Colombia War Takes 'Right' Turn; Anti-Communist Forces Negotiate with Government

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 28, 2003 | Go to article overview

Colombia War Takes 'Right' Turn; Anti-Communist Forces Negotiate with Government


Byline: Steve Salisbury , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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, former soldiers and some former guerrillas.

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, saying 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. …

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