Pubdate: Tue, 28 Jan 2003
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2003 News World Communications, Inc.
Author: Steve Salisbury


BOGOTA, Colombia - The year 2003 opened with a boost for Colombia's largest 
anti-Marxist vigilante group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia 
(AUC), which has seven factions totaling an estimated 11,000 combatants, 
mostly peasants, ex-soldiers and some ex- guerrillas. Top Stories

This month, President Alvaro Uribe, who took office Aug. 7, began 
exploratory talks with factions of the outlawed AUC and reportedly two or 
three smaller vigilante groups - something his predecessors never did. Most 
of the AUC suspended offensive operations Dec. 1.

In contrast, peace talks between the government and the largest Marxist 
guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), thought 
to have up to 17,000 combatants, ended a year ago. And the No. 2 Marxist 
guerrilla group - the National Liberation Army (ELN), believed to have 
3,000 to 6,000 fighters - recently broke off "sounding out" contacts with 
Mr. Uribe, claiming he was wooing their bitter enemy, the AUC, which the 
president denies.

"The fundamental difference between the guerrillas and the AUC," said David 
Spencer, a security consultant in Washington, "seems to be that AUC doesn't 
want to overthrow the government, and they don't believe in quashing 
private enterprise, where the guerrillas want to overthrow the government 
and want to establish a centrally controlled economy."

While the AUC is often labeled rightist, it says it seeks "capitalism with 
a human face."

"We don't attack the state. We are peasants who ask the state for 
protection and social development," said Jorge, an alias of the regional 
commander of the AUC's Centauros unit in the central plains. "If the 
government had given us security against the guerrillas, our self-defense 
forces would never have existed."

The FARC and ELN were founded in the mid-1960s with no more than a few 
hundred members. They reportedly received limited Soviet-bloc support 
during the Cold War, and have largely financed themselves by extortion, 
kidnappings and the illegal drug trade.

By the 1970s and '80s, ranchers, farmers, peasants and business people 
started forming private "autodefensas" - often-illegal self-defense groups 
against guerrillas in areas of little or no state presence. Some were 
better armed and organized than others. Some were financed by drug barons 
and other wealthy individuals or groups, who used them against rivals, 
labor agitators and others.

The AUC was set up in 1997 under the leadership of Carlos Castano, who also 
leads its largest faction, the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and 
Uraba (ACCU), in northwest Colombia. The ACCU represents more than 75 
percent of the AUC, according to Mr. Castano, who says retired Israeli 
military instructors trained him in Israel in 1983.

"The AUC is not a cause, it is a symptom," said Tom Marks, an American 
counterinsurgency expert. "It is a reaction to the extreme violence that 
FARC and ELN have perpetrated in the marginalized, rural areas. The groups 
which comprise AUC have grown like wildfire because there has been no real 
alternative for those who would engage in local self- defense."

FARC's propaganda chief, Alfonso Cano, disagrees. He said the 
paramilitaries are creations of "the oligarchy," a clandestine weapon of 
the state, and a reason why guerrillas have taken up arms.

Past and present Colombian governments have rejected accusations of 
institutional collaboration with illegal self-defense groups and cite 
battles against them, casualties, and arrests of vigilantes and of soldiers 
and policemen who collaborate with them.

In the past, the state occasionally tried to organize civilian defense 
groups, such as the Convivir, with mixed results. Colombia's courts 
eventually banned them partly because of abuses.

But Mr. Uribe has made re-establishing a form of legal civilian defense a 
cornerstone of his security policy. As Antioquia province governor in the 
1990s, he oversaw what some say was one of the most effective Convivir 
programs. As president, he is now enlisting a nationwide network of 
civilian informants and up to 15,000 "campesino soldiers" who serve in 
their own communities.

While civil libertarians worry about abuses and the possibility of 
legalizing vigilantes, Mr. Uribe's supporters say this policy has 
frustrated numerous terrorism attempts. Nevertheless, AUC officers say it 
does not go far enough.

"Irregular warfare is necessary to defeat the guerrillas or force them to 
negotiate," said Jaime Deluyer, the alias of an AUC political officer in 
central Meta province. "It is necessary to give the guerrillas their own 
medicine." The guerrillas and the vigilantes have used the same tactics, 
such as massacres and killing enemy sympathizers.

Increasingly in recent years, AUC has expanded into FARC areas of southern 
and eastern Colombia. Similarly, FARC has made inroads in AUC's 
northwestern bastion. Hundreds have been killed.

"The AUC's irregular warfare is part of the problem, not part of the 
solution," said Marc Chernick, a professor of government at Georgetown 
University who taught for several years at both the Universidad de Los 
Andes and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, both in Bogota.

But Colombian government and ombudsman statistics indicate AUC's 
human-rights record is improving. According to Defense Ministry figures, 
guerrillas killed 1,060 civilians in 2001, while vigilantes killed 1,028. 
 From January to Nov. 30, 2002, the guerrillas killed 916, and the 
vigilantes, 397.

There are skeptics. "It is very difficult to ascertain numbers," said a 
U.S. government official who asked not to be named. "There is no excuse for 
human-rights violations by anyone."

Said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch: "Over time, there have been 
variations in numbers and methods [of abuses]. Currently, due in large part 
to internal problems, fear of the U.S., and a realization that massacres 
provoked bad publicity, [AUC] atrocities are down. But I view this as 
temporary." The bloody record of leftist guerrillas "is absolutely on the 
same channel," she added.

Last Sept. 4, the AUC announced it would not commit massacres. Observers 
say the group has shifted its strategy to killing victims in small batches. 
Even so, last month the AUC was blamed for killing 11 persons near San 
Carlos in Antioquia province. FARC reportedly killed 17 persons near the 
same area on Jan. 16.

"The [AUC] image makeover is more for the benefit of Colombian public 
opinion," said Mr. Chernick. "Past atrocities are still indictable. An 
amnesty would be more acceptable to public opinion if AUC leaders are 
viewed as legitimate political actors and not just assassins and drug 
runners. Internationally, image really shouldn't be a factor, either, 
concerning U.S. extradition requests or potential trials by the 
International Criminal Court."

Since last September, the U.S. Justice Department has asked for the 
extradition of Mr. Castano and AUC military commander Salvatore Mancuso on 
cocaine charges. And since 2001, the State Department has designated the 
AUC a "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO). FARC and ELN were similarly 
designated earlier. This authorizes U.S. legal sanctions, such as freezing 
their financial assets in the United States and denying visas to their 

While conceding that their forces "tax" coca crops, Mr. Castano and Mr. 
Mancuso deny the AUC trafficks in drugs, saying such accusations come from 
anonymous sources who seek favor or money from U.S. and Colombian 
law-enforcement officials.

Mr. Castano also rejects the "foreign terrorist" label, saying that AUC has 
never harmed a U.S. citizen or threatened U.S. security - the bases for FTO 

On Jan. 22, AUC handed over three Americans to humanitarian workers, after 
taking them in what it said was"protective custody" for eight days along 
the lawless Panama-Colombia border. Robert Young Pelton, a TV producer and 
dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, said they never felt kidnapped and were 
treated well. He speculated that AUC took them to prevent their seeing 

The guerrillas, on the other hand, have kidnapped and killed Americans. 
Last week,a reported ELN communique announced that group was "retaining" 
American photographer Scott Dalton and British reporter Ruth Morris in 
eastern Colombia until undefined "political and military" conditions are 

Last July, Mr. Castano and Mr. Mancuso withdrew their ACCU faction from 
AUC, complaining they were being unjustly blamed for abuses and 
drug-trafficking committed by rogue members. Weeks later, AUC was again 
whole, and AUC officers say internal disputes and disputes with independent 
vigilante factions are being mended.

What are theprospects for talks between the government and illegal 
self-defense forces? "The sides are working very sincerely," Justice 
Minister Fernando Londono told reporters.

"We are optimistic," said Jorge of Centauros. "Uribe is like heaven 
compared to Pastrana." Former President Andres Pastrana ceded a 
Switzerland-size safe haven to FARC for more than three years in exchange 
for peace talks, reclaiming it when negotiations ruptured last February. 
Mr. Uribe says he will not hand over territory.

The vigilantes and the government are holding talks in private. Issues 
reportedly being discussed now include logistics for meetings, freeing 
kidnap victims, returning refugees, and the purging of minors from 
vigilante ranks. The most thorny issues, according to experts, are judicial 
and security questions.

Said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Dec. 4 in Bogota: "The United 
States will stand behind President Uribe as he moves down this road. [But] 
of course, the extradition requests remain in place. These gentlemen have 
much to account for, not only under U.S. law, but under Colombian law as well."

Chief government negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo doesn't rule out the 
possibility that some demobilized AUC members with clean human-rights 
records could eventually join state security forces, as have some ex- 

Said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Gordon Sumner, who was President Reagan's 
special envoy to Latin America: "The battle is never too crowded with 
friends. First, have them answer the law, cut out the drugs, and embrace 
human rights. Try to bring them under the tent, to fight against the 
guerrillas, who are the biggest threat."

But contends Georgetown's Mr. Chernick, "dialogue between the Colombian 
government and the AUC will not bring peace."

"If the state could re-assert its own monopoly over the war effort against 
the guerrillas, then the lines of the conflict would become sharper and 
clearer, with the state on one side and the guerrillas on the other. This 
would constitute progress. Eventually, it could lay the foundation for a 
future negotiated settlement."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom