Paramilitary Army Seeks Political Role in Colombia
AUC Wants Recognition, Vows 'More Civilized' Fight
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday Page A28
APARTADO, Colombia -- Colombia's fast-growing paramilitary army has
begun a push for political recognition and a role in peace talks designed
to end the
country's decades-old civil war.
The obstacles standing between the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
(AUC) and its political goals are significant, perhaps insurmountable.
right-wing group, which combats a leftist rebellion in tandem with the army, has recently reorganized itself around a political agenda and pledged to respect
international human rights standards it has long ignored.
None of these moves prevented Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from
designating the group a terrorist organization earlier this month. But
many diplomats here
privately agree with senior AUC leaders who say that, as an increasingly powerful player in Colombia's four-sided civil conflict, the paramilitary army is destined to
become a legitimate party in the country's peace process.
In a recent interview in this paramilitary stronghold 280 miles northwest
of the capital, Bogota, a senior AUC leader characterized the new tack
as a way "to
continue the war but in a more civilized way." He acknowledged that reforms designed to hold regional paramilitary commanders more responsible for civilian deaths
were designed in part to convince foreign governments that the AUC is ready to become a more responsible player in peace efforts. The group even tried to hire a
Washington lobbying firm to carry its cause to Congress and the State Department, although the idea was dropped when the cost was estimated at $100,000 a
"We believe there have been enough deaths," said the AUC leader, a member
of the group's ruling directorate known inside the organization as "Samuel."
"In a war,
deaths are inevitable. But we are trying as best we can to avoid them as much as possible. A negotiated peace is our objective."
Coalescing from a ragtag collection of armed groups formed to protect
drug dealers and rich farmers from the leftist guerrillas, the AUC has
emerged as a national
military presence that its leaders say exercises some influence in as much as 40 percent of the country. The group's enemies are two Marxist-oriented rebel armies --
the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the more powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- that emerged in the 1960s to overthrow the
The Colombian military is also charged with fighting the AUC. But the
two groups share a common enemy in the guerrillas and in many regions appear
to work hand
in glove to fight them. Samuel said 20 percent of the paramilitary group's members are former members of the Colombian military.
The AUC's tactics have drawn sharp criticism from international human
rights groups, foreign governments and President Andres Pastrana as he
negotiations with the FARC, which enjoys political recognition. Colombian authorities say the AUC killed almost 1,000 civilians last year, most of them in massacres
designed to deprive the guerrillas of rural support.
Pastrana has shown little inclination to recognize the AUC, which would
give the group's leaders a more central place in the peace process and,
as important to
paramilitary leaders, a chance at amnesty. Increasingly, however, the presidential candidates running to replace Pastrana next year have signaled that a new, more
inclusive approach may be needed.
That reassessment has been prompted by the AUC's dramatic growth over
the past year, rooted partly in rising lower- and middle-class support
after four decades
of civil war. Samuel said paramilitary ranks have swelled from 8,000 to 14,000 armed members over the past year. Another 2,000 civilian supporters provide
intelligence, financing and other support, he said, adding that "this growth is not good for us or for the state" because it has led to a corresponding surge in human
Those figures may be high, but some analysts here say they are not implausible.
Samuel said the AUC now costs $40 million a month to operate, admitting
large source of its financing comes from ties to the drug trade in northern Bolivar province and in southern Putumayo province, where the U.S.-backed anti-drug
strategy known as Plan Colombia is underway. The FARC also profits enormously from the drug trade.
"One thing we will have to take into account if we achieve political
recognition is what to do about the criminals within our organization,"
Samuel said. "We will
handle that on a case-by-case base. But right now we need anyone willing to fight and the money to pay for it."
The AUC's internal changes followed a wave of particularly large paramilitary
massacres this year. The AUC's leader, Carlos Castano, threatened to leave
commanders agreed to a reorganization that would make regional military fronts responsible for their own actions.
As its most visible and charismatic face, Castano has borne the brunt
of the blame for AUC actions. The son of a farmer killed by the FARC, Castano
numerous arrest warrants, including one for his role in a January massacre that left 26 civilians dead in the northern village of Chengue.
The reorganization made Castano the political leader of the AUC and
placed more military authority -- as well as responsibility -- in the hands
commanders. Castano retained the military leadership of the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba, a paramilitary army that operates here in the vast
banana fields of the country's northwest. But he sees his new role as something like that of Gerry Adams, head of the Irish Republican Army's political arm, Sinn
"It was impossible to have a military group of this size under the direction
of one person," said Samuel, who serves as Castano's political adviser.
He said that
although the roughly 10 regional commanders who make up the AUC's ruling directorate accepted the restructuring, a deep divide still exists.
A hard-line wing, headed by a rancher from Cordoba province named Salvatore
Mancuso who runs the AUC's northern bloc and now serves as its military
commander in chief, favors continuing attacks on civilians identified as guerrilla supporters. Another faction believes that the massacres must stop in order to achieve
political recognition, the best way to end what Samuel calls "this absurd war."
So far, though, the restructuring has shown little sign of reducing
violence. After weeks of relatively few AUC attacks on civilian populations,
11 farmers were killed
Saturday in the town of Frias in the central province of Tolima. The attack has been attributed to the AUC, which left graffiti on many of the town's buildings.
"Militarily, the massacres are highly effective," Samuel said. "Politically, they are fatal."
Castano recently pledged to adhere to international human rights standards
as commander of the front he still controls. Under the new organization,
commanders must answer for civilian massacres before the AUC's ruling directorate, which can then ask for a resignation or demand "more severe punishment." It
can also endorse the action.
To carry the AUC's push for recognition, Castano this month launched
the National and Democratic Movement, a quasi-political party that Samuel
said will begin
trying to elect mayors, municipal council members and governors in regions where the AUC is strong. Help will consist of endorsements and AUC money when the
group believes it can make a difference.
The movement will remain largely clandestine, unless AUC leaders gain
political recognition. Samuel said the AUC's political philosophy endorses
the country's unevenly disbursed wealth through a more efficient tax system, more money to stimulate the rural economy and more public investment in education.
Here in Uraba, a region valued for its vast banana orchards and strategic
position near the Panamanian border, the AUC's political project has been
enthusiasm. Three years ago, the AUC concluded a campaign of massacres and forced displacement here that uprooted a decades-old guerrilla presence.
Now the cattle ranches and banana farms are inhabitable again with the
end of guerrilla kidnappings, and vast overgrown pastures are slowly being
into shape after years of abandonment during guerrilla reign. Meanwhile, just over nearby mountains covered in a thick curtain of haze, the FARC is waging a pitched
battle against paramilitary forces to retake Uraba.
"Without them [the AUC], the guerrillas would be back within two hours,"
said Gonzalo Echeverri, a 59-year-old cattle rancher whose 300-acre farm
abandoned throughout much of the 1990s. "They are heroes here, people of glory. I will help them in any way I can."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company