The Miami Herald
March 30, 2001

 Paramilitary offers to turn over drug lords

 Colombian rightist force seeks recognition from Washington


 BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's rightist paramilitary force, officially condemned by the U.S. government, has offered to broker the surrender of ``important'' drug lords to U.S. justice in hopes of winning the opportunity to present its case in Washington.

 The group said it wanted to "open doors'' in Washington now closed because of its killings of alleged leftist guerrilla sympathizers.

 Carlos Castaño, head of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, explained the proposal in a March 9 e-mail to Miami criminal attorney Joaquín Pérez, who has represented Colombians wanted in the U.S. on drug charges.

 ``I believe many narcos are willing to take part in this message of intention to submit to the gringos,'' Castaño wrote Pérez. ``My hope is that the State Department will answer this noble project.''

 As improbable as the offer may appear, Castaño underlined its seriousness by sending a top aide to Miami shortly after his e-mail to discuss its details with Pérez.

 The offer poses a dilemma for U.S. officials because the AUC has grown into a key player in Colombia's war, with 8,000 fighters and rising support among Colombians who see it as a legitimate actor battling leftist rebels.

 U.S. officials can reject any contact with the AUC and lose the chance to bring Colombian drug traffickers to justice, or they can cut a deal that could land the narcotics kingpins in U.S. jails but lend a measure of legitimacy to the paramilitaries.

 The annual State Department Human Rights Report on Colombia, issued last month, described the AUC as ``a mercenary vigilante force, financed by criminal activities and sectors of society that are targeted by guerrillas. Although some paramilitary groups reflect rural residents' desire to organize solely for self-defense, most are vigilante organizations . . .''

 Human rights groups blame the AUC for at least half of the 3,600 political killings that took place in Colombia last year.

 U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment on the AUC offer. But a Congressional aide contacted by Castaño envoys last year said it would be difficult for Washington to make public contact with the AUC.

 "The paramilitaries have a lot of good reasons on their side, but massacres are not the way to make friends in Washington,'' the aide said.

 Castaño could not be contacted for comment.

 But a member of the AUC's Central Command who uses the code name of Diego discussed the offer during an interview this week in northern Colombia.

 Diego said Castaño is already in contact with ``numerous and important'' drug lords wanted in the United States who want to come out of hiding, submit themselves to U.S. justice and get on with their lives.

 For other drug lords, he added, ``our message will be that either they submit to U.S. justice or the military side of the conflict will reach them -- not the [Colombian]
 government, which is too corrupt, or the guerrillas, who profit from the drugs, but us, the AUC.''

 The narcotraffickers' legal cases are now spread across many of the 94 U.S. district courts, and a coordinated deal with American prosecutors would make it easier for drug lords to consider surrendering, said Joaquín Pérez.

 Diego acknowledged the AUC was making the offer public ``to awaken interest in Washington.'' The AUC, he added, ``wants this to open doors in Washington, so that our version of this situation can be heard.''

 With Colombian President Andrés Pastrana refusing steadfastly to open official talks with the AUC, Diego said, ``if Pastrana refuses to recognize us, at least we want other governments to take notice of our positions.''

 But Diego added that the real purpose behind the AUC's proposal was to attack Colombia's narcotics industry, ``the worst scourge in this country and the central axis and detonator of our conflict.''

 By getting rid of drug traffickers, he added, the AUC will undercut leftist guerrillas -- the 17,000-member FARC and 3,500-member National Liberation Army, or ELN -- who earn an estimated $500 million a year by ``taxing'' the cocaine and heroin trade.

 Castaño has admitted the AUC receives 70 percent of its finances from drug traffickers, but insisted that is a necessity imposed by the war which he would surrender whenever the fighting ends.

 Negotiations with Washington would be carried out by the drug traffickers' lawyers, not the AUC, ``although we hope the Americans would want to receive a messenger from us to discuss the issue,'' said Diego.

 Castaño is no stranger to alliances with U.S. interests, having helped Colombian police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to track down Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, killed in 1993.

 He has been a strong supporter of the $1.3 billion in U.S. counter-narcotics aid to Colombia, even ordering his troops not to shoot at U.S.-owned crop dusters spraying herbicides on coca fields.

                                    © 2001