The Miami Herald
Jul. 20, 2002

Infighting unravels Colombian paramilitary force

  Special to The Herald

  BOGOTA - Claiming they had lost control over their fighters, the leaders of Colombia's feared paramilitary forces have declared the breakup of the
  powerful right-wing group in an effort to weed out rogue elements.

  In a letter posted on the group's website late Thursday, leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso said they had failed to rein in factions acting
  independently of the central command of the paramilitary umbrella organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC.

  ''We faced a series of atomized groups deeply involved in drug trafficking that went from [being part] of the confederation to anarchy, or they lost their
  identities and principles,'' the letter said.

  The AUC, an outlawed militia claiming between 10,000 and 12,000 fighters, targets Marxist guerrilla groups that have been fighting the government for
  nearly 40 years.

  The politically savvy Castaño had been trying to clean up the AUC's bloody image by banning the mass killings of rebel collaborators that had become the
  paramilitary group's trademark, although selective murders continued throughout the country.

  And while Castaño had admitted in press interviews that his fighters were financed through Colombia's lucrative drug trade, earlier this year he publicly
  denounced paramilitary leaders who had become too involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking.

  Bogotá's El Tiempo daily reported Friday that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft plans to unseal the first indictment against a Colombian paramilitary
  leader for drug trafficking. He is said to be an AUC figure who operates on Colombia's Caribbean coast, and, according to the newspaper, would be
  accused of shipping hundreds of kilos of cocaine to the United States.

  The infighting among the regional commanders led four of the AUC's subsidiary groups to break off from the main organization, and a fifth was expelled
  over the kidnapping of Venezuelan businessman Richard Boulton, who was released last week after two years in captivity.

  The schism ''make[s] the continuation of the AUC as a national organization untenable,'' the letter said.

  But Castaño and Mancuso said the breakup would give them a chance to ``rebuild a national self-defense organization -- where honest Colombians feel
  represented and defended.''

  Castaño originally brought together dozens of independent regional paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the AUC in 1997 to unify the
  counter-guerrilla forces across the country and attempt to gain recognition as a legitimate political force.

  But five years later the AUC leadership said too many of the groups had strayed from the founding principles and they would no longer be responsible for
  the acts of undisciplined fighters.

  ''No one who does not have exclusively anti-subversive principles can hide behind the mask of the self-defense forces,'' the Internet letter said.

  The AUC's cohesion began to unravel last year when Castaño stepped down as commander and was replaced by a nine-member central council. He
  resigned last week as political chief of the AUC, angered at abuses by members of the paramilitary group.