Rightist Forces Seize Key Area In Colombia
Takeover of Rebel-Held Land Thwarts Pastrana Peace Plan
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
LOMAS DE HUEVOS, Colombia
In several weeks of fierce combat, Colombia's right-wing paramilitary
forces have seized control of a 1,500-square-mile region that President
Andres Pastrana had
planned to cede to the country's second-largest guerrilla group in an effort to foster peace negotiations.
More than 1,000 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
(AUC), as the paramilitary group is known, now occupy the rolling, Rhode
of land between the Magdalena River and the San Lucas Mountains about 190 miles north of Bogota, the capital. The group's commanders say they have no intention of
allowing the government to turn the area over to the National Liberation Army (ELN), the leftist militia they have been fighting here for weeks and have vowed to pursue
until its surrender.
Pastrana must now decide whether to send the Colombian army back to
drive out AUC forces and salvage his peace plan. If ordered back into the
area, however, the
Colombian military would confront a paramilitary group that many within the armed forces consider an ally in a war against the leftist insurgency. Such an order would
test the army's willingness to take on the AUC at a time when senior officers are openly criticizing Pastrana's ardent if unsuccessful peace efforts.
Soon after his election in 1998, Pastrana turned over a much larger
but less strategic patch of southern territory to Colombia's largest leftist
guerrilla group, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to foster peace talks. Those talks have yielded nothing, however, and military officials say the 18,000-member
insurgency has used the zone to increase drug crop cultivation to raise fresh revenue, hide kidnap victims and stage military strikes.
So when Pastrana withdrew 3,000 soldiers last month from this northern
zone, the paramilitary commander, Carlos Castano, sent in his men to replace
them, driving the
ELN back to the foothills of the San Lucas range, where the rebels have held sway for decades.
Here on a green hilltop in the proposed demilitarized zone, the AUC's
resolve to stay is evident. An advance camp -- about 50 AUC fighters equipped
with small arms,
.50-caliber machine guns and sophisticated radios -- stops traffic trying to pass into the zone's northern villages, which they are purging of ELN troops. A recent tour of
the area revealed that the AUC controls every village in the zone.
"The area that was being discussed for these talks has been completely
retaken by the AUC," said Commander "Peruano," the paramilitary operations
chief for the
campaign in southern Bolivar province. "We're awaiting an attack by the government, but so far nothing. We don't want to fight against them because we are not against
them. The problem is they have not listened to these communities."
Elected on a promise to bring Colombia peace, Pastrana is juggling complex
negotiations with two guerrilla armies as his four-year term runs out.
The president has said
the only solution to Colombia's conflict, fueled by profits from its vibrant drug trade, will be found at the peace table. But his quest has lost significant public support. This
is especially true among hard-line elements within the military, business groups and the government, who have accused the president of giving too much away to the
leftist rebel groups.
"We know that the FARC grow coca, that they deal with chemical precursors,
they own drug laboratories and airstrips, that no drug trafficker operates
permission and that they sell to international cocaine cartels," said the army commander, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, in a rare news conference this month. "All this has
The statement represented a challenge to Pastrana to end negotiations
with the FARC, since he has vowed not to talk with known drug dealers,
even as he tries to begin
formal talks with the ELN.
But many diplomats here say they believe that the Cuban-trained ELN,
far weaker militarily but more politically minded than the FARC, is more
inclined to seek a
negotiated peace. Such a deal would give Pastrana a significant victory -- and proof that negotiations can work -- before his term expires next year.
In what was viewed as a pointed response to Mora's position, Pastrana defended his peace policies this week and reaffirmed his place as commander in chief.
"As your commander, I expect before anything else your utmost loyalty
toward this country and toward our democracy," Pastrana said in a speech
at a Bogota military
academy attended by senior officers. "I want to reaffirm a basic principle: The fight we wage against these [paramilitary] groups we do out of democratic conviction and
the respect we feel for our troops."
The $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia mostly benefits the military
as it targets Colombia's drug trade, which accounts for as much as 90 percent
of the world's
cocaine. Without the revenue from that business, Pastrana contends, the FARC and ELN would be more likely to seek peace. The AUC also benefits from the drug
trade, especially here in southern Bolivar province, where the group has seized coca crops once controlled by the ELN and acts as the sole buyer of coca produced in the
According to Western diplomats and AUC leaders, the ELN helped many
farmers start coca operations here with loans of $2,500. Under these agreements,
acted as the sole buyer of the processed coca, known as "base," produced on the farms. The guerrillas then sold the base, which was further processed into cocaine, to
drug cartels operating in the region.
When AUC forces entered the zone this year, they told farmers they would
not have to repay the $2,500 loans, buying a measure of instant support.
say this helps explain much of the public resistance to an ELN demilitarized zone, including a recent protest that bottled up regional roads for days, even though the plan
calls for international observers to monitor the zone for human rights abuses. Much of the 45,000 acres of coca has since been fumigated by government planes, turning
many local farmers against the government position and draining villages of revenue.
Heeding calls from ELN leaders to re-secure the area, Pastrana has begun
sending a limited number of troops back into the zone's two largest towns,
San Pablo and
Cantagallo, where street patrols have resumed.
So far, though, other towns remain in AUC hands. A small coca farmer
in Pozo Azul said he had not seen any evidence of the army in the one-street
town for almost
three weeks, saying that the AUC had assumed command in its place.
"One leaves and the other enters," said the 35-year-old farmer. "I don't know if the army helps the AUC or hurts them. All I know is I have never seen them fight."
In a rare ELN military victory this month, guerrillas ambushed a Toyota
Land Cruiser carrying 14 AUC fighters as it left Pozo Azul around lunchtime.
The waist-deep pit
caused by the explosion still contained burned AUC armbands, a bloody boot and scraps of uniform. But Commander Peruano said the ambush, which killed everyone in
the vehicle, was only a small setback in a larger campaign now moving west toward the San Lucas range.
"They are very weak militarily, but they maintain some strength through
this political process," said Peruano, a 12-year AUC veteran. "They have
no way to take this
zone back now. And we intend to pursue them until the end."