General: Colombia forces are threat
BY JARED KOTLER
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America warned that the rise of right-wing paramilitary forces threatens democracy in Colombia.
But Marine Gen. Peter Pace of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command said Thursday that Colombia's civilian and military leaders have ``the will and the plans to deal with'' the paramilitary threat.
Addressing reporters in Bogotá after meeting with armed
forces chiefs, Pace said he was also concerned about leftist guerrillas
and drug traffickers helping to finance a 37-year war. But given the paramilitaries'
current growth rates, Pace predicted that ``over time they will gain a
strength [that] will be very, very detrimental to your
The visit comes as U.S. military aid to Colombia escalates, under a $1.3 billion aid package providing combat helicopters and training for counternarcotics troops. Critics say the aid package draws Washington into a dangerously close alliance with Colombia's military, which human rights groups accuse of collusion with the paramilitaries. The rightist United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, is waging a campaign of massacres against suspected leftists that has killed thousands in recent years.
Backed by drug traffickers and landowners fed up with guerrilla kidnappings and extortion, the AUC has grown from only a few hundred fighters to more than 8,000 today, according to official figures.
Despite its outlaw methods, the group has gained some political
support here and become a thorn in President Andrés Pastrana's efforts
to hold peace talks with two
leftist rebel factions. Much-publicized government crackdowns on the AUC have proven ineffective due to continued collaboration between the military and the rightist militias, human rights organizations contend.