Whatever lies behind the disappearance of leader Carlos Castaño, it's clear the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia is now a drug-trafficking outfit.
BY SIBYLLA BRODZINSKY
Special to The Herald
BOGOTA - Even before an apparent assassination attempt against the figurehead and founder of Colombia's paramilitary groups, militia factions closely linked to drug trafficking had slowly begun to take over the organization in a bid to avoid extradition to the United States, analysts say.
Carlos Castaño, credited with uniting myriad antiguerrilla militia groups under the umbrella of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, has not been seen or heard from since an apparent attempt on his life April 16. Analysts and officials believe the gunmen acted on orders of rival groups of the same organization, but details of the incident remain unclear.
Already, Castaño had been isolated within the organization that he founded, apparently alone in his willingness to negotiate a demobilization of AUC forces, even face possible extradition to the United States.
When the AUC named its team to negotiate its demobilization with the government of President Alvaro Uribe on March 31, Castaño was pointedly excluded from the list.
''The assassination attempt shows just how deep the division between the doves and hawks was,'' said Sen. Samuel Moreno, a member of the congressional peace commission. ``The hawks are the ones allied with drug trafficking, and they're in control now.''
The history between paramilitaries and drug traffickers is long. Many of the first self-defense groups were funded by traffickers to keep rebels, who charged them ''taxes,'' at bay. Later, the paramilitary groups were funded by cattle ranchers and other wealthy landowners for the same purpose. In recent years, many AUC units became directly involved in the business, processing and shipping drugs to the United States and Europe, according to Colombian and U.S. officials.
But under Castaño, analysts said, the trafficking was secondary to the counterguerrilla ideology that moved the AUC to fight leftist rebels through brutal massacres, assassinations and disappearances of suspected collaborators and occasional battlefield clashes.
''Without Castaño, who gave the AUC its political ideology, what's left are the leaders whose primary interest is avoiding extradition on drug charges,'' said Mauricio Romero, an expert on Colombian paramilitary groups at Bogotá's National University.
Castaño and AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso were indicted in the United States on drug charges in 2002. Dozens of other AUC members have been named collaborators of drug kingpins by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Castaño had said he would be willing to turn himself in to U.S. authorities to defend himself against the charges and had agreed with government negotiators to deal with the problem of extradition separately from demobilization talks. He had been the driving force behind the negotiations after he declared the AUC ''no longer necessary'' because of President Uribe's tough security policies against guerrillas.
'The `narcos' have a different view. They will demobilize their mercenary armies only in exchange for a promise they will not be extradited,'' said Rodrigo Franco, a paramilitary leader whose troops were decimated last year in an internal battle with a rival AUC faction.
'The `narcos' are preparing for a battle against extradition [to the United States], and they need to have a monolithic and absolute unity within the organization,'' Franco said in an e-mail reply to a Herald query. ''Carlos [Castaño] and I were in the way. That's why they tried to eliminate us,'' said Franco, who is in hiding but believes Castaño is dead.
AUC leader Mancuso in his first statement after the Castaño incident made it clear that extradition was now the main issue in negotiations with the government.
''With respect to drug trafficking, how do we collaborate with all the information we might have . . . and in exchange for what political and legal benefits?'' he asked in an interview published by the El Colombiano newspaper. ``Who is going to give us the guarantee that the sword of Damocles of extradition will be removed?''