Cocaine Trade Causes Rifts in Colombian War
Paramilitary Discord Imperils Anti-Drug Plan, Peace Efforts
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
IN THE ABIBE MOUNTAINS, Colombia -- Drug trafficking has fractured Colombia's
paramilitary army into a collection of potent regional factions that disagree
over whether the financial benefit of protecting the country's vast cocaine trade outweighs the political costs and internal corruption it has brought the group.
The split within the 15,000-member private army -- a leading player
in Colombia's brutal civil war that derives a large portion of its financing
from this country's drug
trade -- significantly complicates President Alvaro Uribe's search for peace by adding at least one other armed group to a conflict that already features three irregular
forces. It could also spell trouble for the U.S. anti-drug strategy here, particularly the aerial herbicide-spraying program that tacitly relies on paramilitary support in
key coca-producing regions.
The group's fracturing appears similar to what occurred here in the
early 1990s when U.S. and Colombian authorities dismantled the country's
two large cocaine
cartels. Hundreds of smaller drug-smuggling operations that were more difficult to identify instantly emerged in their place, sending cocaine production soaring and
giving the guerrilla and paramilitary forces a wider role in the trade. Now the paramilitary group, better armed than those cartels and with deep ties to the state itself,
appears to be splintering in the same way.
In an extraordinary meeting Sept. 5 in this mountain range in northern
Colombia, top commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia,
or AUC as the
paramilitary umbrella organization is known, gathered to close gaps that have emerged recently in their ranks over kidnapping and drug trafficking by their members.
But they were only partially successful, and the once-solid federation of regional paramilitary armies remains under intense strain.
The group's most charismatic and powerful leader, Carlos Castaño,
withdrew his own regional forces from the national organization two months
ago after he
discovered that a drug-and-kidnapping ring run by ex-police officials within the AUC had been responsible for the July 2000 kidnapping of a prominent Venezuelan
businessman. A second major faction, the Central Bolivar Bloc, had also split from the group after ignoring Castaño's orders to abandon drug ties.
Colombia's drug trade supplies 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches
the United States, and much of the financial fuel for a civil conflict
that began decades ago as a
political struggle and last year claimed 3,500 lives.
The war pits the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the
smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) -- two 38-year-old guerrilla movements
fighting to replace the government with a Marxist state -- against the AUC, which regards itself as an ally of the Colombian government and its U.S. patrons. The
AUC provides well-equipped combat troops in areas where the thinly stretched Colombian army cannot maintain a presence.
Castaño, who has endorsed the U.S. anti-drug strategy here even
though his group profits from the trade, said in an interview that reunifying
the AUC is imperative
to ensure that internal differences do not provide a military opening for the FARC. But while the summit managed to rejoin several of the group's military elements, it
also formalized a split within the organization that will leave Colombia's two largest coca-producing regions in the hands of paramilitary commanders whose
commitment to the Uribe government and U.S. anti-drug policy is unclear.
"The internal divisions are not a matter of our fast growth, but of
the penetration of narco-trafficking that managed to corrupt and buy some
of our regional
commanders," Castaño said between meetings with AUC leaders under a thatched pavilion here 300 miles north of the capital, Bogota. "We are reforming and
restructuring the organization. Of course, this leads to crisis. But we are coping very well with it, and instead of growing in number, we are waiting until we have a
way of maintaining our people with resources that do not come from narco-trafficking."
The meeting, held over five days in this lush mountain range amid rings
of paramilitary security forces, came as the Justice Department considers
whether to indict
Castaño on drug-trafficking charges and seek his extradition to the United States for trial. Castaño offered to turn himself over to U.S. officials earlier this year along
with 15 of the country's largest drug traffickers. But the offer attracted little interest from the United States, mostly because the AUC is classified as a foreign terrorist
organization, making such contacts politically unfeasible.
The Justice Department has already obtained indictments against several
FARC leaders on drug-trafficking charges, although none is a member of
directorate. The indictments and extradition requests are largely symbolic, because none of the guerrilla or paramilitary leaders is under arrest or is likely to be
captured anytime soon in a loosely governed country twice the size of France. FARC and AUC leaders have acknowledged collecting taxes from coca growers, but
have denied facilitating the export of cocaine from Colombia.
In the interview, Castaño reiterated his willingness to turn
himself over to U.S. officials if indicted, saying that although it would
be "unfair," he would "go and face the
U.S. justice system with only one condition: that they allow my family to live there, because if I leave them here they will be killed." Later in the interview, however,
he suggested that he would not leave Colombia until the war was over.
The paramilitary split has significant implications for the two-year-old
U.S. anti-drug strategy known as Plan Colombia, given how the policy has
unfolded so far. The
$1.3 billion mostly military aid package was designed to target the drug trade as a way of depriving the armed groups of their chief funding source. A rule change
approved recently by Congress allows the anti-drug aid to be used directly against the guerrillas and paramilitary forces, not just the drug crops and labs they
The U.S. strategy seeks to discourage small farmers from producing coca
by paying them to grow legal crops, while spraying herbicide on the land
of those who
refuse to do so. The "alternative development" portion of the program has proved ineffective in the security vacuum existing in much of the country, so the
controversial herbicide spraying has become even more important. U.S. plans call for 300,000 acres of drug crops to be sprayed this year, up 30 percent from last
As a rule, the FARC has fired on the herbicide-spraying planes in areas
it controls. But paramilitary forces, which in the past year have driven
the FARC from many
of the southern coca fields where Plan Colombia has been most intensive, have allowed the spraying as part of Castaño's effort to ally himself with U.S. interests.
Now, though, the Central Bolivar Bloc, the paramilitary force that has
split from the AUC, controls the coca fields in the southern Bolivar province
and in Putumayo
province, where the U.S. anti-drug strategy has been concentrated. Those two regions -- the top coca-producing areas in the country -- generate millions of dollars
a month for the group. An adviser to Castaño described some of the breakaway group's middle management as "very narco," suggesting that they may no longer
allow planes to spray their crops.
"We've seen what, from the outside, looks like the political disintegration
of the AUC over its drug-producing and other activities carried out by
groups," said a Bush administration official. "It's still a foreign terrorist organization, a drug-producing organization, and whether it does a little or a lot, it's not going
to change our view."
The summit offered a rare look at how the group is struggling to forge
a political identity in order to begin peace talks with the new Uribe administration
perhaps, give Castaño and his fellow AUC leaders a chance at amnesty. In doing so, Castaño has jettisoned a large part of the organization, reducing his own forces
from 15,000 to 10,500 armed members and setting a course for much slower growth.
Much of the AUC's current troubles can be explained by the importance
it has placed on drug trafficking to finance what has been its rapid expansion
years. Fed by increasing middle- and upper-class anxiety over the course of the war, the AUC's tripling in size over the past three years has weakened Castaño's
hold over the group, spurred human rights abuses and likely made his past pledge to disarm members once peace is achieved an unrealistic one.
Those troubles were on display at the summit. Although 15 regional commanders
and the group's three national leaders signed an accord reunifying the
2,500-member Central Bolivar Bloc refused to do so. Salvatore Mancuso, the AUC's top military commander, labeled bloc members "dissidents" during an
interview and said they "must stop using the name if they continue with narco-trafficking activity."
But the agreement does not commit what remains of the AUC to ending
its drug ties. It limits the group to "collecting a tax on coca producers
in zones where it is the
predominant economy," a caveat criticized by a representative of the Catholic Church who attended the summit to begin what Castaño hopes will become a formal
peace process with the government. Castaño said severing all drug ties would put the group at a severe disadvantage with the FARC, which imposes taxes on areas
The AUC will continue levying taxes in rich coca-producing areas in
Meta and Norte de Santander provinces, as well as Arauca province, along
the eastern border
with Venezuela, which has emerged as a new center of the drug trade. But Mancuso said the AUC will no longer allow drug traffickers to use the paramilitary group
as protection for its cocaine shipments, a trend that he said had put big money into the hands of regional commanders and helped fracture the group.
In addition to losing 2,500 troops to the breakaway Central Bolivar
Bloc, the remaining AUC will demobilize 2,000 of its members as part of
a cost-cutting plan that
includes teaching troops to be thriftier with ammunition, reducing monthly salaries and recruiting fewer new members.
Mancuso, a former cattle rancher from the northern province of Cordoba,
said the AUC costs $4.5 million a month to run. But he said he does not
plan to raise the
monthly fees that ranchers and other business interests pay the AUC for protection.
"We are going to have to maintain the number of members we have at the moment, growing really slowly and only in the regions where it is necessary," he said.