Forwarded from Anthony (commentary on NY Times article)
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed Dec 6 09:12:29 MST 2000
I am forwarding to you an article from the NYT "Rightist Squads in Colombia
Beating the Rebels" by Juan Forero.
Here are my comments.
The complete article is - despite some exaggeration, errors and political
spin - basically accurate.
Its fundamental error is to exaggerate the real importance of the AUC. But
the truth is, that the AUCs importance is rapidly growing.
The AUC is trying to become "an army of combat ready fighters that is
directly engaging guerrillas and winning swaths of territory."
It is doing so by recruiting officers cashiered from the regular army for
human rights violations. Some of these officers have been interviewed on
television here. And the AUC is actively recruiting retired soldiers, many
of whom are in their late 30s (having joined the army as teenagers.)
However, the AUC is not yet, and may never be, any sort of real combat army.
Until now it has fought few open battles with the FARC, and has lost most
of those. It has fought more with the ELN, but has not had great successes
The AUC could become a cover for unofficial offensive actions by the
regular army however. This might be important if the government launches an
offensive while trying to continue the peace process.
The timing of the article, two days before the government decree setting
aside the despeje (demilitarized zone) for the FARC is scheduled to expire,
is significant. (Despite widespread newspaper reports that Pastrana would
extend the despeje for another six months, todays papers say he is
considering an extension for only one month.)
The AUC already serves the role of cover for army actions in its real
capacity as organizer of death squads.
The article contains this statistic: 512 unarmed civilians killed by the
paramilitaries in the last year, 120 killed by guerrillas.
The fact that the AUC has even dared to try to fight in the open field is a
real and important change in the civil war here. The AUC has become in
effect the army of a sector of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Its role is to
give that sector a lever to move the policy of the whole ruling class in
The article talks about tightening its control of Antioquia, Bolivar, and
Cordoba. It is true that the AUC has increased its power in the countryside
in these regions, but it is not true at all that it controls them. It
controls the banana country because the AUC is the paid private security
force of the banana growers. It is extending its control into the new coca
growing regions in the valley of the Magdalena, through the organization of
Still however, both the ELN and the FARC have important presences in all
three of these departments.
The AUCs presence in the capital of Antioguia, Medellin (second largest
city of the country with about 2 million people, and an industrial center)
is limited to a few oligarchic politicians, and several important street
gangs. According to most reports the street gangs of Medellin bargain with
the ELN, FARC, and AUC for the formation of alliances, but remain
Neither does the AUC have any power in Barancabermeja, the oil capital of
the country located in Santander - although the AUC has - with army aid,
entered the city in order to assassinate people. FARC and ELN both have
urban militias in Baranca, but the USO - the oil workers union, remains the
single most powerful force there.
The figure of 11,000 fighters in the AUC is as suspect as figures published
by the NYT for the FARC and ELN. There is no evidence in the press that the
AUC has more than three or four thousand fighters. Since the AUC is a
mercenary army, which pays about twice what the army pays according to
rumor (in other words it pays its fighters about $300/month), it would have
to have a budget of more than $5,000,000 just to feed and pay its soldiers.
The article distorts the history of the AUC. The real roots of the
paramilitaries are in "La Violencia" where right wing death squads emerged
as the armed bands of the large landowners. Most of those death squads were
never really disbanded after "La Violencia" officially ended. Many were
composed of serving military officers and soldiers "moonlighting" for a
little extra cash. As I understand the history, they began to be
reorganized by smugglers during the "emerald wars" when the emerald mafias
fought each other for control of the illegal traffic. The emerald mafias
moved into the drug trade when it began to grow, and brought their armed
bands with them. The AUC emerged out of the paramilitary arm of the defunct
Escobar family cartel. An interesting point when it comes to figuring out
their relation with t he DEA and US embassy.)
The success of the AUC in Putumayo is - as far as I can tell from Bogota -
completely exaggerated. Its hard to tell what is really happening in
Putumayo. However, as far as I can tell, the AUC has been imported and has
no real power base in the region. Thats why after they began to enter
towns and assassinate civilians, the FARC closed down - successfully - the
whole region. Only in towns controlled by the army does the AUC now have a
Rightist Squads in Colombia Beating the Rebels
December 5, 2000
By JUAN FORERO
BOGOT , Colombia, Dec. 4 They began as a gang of thugs backed by the
once-powerful Columbian drug cartels. But when the guerrilla war
intensified, they evolved into quasi-independent right-wing paramilitary
squads that killed peasants suspected of supporting Colombia's leftist rebels.
Now the paramilitary forces have demonstrated with alarming clarity that
they have become something else again: an army of combat-ready fighters
that is directly engaging guerrillas and winning wide swaths of territory.
The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, as the paramilitary groups are
known formally, or A.U.C. by the Spanish initials, are also gaining an
important degree of popular support from Colombia's middle class, say
experts on the conflict and government officials here and in the United
As the government tries to restart frozen peace talks this week, the
right-wing militias may well have a role in the process.
With 11,000 fighters, nearly double what they boasted a few years ago, and
the backing of landowners, businessmen and coca growers, the paramilitary
forces have beaten guerrillas on their own turf.
Through intimidation, massacres and, increasingly, direct confrontations,
the militias have tightened their hold on the northern provinces of
Antioquia, Bolívar and Córdoba and expanded into other regions, especially
the coca-growing strongholds in the south.
They have also thrust themselves into the roiling world of Colombian
politics, upsetting peace negotiations between President Andr s Pastrana's
administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the
nation's largest rebel group.
Through savvy public relations efforts by its straight-talking leader,
Carlos Castaño, and intimidation aimed at Colombia's establishment
notably the kidnapping of seven congressmen in October in a successful
attempt to broker a meeting with a top government official the
paramilitary fighters have shown a determination to be heard.
Military success is widely believed to be strengthening Mr. Castaño's hand
in his quest for political recognition. Achieving military victory would
make it more difficult for the government to prosecute him and other
paramilitary leaders for war crimes if the conflict comes to an end. For
the first six months of this year, the government's ombudsman has reported
that 512 unarmed civilians were killed by paramilitary gunmen, compared
with 120 killed by guerrillas.
Despite criticism from human rights groups, the public relations drive
appears to be working. A large group of congressmen and several influential
Colombians are publicly suggesting that the paramilitary units should have
a role in the peace talks, a possibility that others say could produce
years of conflict because of rebel opposition.
The debate comes as Colombia prepares to spend $1.1 billion in mostly
military aid from the United States and other Western allies to curtail
coca production in prime coca-growing regions like Putumayo Province in the
south, an area where guerrillas and the paramilitary units have been
battling for control.
"They are an unquestioned reality," said Senator Miguel Pinedo, who was
among those kidnapped in October. "There's going to have to be a moment
when they will have to be a part of the negotiating table, either
independently or together with the rebels, but they have to be a part of it."
Phillip Chicola, director of Andean affairs for the United States State
Department, agreed recently in a radio interview here. The paramilitary
forces "are at some moment going to have to be part of a process," he said,
"and I think the government and Colombian society are going to have to
decide how to manage this issue."
Their growth can be attributed in part to the failure by the Pastrana
administration to advance the peace effort in the last two years. The
government is trying to resume talks before Thursday, when Mr. Pastrana
must decide whether to reclaim by force the Switzerland-sized swath of
territory ceded to the FARC guerrillas two years ago to lure them to the
peace table. The talks have sputtered, but the guerrillas control the land.
Max Alberto Morales, who has served as an intermediary between the
government and Mr. Castaño, the paramilitary leader, said that Mr. Castaño
had been prepared to allow the peace talks with the FARC to proceed but
that Mr. Castaño had become concerned when the talks stalled, the FARC took
control of a major chunk of territory and guerrilla violence continued.
"We had hope for a year that the peace process would get rolling, but what
happened in that year is kidnappings became more common, roadblocks
increased, they began to hijack airplanes and people were taken from
churches," Mr. Morales said. "I think that all this touched the hearts of
Colombians, and they said, `We won't take this anymore.' For that reason
the people in this country love Castaño so much."
Beloved or not, Mr. Castaño has been quick to take advantage of the
shifting moods in Colombian society.
In two highly emotional televised interviews last spring, he cast himself
as a protector not of the large landowning class that has helped finance
the paramilitary forces, but rather of middle-class workers fearful of
kidnappings. "The ones who have no one to defend them are the middle
classes," Mr. Castaño said. "The Self-Defense Forces are looking out for
the interests of the middle class."
After the interviews, a poll in El Tiempo, Colombia's most respected
newspaper, showed that 38 percent of those questioned said their image of
Mr. Castaño had improved. Seventy-two percent said the paramilitary forces
should take part in the peace talks.
"Castaño is the only Colombian who has the nerve to attack the guerrillas,
and that makes him the good guy," said Luis Jaime Córdoba, a Bogotá teacher.
Mario Fernando Hurtado, a geographer, said he had come to agree with Mr.
Castaño's logic after watching him on television. "He knows the reality of
the problems of the country, and though he justifies his actions with
force, he's convincing in his arguments," he said. "I'm not in accordance
with many of his methods, but in this country they're necessary, because
having a peace dialogue with the guerrillas when they're not interested
doesn't make sense."
Colombia is a poor country, but its cities have large middle-class
communities that feel little kinship or connection to the peasant farmers
in the countryside who are most often the victims of the paramilitary
units' violence. With Colombia's unsteady political situation and a harsh
economic downturn worsening, the vacuum was open for Mr. Castaño to step in.
"Against this backdrop of deepening chaos and the absolute lack of the rule
of law, then a charismatic and articulate individual has risen to the level
of leadership," said Bruce Bagley, an expert on the conflict at the
University of Miami who is worried about a deepening conflict if the
paramilitary forces gain political support.
"Carlos Castaño, the fixture, the man, has found the right time for his
leadership to emerge as powerful and important in Colombia," he said. "He
has resonance among important sectors in Colombian society."
Mr. Castaño has also expanded his forces' reach into sparsely populated
regions where they had only occasionally operated in the past, notably
Putumayo Province along the Ecuadorian border.
"It's remarkable, from a military perspective, that he's been able to push
into new areas without any concern about his rear flanks," said Robin Kirk,
who has interviewed Mr. Castaño for her work as the Colombia researcher for
Human Rights Watch.
"He's able to project a force way beyond his base of strength, which is
northern Colombia, and he has the E.L.N. on the ropes, and that is very
new," she said, referring to the National Liberation Army, the second-
largest leftist guerrilla group, by its Spanish initials.
In Putumayo, the paramilitary fighters have so unnerved the FARC in a
series of brutal entanglements since September that the rebels responded by
closing off the province's roads.
The FARC's tactics have created an embarrassing crisis for the Pastrana
administration, because it is in Putumayo that much of Plan Colombia, a
multibillion-dollar effort backed by the United States to root out drug
trafficking, is focused.
Mr. Castaño's efforts to push deep into Putumayo are aimed at controlling
the region's lucrative coca production. It remains unclear if the
paramilitary forces have been able to gain the upper hand in the conflict
there, but a top State Department official said intelligence reports showed
that "at a minimum they've held their own against men who've had a full run
of the place."
Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups insist that the
paramilitary forces should not be allowed into peace talks until the
government fully investigates their connections to the military, which the
rights groups accuse of having provided munitions and tactical support to
the paramilitary units. A Human Rights Watch report in February showed that
half of Colombia's 18 brigade-level army units had links to paramilitary
"They have to disappear as an armed force and submit themselves to
justice," said Senator Jaime Dussan, an outspoken opponent of including the
paramilitary units in the talks. "How can we give amnesty to those who have
killed, those who have massacred?"
Still, even among those who have aggressively pushed for the government to
rein in the paramilitary fighters, there is a sense that it may be too
late, that the right-wing forces have grown so large and independent that
they cannot easily be disbanded.
"Today, the paramilitaries have grown too much," said Germán Martínez, the
legal officer in Puerto Asís who has investigated paramilitary killings in
Putumayo. "It is a monster created by the state, but now it's at the point
where it's free of the state. It's a lion that the state controlled, but it
has freed itself, broken away."
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