The Miami Herald
Jun. 15, 2003

Outlaw army fights on amid peace effort

Group rifts mark civil war in Colombia


  ANTIOQUIA, Colombia - As he walks down a quiet, small-town street, Rodrigo looks every bit like the leader of an outlaw paramilitary group in his camouflage uniform and black boots. A rifle is slung casually over one shoulder. A pistol is tucked under the other.

  Everybody stares because they know that this is not just another local gun-toting warlord. By disobeying orders from his commander to disarm, 38-year-old Rodrigo has managed to make himself the man every player in Colombia's labyrinthine civil war wants dead.

  ''At this moment,'' Rodrigo said, ``we are alone.''

  The disintegration of the AUC, personified by Rodrigo and his followers, illustrates both the complexity of Colombia's civil war -- factions within factions -- and the
  government's difficulty in getting a peace agreement: Even if it could be accomplished on paper, some armed combatants will continue to fight.

  Leaders of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing outlaw army, ordered their units to lay down their arms to begin discussing peace. But Rodrigo, head of the organization's Metro Bloc, refuses to go along and has branded his former mates greedy drug traffickers who only pretend to fight for an ideological cause.


  Facing an ultimatum to join the talks or else, Rodrigo and his troops have become targets for soldiers from other fronts of the AUC -- the Spanish acronym of the
  right-wing militia. As a result, the war has become even more byzantine and is likely to produce more corpses.

  Clashes between AUC factions have already taken place in Antioquia, claiming two dead and four wounded Metro Bloc members last week, Rodrigo said. Other deaths are piling up. Two other AUC factions threatened to quit the peace talks after the army killed at least a dozen members of the group a few days ago. Last month, another AUC commander denounced the army for allegedly helping rival members in Meta fight an AUC turf war.

  ''We will not lie to the country,'' said Rodrigo, who gave an interview to The Herald on the understanding that his location and surname not be revealed. ``We will not sit at the table with drug traffickers. We will not be their shields.''

  The AUC -- known as the paras, short for paramilitaries -- were formed in the early 1980s as a response to the rampant extortion, kidnapping and murders committed by leftist rebels called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC.

  The Colombian government had little presence in the countryside, so ranchers held for ransom and forced to pay bribes dealt with the FARC by paying for their own army.

  The result was a right-wing paramilitary force with more than two dozen factions that committed atrocities in a quest to root out guerrillas and their sympathizers. Outlawed in 1989, they later became mercenaries for drug traffickers trying to keep the FARC at bay.

  Twenty years later, as the AUC delves deeper and deeper into the drug trade, AUC leaders are struggling to define their organization. As the Colombian armed forces for the first time take military action against it and the FARC, the AUC is trying to determine what role it plays in Colombia's war, and its path to peace.

  ''It's sad,'' AUC leader Carlos Castaño said in a recent interview with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, adding that it is now hard to differentiate paras from dopers. "This hurts those of us who dreamed of a political movement and gave long years of our lives to an organization whose birth was forced, but whose cause was valid.''

  Elected last year with a mandate to crack down on outlaw groups, President Alvaro Uribe has promised to go after the AUC, despite the armed forces' long, not-so-secret ties to the group. Where the army had long ignored the paramilitary presence, the armed forces are increasingly going into combat against their former covert ally.

  According to the Colombian Defense Ministry, the armed forces and police killed 160 AUC soldiers and captured 1,544 others during the first eight months of Uribe's administration. During the same August to April period a year earlier, 88 AUC soldiers were killed and 703 captured.

  Paramilitaries, however, accuse the army of inflating statistics by dressing up dead peasants in para uniforms. Others say the army has simply teamed up with certain AUC factions, helping to attack dissident blocs. ''The AUC will become obsolete,'' said Joaquín Pérez, Castaño's Miami attorney. ``Their purpose was to fight the FARC. If the government is fighting the FARC, then there is no reason for the AUC to exist. From the point of view of a political group, it's harder to justify.''

  In what perhaps is the biggest blow to the AUC, the United States in September indicted Castaño for allegedly running a drug trafficking enterprise that smuggled 17 tons of cocaine in six years.

  Although Castaño has publicly resigned as head of the AUC, saying he could no longer control the drug trafficking within his organization, he appears to remain its chief.


  ''The extradition requests were the detonator that set off these divisions,'' said human rights advocate Robin Kirk, author of the book More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America's War in Colombia.

  "Castaño, trying to be holier-than-thou, is indicted by the U.S., and that sets off a crisis in the organization.''

  A month later, Uribe quietly began peace talks with the group. Skeptics of the process, like Rodrigo, say the AUC is participating in peace talks simply so its leaders can avoid extradition. In December, the AUC declared a cease-fire, but Metro Bloc refused to participate.

  ''There are groups that don't want to accept the reality,'' Pérez said, ``that the AUC has to come to terms with the Colombian government.''

  For Rodrigo, the moment is one of extreme peril. Even as he fights other AUC factions, he remains a bitter enemy of the leftist FARC and a target for the regular army, making him perhaps the man with the greatest number of armed enemies in Colombia -- an unenviable distinction in a country where the prolonged civil war claims about 3,500 lives yearly.

  Rodrigo acknowledges that Castaño is an old friend for whom he feels ''affection and loyalty.'' But he accuses his old comrade of selling out the organization to narcos who use AUC soldiers like slaves to protect routes, labs and coca fields.

  At virtual war with another AUC leader and former cartel leader known as Don Berna, Rodrigo insists that his nemesis poses a greater risk to Colombia's democracy than even the FARC.

  As he rants about the long-abandoned countryside plagued by poverty, Rodrigo admits with a smile that his rhetoric sounds suspiciously like that of the leftist guerrillas he has spent a lifetime fighting.

  ''People say I am either a left-wing AUC or a right-wing guerrilla,'' Rodrigo said. "I say we are a peasant movement of the extreme center.''