Bloody paramilitary's support grows
Rightist group becomes a major force in Colombian war
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
BOGOTA, Colombia -- They are Colombia's worst killers, right-wing paramilitary gunmen who regularly massacre villagers suspected of aiding leftist guerrillas, often in public executions to terrorize their audiences.
Their cold-blooded carnage, which has drawn U.S. warnings that
aid to Bogotá will be at risk unless the government cracks down
on them, has repeatedly disrupted
government peace contacts with two leftist rebel groups.
Yet the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, are also the country's fastest-growing armed group, financed by drug traffickers and wealthy landowners but increasingly supported by middle-class Colombians angry over the armed forces' failure to protect them from guerrilla depredations.
"If the state cannot stop the guerrilla kidnappings, extortions and murders, pragmatic people will look to the AUC as their saviors,'' said Fernando Vargas, a lawyer who has defended several accused AUC members.
Founded in 1981 to defend cattle ranchers, the paramilitaries have now blossomed into a key player in Colombia's decades-old war -- an independent army, heavily armed and determined to drive rebels out of their redoubts by blood and bullets.
Human rights organizations blame the "paras'' for 50 to 70 percent of the estimated 3,600 political murders that occur in Colombia each year, more than any other group.
Their brutal but effective actions have put U.S. government officials in a quandary, with some pushing President Andrés Pastrana to suppress the AUC by all means even as others urge him to negotiate with it.
"The issue that most worries [the U.S. government] is the paramilitaries.
They are terrified of how the phenomenon is growing,'' said Colombia's
Washington, Luis Alberto Moreno.
"I don't see any formula that can work . . . without negotiating
with the paramilitaries,'' said Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary
of state for western hemisphere
affairs. "Sooner or later, it must be done.''
The paramilitaries' growth has been explosive: From 850 fighters in 1992, the AUC now has 8,000, making it Colombia's second largest illegal armed group behind the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and ahead of the 3,500-member National Liberation Army, or ELN.
With its growth came more AUC killings of unarmed civilians -- from 30 in 1997 to 640 last year, according to a lengthy Defense Ministry report on the paramilitaries issued in December. Human rights groups say last year's AUC toll was far higher, closer to 1,000.
Its fighters now operate in 26 of the country's 32 states, and in the past year wrested control of two major coca-producing regions from the FARC and ELN -- Putumayo in the south and Catatumbo in the north -- with massacres, selective assassinations and, increasingly, set-piece battles.
"We run Putumayo, not the army, not the FARC,'' boasted Enrique, pseudonym for the head of the AUC's 800-man Southern Bloc, financed by the same "taxes'' on local cocaine traffickers once collected by the FARC.
The drug money has allowed the AUC to hire scores of discharged army veterans and even FARC and ELN defectors enticed by the $200-a-month salary for new recruits, Enrique said.
Active cooperation between the military and AUC has been reported in many regions, especially those contested by the paramilitaries and rebels, according to U.S. and Colombian human rights groups that follow the issue.
"In some barracks there are sympathies for the 'paras,' but in
others there are officers who hate them, so you can't say there's an institutional
link between army and
paras,'' retired Army Gen. Jorge Salcedo said.
Said one army major in Putumayo: "If I have only one bullet, don't you think I will use it on the guerrilla who's shooting at me, rather than on the guy who's also shooting at the guerrilla?''
Today, the AUC is on the march, pushing into the southwestern state of Cauca, home to large opium poppy fields, and vowing to move in force soon into Bogotá to attack rebel supply lines and political supporters.
Perhaps more important, they have gained increasing backing from Colombians frustrated with the rising guerrilla violence and lack of progress in Pastrana's 2-year-old peace negotiations with the FARC.
"A significant number of Colombians are betting on the paramilitaries as an alternative in the face of the intransigence and fear imposed by the guerrillas,'' said a recent editorial in the daily El Tiempo.
"The 'paras' are the only ones fighting those thugs,'' said taxi driver Gerardo Anzoítegui, indignantly waving a newspaper report that the National Police has no presence at all in 200 of Colombia's 1,096 municipalities
The Colombian military, with 146,000 troops in a country seven times the size of Florida, has 0.13 soldiers per square kilometer, compared to El Salvador's 2.37 soldiers -- 18 times more -- at the end of its civil war in 1991.
But it's the AUC's ruthlessness, not its numbers, that makes its fighters so effective.
"They kill two, three people on a list of suspected guerrillas and they know they control the rest through fear. It is well-thought-out terrorism,'' Salcedo said.
AUC leader Carlos Castaño denies the massacres -- he prefers to call them "multiple military targets'' -- are indiscriminate.
"These are guerrillas without uniforms,'' he said.
But human rights groups say the AUC goes after anyone even faintly
suspect -- human rights workers, labor activists, journalists, municipal
officials in guerrilla areas,
even shopkeepers who sell to the rebels.
The paramilitaries were founded in 1981 by cattle ranchers and army officers in the Middle Magdalena Valley in northcentral Colombia, to counter FARC units then moving into the area, kidnapping ranchers or forcing them to pay fat protection fees known as vacunas, or vaccines.
Castaño and his older brother Fidel, now dead, organized one of the earliest units, Death to Kidnappers, after the FARC kidnapped and killed their father.
By 1986, the paramilitaries had killed at least 1,000 peasants in the Middle Magdalena, but FARC kidnappings had fallen from hundreds to a handful a year and the rebel columns had largely retreated from the region, Salcedo recalled.
But then the coca boom hit Colombia, and drug lords began providing the paramilitaries with assault rifles and radios to protect their operations and drive peasants off lands they wanted for coca plantations.
"That's when they began turning into the totally destabilizing elements they are today, and for three reasons -- the state's failure to provide security, the narco-money and the growing FARC abuses,'' Salcedo said.
Castaño, who unified the dozens of small units into the
AUC in 1997, has admitted that 70 percent of that AUC's finances now come
from ``taxes'' paid by narcotics
traffickers, but denied any direct AUC involvement in cocaine or heroin processing.
DEA chief Donnie R. Marshall told Congress last month, however,
that the AUC "appears to be directly involved in processing cocaine, [and]
at least one of these
paramilitary groups appears to be involved in exporting cocaine.''
Pastrana has tried to crack down on the AUC, creating a special brigade of accountants to go after their finances last year and reviving a long-dormant multiagency Center for the Fight Against Self-Defense Forces.
His government fired five army generals suspected of links to the paramilitaries, and a civilian court earlier this year convicted a colonel of failing to stop an AUC massacre of some 30 people in 1997.
But that has not stopped Castaño from morphing himself from a criminal -- with a $500,000 reward on his head and 20 arrest warrants against him -- into a political force to be reckoned with.
He has blocked Pastrana's attempts to give the ELN control of
a patch of territory in the Middle Magdalena as a site for peace talks,
and repeatedly attacked the
president's 1998 decision to give the FARC a far larger territory in the south.