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A Transfer Of Power In Colombia
Paramilitary's Rise Unintended Outcome Of U.S. Assistance

Scott Wilson . Washington Post . 27 december 2001

PARAISO, Colombia -- It is hard to imagine a place more misnamed than this village in northern Colombia's San Lucas Range. Paradise has had a difficult year.

Months ago, President Andres Pastrana sent the army into Paraiso and the surrounding region to create a safe haven for peace talks with Colombia's second-largest guerrilla force. It was a politically risky move. Pastrana's orders to the army were unusual: Leave the guerrillas mostly alone, but focus on driving the right-wing paramilitary forces out of southern Bolivar province, where they had massed to block the peace plan.

The army did not carry out Pastrana's orders. Instead, it appeared to work in tandem with the paramilitary forces to drive the guerrillas deep into the jungle-covered mountains. Three times since then, paramilitary forces have burned Paraiso to the ground. On Dec. 9, after crossing the clear stream west of town and ransacking stores and destroying the health clinic, they killed four men with machetes and left the warning that anyone caught trying to rebuild the ruined village would die the same way.

The destruction of Paraiso is another sign of the rising power this year of rightist paramilitary forces in Colombia, a development that is altering the strategic balance in the country after four decades of civil war. Although the paramilitary force is listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization, Western diplomats following the conflict describe its growing reach as an unintended byproduct of a U.S. program to strengthen Colombia's armed forces, which frequently work alongside the paramilitary groups. The paramilitary forces, once a collection of armed groups sponsored by wealthy landowners, have become a national movement and the most potent new dimension in Colombia's civil war.

During Operation Bolivar, diplomats said they petitioned U.S. officials in Bogota to threaten to withhold U.S. aid from the Colombian armed forces unless Pastrana's orders were carried out. But that message was clouded by differences of opinion in Congress and the Bush administration over the value of creating a safe haven for a Marxist-led guerrilla group and was never delivered, according to Western diplomats here working to end the war.

"We all should do more to use both moral and material pressure to curb paramilitary violence, which is the most rapidly growing cause of civilian suffering," said Jan Egeland, the U.N. secretary general's special envoy for peace in Colombia who is leaving at the end of the year. "What happened in Bolivar shows that the killers can go on and on and on killing innocent civilians and not face any consequences."

The nature of U.S. involvement in Colombia's war has been an unresolved question since Congress approved a $1.3 billion, mostly military aid package last year. The helicopters, military training and herbicide spraying included in the package were to be narrowly focused on Colombia's drug trade, keeping the U.S. outside the fight against the rebels. But because the drug trade is so intertwined with the civil war, the United States has assumed a central role not only in counter-narcotics strategy but also in the far more complicated issues of war and peace.

So far this year, aerial herbicide spraying has killed more than 180,000 acres of coca, the key ingredient in the production of cocaine. A U.S. official here said "that is tons and tons of cocaine that has been kept off our streets." But a development program designed to coax small farmers to grow legal crops as an alternative to coca has been slow in arriving, so much of the coca has been replanted in the same locations.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have hailed the success of three U.S.-trained anti-drug battalions in the Colombian army that have destroyed hundreds of processing labs. By summer, the number of spray planes in use will rise from 10 to 25, and more than a dozen U.S.-donated Black Hawk helicopters will be deployed, prompting the U.S. official to predict that "we will then be killing coca faster than they are able to replant."

The money and diplomatic support have been felt most squarely by the 130,000-member military, which has seen its prestige and hardware upgraded by the stepped-up U.S. involvement. However, the military's rising fortunes and the increased pressure on the country's oldest guerrilla movements -- major targets of the anti-narcotics campaign -- have proven to be a boon for the paramilitary groups.

The shifting balance has even allowed the paramilitary forces to take over some coca areas once dominated by the guerrillas. Drug profits are helping them pay troop salaries, buy arms and recruit members from the growing pool of unemployed Colombians.

Rising Popular Support
During the past year, the main paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, has deepened its territorial gains with a right-of-center political agenda. According to its leaders, AUC ranks have grown from 8,000 to 14,000 combatants. Once backed mostly by wealthy business and ranching interests and former military leaders, it now enjoys increasing support among rich and poor Colombians, public opinion polls show.

The AUC is also the country's leading author of civilian massacres, according to Colombia's Defense Ministry. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed this year by the AUC, compared with 18 in 1995, according to the Defense Ministry, and its strategy of depriving guerrillas of supplies and intelligence has helped cause the displacement of 2 million people.

The AUC's principal guerrilla adversary is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which coalesced in 1964 from a group of rural protection squads, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, which is more ideologically Marxist than the FARC but is weaker militarily. The FARC, which has an estimated 18,000 members, derives significant financial support from taxing the drug trade in areas it controls. Both groups, like the AUC, are on the State Department list of terrorist organizations.

While U.S. officials describe their aid package as "a plan to get dope off of our streets," Pastrana continues to view Plan Colombia -- a $7.5 billion initiative that primarily invests in social development projects -- principally as a peace plan designed to deprive the FARC of its drug-fueled war financing. Since taking office promising to end the war, Pastrana has chosen a controversial approach to peace negotiations, one that places tracts of land under guerrilla control to create venues for those talks.

His decision in late 1998 to give the FARC a Switzerland-size patch of southern jungle as a step toward peace negotiations has, so far, yielded little more than a prisoner exchange agreement and mounting friction between his government and Washington as public support for the process fades.

Drug Trade and War
The overlapping relationship between the civil war and the campaign against drugs is starkly evident in the southern province of Putumayo. In villages such as El Tigre, paramilitary forces have taken control of territory vacated by retreating guerrillas pressured by the anti-drug offensive.

One recent evening in El Tigre, 50 paramilitary recruits were working, in plain sight, through a month-long military training course. At the beginning of the year here in western Putumayo, where the U.S.-trained anti-drug brigade has been most active, the FARC controlled these coca-filled valleys. Today Commander Enrique, the AUC leader in western Putumayo, sleeps in the same complex of wood-plank houses in which the FARC village militia lived.

Enrique said that whereas the FARC charged a $200 tax per kilo of coca base, his men take $50. The FARC has hit herbicide spray planes with 180 rounds of ammunition this year and has shot down one helicopter; the AUC does not fire on aircraft.

Throughout the year, the AUC has increasingly relied on drug proceeds to fund its expansion, according to Colombia's national police and U.S. officials. But the leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, has ordered his troops to get out of the drug business in hopes of gaining U.S. support for political recognition from the Pastrana government.

In tailoring the AUC's political objectives with those of the United States and the Colombian army, Castaño has made it more difficult for U.S. officials to convince senior Colombian military leaders that paramilitary forces are their enemies. In southern Bolivar province, the army and paramilitary forces have openly colluded this year in ways that have confounded Pastrana's peace efforts, according to diplomatic sources.

During much of February and March, a military campaign swept along a stretch of coca fields and farmland in southern Bolivar to create a promised demilitarized zone for negotiations with the ELN, the second-largest leftist insurgency. More than 3,000 soldiers arrived between the San Lucas mountain range and the Magdalena River, and U.S.-backed herbicide spraying began on 30,000 acres of coca in the hills 200 miles north of Bogota.

In the view of many diplomats working on the peace process, this was probably Pastrana's last chance to show that his strategy could succeed. He told the army's Fifth Brigade, the unit responsible for the region, to drive out paramilitary forces who were gathering to block creation of a zone they believed would provide the ELN with a strategic, government-sanctioned foothold and arriving FARC troops a new area of protected influence.

The army began by attacking San Blas, an AUC base. Weapons and drug-processing equipment were seized, but no senior paramilitary commanders were arrested and the group suffered no casualties. "It was clear . . . that the bad guys knew the army was coming," a Western diplomat in Bogota said.

Then the operation turned into a rout of the guerrillas as the army and paramilitary forces united and chased the surprised rebels deep into the hills. By the time Pastrana ordered the army out less than two months later, paramilitary forces had taken vast stretches of land and occupied towns once used by the guerrillas as supply stops. The demilitarized zone was dead, and a series of villages were under siege, abandoned or in ruins.

As Operation Bolivar unfolded, the new Republican administration in Washington backed by Republican leaders in Congress began to weigh in on Pastrana's peace efforts, officials said. The State Department position on the peace talks had long been that it was a domestic matter best left to Pastrana. Privately, however, that position was changing.

During a visit to Washington, Pastrana was told by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, that he opposed giving the guerrillas a safe haven for peace talks, according to people at the meeting.

A short time later, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, who had reiterated U.S. support for Pastrana's approach in an interview with the newspaper El Espectador, was told by Roger Noriega, then senior professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that neither he nor his boss, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), then committee chairman, favored a second guerrilla safe haven. Noriega told her not to declare such support again, according to people at the meeting. Noriega is now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States.

"U.S. policy has always been that there should be no negotiations with terrorists, and when you see it happening you wonder why something is going against U.S. policy," said a Republican congressional staff member. "When Patterson jumped in to endorse the idea, that's when the rubber hit the road up here."

Controlling the Zone
Today, as the army remains on the northern and southern edges of Bolivar, the paramilitary forces run the villages between the mountains and the river while a mixed guerrilla force patrols the hill towns. Travel along the area's mostly deserted roads turns up armed members of both the paramilitary and two major guerrilla groups, but no presence of the armed forces.

"When the army came in, we left," said Commander Carlos, a 12-year AUC veteran who joined after serving in the military. "So they didn't hit us much -- more the guerrillas. And now we're doing the army's job here."

Gen. Martin Orlando Carreño, who for two years has commanded the army's Fifth Brigade with high-profile dash, denied turning a blind eye to paramilitary forces in the region and said "no brigade has done more to attack them." U.S. officials share his assessment that the zone "fizzled" not because of collusion with paramilitary forces but because "the government couldn't control the area."

But Carreño acknowledged that he was angry when Pastrana ordered his men out of the zone, and he said another few weeks of combat would have driven all groups from the area. Since then, Carreño said, he has been working with U.S. officials to move up the delivery of helicopters and intelligence support, currently scheduled for 2003, to his troubled region.

"It ended without our controlling the zone, without either group controlling it, and without peace," said Carreño, who has been promoted to commander of the Second Division.

In recent months, several U.S. delegations have visited Colombia to meet with senior military officials about ties to the paramilitary groups. Charges of human rights abuses leveled against the Colombian army have declined sharply in recent years, but U.S. officials and foreign diplomats are concerned that the paramilitary forces are becoming an auxiliary force of the regular army.

"I got a variety of opinions about cooperation between the military and the AUC, but it is clear to me that certainly at the higher ranks there is an understanding that human rights abuses and a successful counter-guerrilla strategy do not go together," said Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who met here last week with senior military officials about new human rights restrictions on aid to Colombia pending before Congress. "I think the U.S. is doing the right things to try to make things better here."

In Paradise, though, all seems lost. One recent morning, three visiting ELN guerrillas, the butcher, the canteen owner and a few shopkeepers chatted amid the ruins. The rest of the 500 former residents now live on farms in the hills to the east.

Several witnesses said Commander Carlos led the most recent paramilitary attack on the town, coordinating the killing of four men that included a 19-year-old farmer named Eberto Pardo. But all agree there is no one nearby to call for help.

"There is no way to stay," said Cesar Pardo, Eberto's cousin. "They will be back to kill the rest of us."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company