The Miami Herald
October 17, 2001

Forces killed 24 to get Colombian government's notice

Paramilitary group wants a say in building a new democracy

 Herald World Staff

 BOGOTA, Colombia -- When right-wing paramilitary forces swept into a village last week in central Colombia and indiscriminately shot to death 24 people, the outside world called it a massacre. Colombians read it as a brutal message: The right wing wants recognition and a seat at the political table.

 The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym AUC, said Monday that it carried out the killings on Oct. 11 in Buga, an area generally controlled by Marxist rebels. The slayings came three days after Colombian President Andrés Pastrana announced he would extend until Jan. 20 sputtering peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a Marxist rebel group.

 The paramilitary group said this week on its website that the government should ``recognize the AUC as a legitimate political force and have it participate with them in constructing a new democracy.''

 On Monday, the AUC announced it was behind the murders last week of two congressmen it said were soft on Marxist rebels, and ``warned'' five others.

 The growing strength of the AUC, and its willingness to shed blood to make a point, are complicating the fragile peace effort in Colombia. The country has received more than $1.3 billion in mostly U.S. military aid during the past two years, but insurgencies on both the left and right are weakening the Colombian government and
 jeopardizing its ability to carry out U.S.-sponsored counternarcotics efforts.

 The AUC has grown in recent years from a group of thugs hired to protect ranching and other business interests into a paramilitary group, 8,000-strong, even more violent than the leftist rebels.

 This month, Alberto Pinzón, part of a special Committee of Notables trying to offer peace solutions, fled Colombia saying he received death threats from AUC leader Carlos Castaño.

 ``The great majority of massacres and killings are committed by the paramilitaries. There is a pattern of gross human rights violations, on many occasions with direct
 cooperation from the armed forces,'' said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

 The United States has responded to the growing paramilitary threat by placing the AUC on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Secretary of State Colin Powell made that designation on Sept. 10, citing 75 AUC massacres last year.

 In a report this month, Human Rights Watch documented how three Colombian army brigades have close ties with AUC paramilitaries. One of those brigades is in the Putumayo district where the United States is working with Colombia's armed forces on aerial fumigation of coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is made. Colombia is the world's largest cocaine manufacturer.

 Pastrana has called for a crackdown on paramilitaries. But some Colombians -- fed up with a four-decade-long war with Marxist guerrillas that has inched ever closer to the capital of Bogotá -- welcome the paramilitaries as a group willing to do the army's bidding.

 To qualify for U.S. aid, the Colombian military must respect human rights in its fight against Marxist rebels, who are bound by no such pledge.

 In a country of crumbling institutions and powerful drug traffickers, controlling the paramilitaries increasingly has been a losing battle.

 Money talks in the violent Colombian countryside and paramilitaries are on the side of money, said Mauricio Romero, a political scientist.

 ``Some mayors and governors give political support to the paramilitaries because the paramilitaries are very closely tied to the drug traffickers and the drug traffickers are very powerful in these regions,'' he said.

 ``They are the ones who have money in a time of economic crisis like the one we are living through in Colombia. They have money, they make investments, they generate jobs and pay for security.''

                                    © 2001