's differences with the military command.

"We're working on it and working on it and working on it," the official said. "The president wants this done quickly."

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, receiving about $600 million a year in hardware and training for use against a drug industry that helps fuel
the civil war. The Colombian army has long relied on the strength of the paramilitary forces in its fight against the 18,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, as the largest Marxist-oriented insurgency group is known.

As a condition for continued U.S. aid, the Colombian military has pledged to sever links to the paramilitary forces. But the analysis, prepared by six civilian
appointees , states that "the exploratory phase [of the peace process] has had serious incidents of obstruction from the Armed Forces," whose leadership appears to
oppose the demobilization of paramilitary forces while the guerrillas constitute an active threat to the government.

The assessment, delivered to Uribe last week, was not intended for public review. A copy was provided to The Washington Post by a splinter paramilitary group's
leader, code-named "Rodrigo 00." He contends that the AUC leadership is hoping to use the peace process to obtain political legitimacy for major drug traffickers
inside the organization so they can keep land, cash and other drug profits.

The analysis is likely to complicate matters for Uribe, who took office Aug.7 promising a broader war against the guerrillas, because it appears to undermine
conditions he placed on the AUC in return for beginning formal peace talks.

Uribe, who was criticized by human rights organizations for allowing paramilitary groups to flourish in Antioquia province when he was governor there in the
mid-1990s, required the AUC to declare a cease-fire before considering formal talks. Carlos Castaño, the group's political leader, declared a unilateral cease-fire
late last year. But, the analysis concludes, the "cessation of hostilities has not been complied with."

"We're discussing how to move forward with a peace process that has many, many difficulties ahead," said Vice President Francisco Santos, who declined in a brief
interview today to specifically address the confidential assessment. "But we are determined to move ahead so that we can get rid of some 11,000 combatants that
are harming this country. We're discussing different options and drawing on a lot of different material and information we have."

The analysis also poses political challenges for the United States, which for the first time plans to participate in Colombia's peace efforts by offering paramilitary
fighters incentives to disarm. Although the United States has helped fund similar programs following civil wars in Central America, Africa and Asia, this is reportedly
the first time it plans to do so on behalf of a group that the State Department considers a terrorist organization.

The U.S. government refused to participate in peace negotiations with the FARC, also on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, that were conducted by
then-President Andres Pastrana. Privately, U.S. officials sharply criticized those efforts, which granted the guerrillas control of a 16,000-square-mile enclave in
southern Colombia before the talks collapsed in February 2002. The FARC used the haven for military training, recruitment and increasing coca cultivation that it
protects for a profit.

But the Bush administration's partnership with Uribe is stronger, mostly because the new president has embraced controversial U.S. aerial herbicide spraying that has
devastated the coca crop in southern Colombia. Uribe also has allowed the extradition of 64 accused drug traffickers to the United States during his 10 months in
office, more than Pastrana allowed during his four-year term.

The Bush administration has surveyed about 6,000 combatants involved in the two paramilitary units officially interested in peace talks, the AUC and the Central
Bolivar Bloc. Officials said the U.S. government will spend up to $5 million in the first phase of a program to offer training, education, farmland and other incentives
to paramilitary combatants who agree to lay down their arms.

If Uribe decides to proceed with peace talks, 2,000 paramilitary fighters could be demobilized by the end of the year, with the entire peace process completed by
2005, officials said.

"This is the first semi-serious show of intent on the part of one of these armed groups," said a U.S. official, explaining why the Bush administration decided to fund
the paramilitary demobilization, after declining to participate in the FARC negotiations. Colombia's peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, is scheduled to be in
Washington this week for meetings with U.S. officials about the AUC process.

"I don't think it matters" that this is a terrorist organization, one U.S. official here said. "The idea here is to take pieces off the playing board. I think we have to look
at it in those terms."

The AUC was a confederation of regional paramilitary groups that emerged across Colombia in response to the Marxist insurgency with a combined force of about
15,000 combatants. Many paramilitary fighters once served in Colombia's military, including some of its top commanders.

But the group splintered last fall, just before Castaño and AUC military leader Salvatore Mancuso were indicted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. It is
now split into at least five groups after an internal dispute over the AUC's increasing role in Colombia's drug trade.

The analysis says the paramilitary movement is no longer principally an anti-insurgency force, but that most of its interests are focused on expanding its ties to the
drug trade.

Only two of the AUC's constituent groups are seeking peace talks with the government, meaning that as many as 9,000 other paramilitary fighters could remain
outside the negotiations. Paramilitary leaders also expect "security and development for the regions they occupy," "legalization of a part of their fortune" and "judicial
security," according to the report. The United States has refused to consider lifting the drug indictments and extradition requests for Castaño and Mancuso.

"The United States is not so naive, nor is the Colombian government," said Rodrigo 00, the dissident paramilitary commander.

The assessment also criticizes the Colombian military, whose leaders have claimed progress in recent years in cutting its paramilitary connections.

Colombian military officials have suggested that the dissolution of the paramilitary force would cause strategic problems for the army, which they say is stretched too
thin to maintain control of paramilitary-controlled territory on its own.

                                               © 2003