Pubdate: Mon, 18 Dec 2000
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact:  901 Mission St., San Francisco CA 94103
Author: Robert Collier
Bookmark: (Colombia)


Despite Official Denials, Feared Fighters Known For Death Squad Tactics Work
Closely With The Army

"We're not bad. We're waaaay bad," said Joanny, puffing out his chest in a
boast that would have fit right in at a gathering of any U.S. inner-city

Except for a few details. Such as the machine gun cradled in Joanny's arms
and the bandoliers of bullets over his shoulders. And the long trail of
corpses that he and his fellow paramilitary gunmen have left in recent

They are the government's tacit allies and the nation's most feared killers:
the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, whose 8,000 fighters have
terrorized vast stretches of the countryside and countless towns and cities.

The paramilitaries, as they are known, present Colombian and American
officials with a big dilemma. Their death squad-style violence - executions
of large numbers of peasant activists, trade union members, student leaders
and alleged rebel supporters - has been crucial in helping the Colombian
military hold off the guerrillas. But the terror has morally tainted the
U.S.-backed war.

The relationship between the military and the rightist paramilitaries is
controversial in the U.S. Congress, and allegations of collusion have
prompted Washington to bar aid to two army brigades, including one based in
Putumayo province, where Joanny and his comrades operate.

Government officials hotly deny the accusations.

"We fight the illegal armed groups of the right just like we do the ones of
the left," Gen. Mario Montoya, the government's military commander for
southern Colombia, said during a recent visit to Putumayo.

Montoya, who is highly regarded by U.S. diplomats and military brass, said
the charges of cooperation are "utterly false."

But in Putumayo, where the paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas are
fighting a bloody war of attrition for control of the world's largest
concentration of coca fields, there is little doubt that Joanny and his
fellow gunmen are doing the army's dirty work.

Since early last year, when the army started a gradual offensive to try to
take back rebel-dominated Putumayo, the paramilitaries have been right
behind them, working in silent tandem.

The paramilitaries came to La Hormiga in January 1999. With army troops from
the nearby 24th Brigade blocking roads behind them, the gunmen selected 26
people, mostly youths, and executed them on suspicion of being guerrillas.
In November 1999, the death squads massacred 12 more people in El Placer, 10
miles away. And over the past year, as many as 100 civilians have been
killed in the province, mostly one by one.

Human-rights groups in Bogota and Washington complained, government
investigators were sent, reports were written. No one has been convicted.
Instead, U.S. diplomats temporarily blacklisted the 24th Brigade, barring it
from receiving U.S. aid or training.

However, American assistance is flowing faster and faster to Montoya's
regional command these days as the U.S. aid program gets cranked up. Critics
call the process a public-relations shell game, in which wrists are slapped
yet vast quantities of U.S. aid wind up helping the paramilitaries.

A study released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch concluded that
despite the official denials, the Colombian military is in close collusion
with the death squads. The report's conclusions included:

*- There is "abundant, detailed, and continuing evidence of direct
collaboration between the military and paramilitary groups."

*- Many army officers implicated in death-squad killings remain on active

*- The armed forces blocked or took no action on most arrest warrants issued
by the attorney general against paramilitaries. Many of the killers
"collected warrants like badges of honor," and paramilitary commander Carlos
Castano moves freely despite 22 outstanding warrants.

In Putumayo, paramilitary leaders, army officials and local residents admit
that nothing has changed.

"The army collaborates by not bothering us, and we don't bother the army,"
said Joanny's boss, a paramilitary commander who uses the pseudonym John

"When the army leaves a place, we enter it."

He was speaking in an open-air ice cream parlor on La Hormiga's main street,
surrounded by armed bodyguards. Suddenly, a platoon  of army troops marched
past on the sidewalk. They looked stone-faced at the paramilitaries; the
paramilitaries looked back with the same expression. The soldiers continued.

Many military officers privately admit that they help the paramilitaries -
or at least do nothing to hinder them.

"The paramilitaries are helping us by fighting the same people I'm fighting,
" said one aide to the 24th Brigade commander. "Why should I fight them?"

"The army has its hands tied by human rights," said Byron. "We don't. We are
free to fight the war."

The paramilitaries were founded by Fidel Castano, a wealthy landowner in
northern Cordoba province, after the leftist guerrillas kidnapped his father
in 1980 - and then, after the family paid a ransom, returned him dead.

The paramilitaries were lavishly funded by drug traffickers, including
Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar, and were given weapons and training by
the Colombian army - a shadowy alliance that made a mockery of the
government's war against drugs.

Castano disappeared in uncertain circumstances in 1994, and three brothers
and a sister were killed by the rebels. Now Carlos Castano, another brother,
carries on a fiercely personal, scorched-earth war against peasant
organizers, trade unionists, leftist civilians or anyone suspected of links
to the guerrillas.

Castano said earlier this year that about 70 percent of his organization's
revenues come from taxing drug traffickers.

Government and paramilitary officials say drug traffickers who depend on
Putumayo's coca crop financed the paramilitaries' incursion into the
province because the rebels have raised the traffickers' costs.

Since earlier this year, when the FARC grabbed control of the region's coca
business, the rebels have forced traffickers to raise the price for coca
paste by about 25 percent (to an average of $1,000 per kilo) and pay a "tax"
of 500 pesos (22 U.S. cents) per kilo. The paramilitaries, in areas they
control, allow traffickers to set prices, and charge only 100 pesos tax per

"We were invited here by many businesses, including the drug traffickers,"
said Byron.

Most paramilitary members are from lower-middle-class origins, and some are
motivated by money: Starting pay for paramilitary recruits is $400 per month
(volunteer army soldiers receive half that, while guerrillas are unpaid),
while officers such as John Byron receive more than $1,000 per month (the
same as an army general).

But like the Castanos, many paramilitary members are motivated by sheer
revenge. And because the guerrillas also practice an eye-for-eye philosophy,
there's plenty of killing to be done.

For example, Joanny and Byron said several of their family members had been
killed by the guerrillas. Joanny admitted that he enjoys killing. When he
does it, he said, he thinks of his dead brother.

Executions, however, are a drag. "I like killing in combat, but point-blank
is disagreeable. It gets messy, you know?"

Byron felt otherwise. "To kill is easy, as long as the person is guilty," he
said. "You just point and pull the trigger."

But for a fearless killer, Byron said he has a soft side. Since three years
ago, when he quit his old job as a hotel receptionist in northwest Choco
province and joined the paramilitaries, he hasn't squared with his mother
about his new job.

"I told my mother I'm a bodyguard to a drug lord," he said. "It's safer and
more acceptable. If she knew I'm doing this she'd be very worried."
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