Rightist Colombian militia placed on U.S. terrorist list
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The Bush administration added a notoriously brutal rightist Colombian militia to its list of terrorist groups Monday, opening the way to sanctions against financial backers living in the United States, including South Florida.
U.S. officials in Washington said the designation of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia as a terrorist group was aimed at highlighting U.S. rejection of both leftist and rightist violence in this South American nation.
Inclusion on the list means Washington can now deny visas and freeze the U.S. bank accounts of leaders and financial backers of the 8,500-strong group, known by its Spanish initials AUC.
U.S. government officials have long maintained that wealthy Colombians
living in South Florida, Washington and other U.S. cities are helping to
finance the AUC to
combat leftist guerrillas who fill their war coffers through kidnappings and extortion of the affluent.
SOUTH FLORIDA VISITS
Two top AUC commanders are known to have visited South Florida this year, one in a rebuffed bid to establish discrete contacts with U.S. government officials and the other to take his family on a vacation to Miami and Disney World.
Colombian prosecutors investigating AUC finances have said they
have some evidence of a Miami connection, mostly through bank accounts
apparently held by
Colombian exiles but not directly by any of the group's known business fronts.
``I recently got a phone call from an AUC guy in Key Biscayne. But I just asked if he had a [U.S.] visa and he immediately hung up,'' said one staffer for a conservative U.S. Congress member who has been approached by wealthy Colombian exiles in the past.
South Florida has received a gusher of wealthy Colombian families in recent years, driven out of their homes by the threat of abductions, extortions and assassinations and an economy all but stalled by the political violence.
The designation was made public by State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Francis X. Taylor on the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's two-day visit to Colombia for his first up-close view of the most contentious U.S. involvement in Latin America.
Washington has given Colombia $1.3 billion for a broad counter-narcotics and nation-building program that critics fear will only heighten the country's 36-year old civil war.
All of Colombia's armed groups finance themselves primarily by extorting payments from drug traffickers, who provide the bulk of the cocaine and heroin sold on U.S. streets.
But the AUC fighters have a reputation for cold-blooded murder, mostly of peasants suspected of aiding the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and National Liberation Army, or ELN.
Vice President and Defense Minister Gustavo Bell said last week the AUC was responsible for 65 percent of the massacres reported in the first half of this year, totaling 199 killings, while leftists accounted for the rest.
The State Department put the AUC on its "other terror groups'' list on April 30, a roster that does not involve sanctions because those groups have not attacked U.S. targets.
The AUC is not known to have attacked U.S. targets, and Taylor gave no explanation for moving it up to the sanctions list.
"The AUC has carried out numerous acts of terrorism, including the massacre of hundreds of civilians, the forced displacement of entire villages and the kidnapping of political figures,'' Powell said in a statement issued in Washington.
State Department spokesman Phil Reeker later said the AUC was added to the list because its activity ``poses a threat to democracy . . . in Colombia and to the joint U.S.-Colombian efforts to eradicate narcotics trafficking.''
Both the FARC and ELN are already on the State Department's 31-member terrorist list. A Colombian court Monday convicted FARC commander German Briceño in absentia for the 1999 murders of three American Indian rights activists.
The AUC's designation as a terrorist group comes at a time when it has been trying to clean up its image, announcing a new political wing and more often disappearing its victims, rather than killing them in public as a lesson to others.
An AUC document posted on its website last week said the new Democratic
and National Movement would seek ``recognition'' from President Andrés
government and a seat at its peace talks with the FARC.
``We were born out of war to end war, we meet in politics to dignify politics and make peace possible,'' the document read, detailing an 11-point political agenda but not identifying any of the movement's civilian leaders.
The AUC underwent a leadership reshuffle in recent months, with longtime military commander Carlos Castaño moving over to a newly created ``political command.''
He was replaced by Salvatore Mancuso, a hard-liner who reportedly supports launching attacks on government outposts if the military and police continue an ongoing crackdown on the AUC.
Bell, fending off allegations that the military collaborates with the AUC, reported Wednesday that authorities have jailed 244 AUC members and filed charges against another 434 this year, but jailed only 53 guerrillas.