- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 14, 2001

MONTERIA, Colombia — When the government carried out a rare crackdown in May on civilians suspected of abetting Colombia's rightist militias, it was no surprise they targeted this riverside ranching town.
The country's premier cattle center, Monteria has another, darker reputation: as cradle and support bastion of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — a paramilitary force noted for atrocities in its war against guerrillas and their sympathizers.
Under pressure from Washington on human rights, President Andres Pastrana's government has arrested paramilitary members in record numbers. But never before has it so openly confronted the militia's reported civilian financiers — long believed to include ranchers and drug traffickers.
The raid May 25 and other, more recent strikes against paramilitaries have opened a new front in Colombia's 37-year conflict, and have raised the threat of vengeance attacks on government targets by the 8,000-strong AUC.
The strikes may have deepened divisions in the AUC, whose top leader, Carlos Castano, unexpectedly resigned. He is thought to oppose attacks on government targets.
A statement by the AUC did not directly link his resignation to the raid on Monteria. But it complained that the government had trampled on people's rights and demanded an investigation into the shooting by federal agents of a chauffeur working for the wife of a top AUC commander.
Brandishing search warrants and high-powered weapons, nearly 350 troops and federal agents sent from Bogota barged into the homes and offices of some of Monteria's most prominent citizens, sparking public outcry.
"I'm no bandit," said rancher Rodrigo Garcia, who had his home searched and a jeep seized. "All I've ever done is to speak my mind."
A popular conservative figure here, Mr. Garcia, 75, is famous for once proposing that a statue to the paramilitaries be erected in Monteria's main square. The town on the muddy Sinu River, 320 miles from Bogota, makes no secret of its coziness with the paramilitaries.
For years, the group has had its main base camp in mountains several hours south of Monteria, the capital of Cordoba state.
Ranchers and some local politicians have openly voiced thanks to the militias for driving away rebels who roamed the highways, kidnapping at will.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, ranchers who refused to meet extortion demands were threatened or had their cattle machine-gunned by the rebels.
Today, Cordoba's cattle-ranching lowlands are an oasis in Colombia's rural tumult. Ranchers who once dared not venture more than a few miles outside of town now congregate nightly at lightly guarded steer auctions in the countryside, conducting business and socializing over barbecues and beer.
"Sure, I'm thankful to the self-defense forces," said Alfredo Garcia, president of the Cordoba Cattlemen's Association, and no relation to Rodrigo Garcia. "Thanks to them, I can visit my own ranch."
The raids were undertaken after intelligence agencies reportedly intercepted radio communications between AUC chief Mr. Castano and well-known people in Monteria. Agents led away four handcuffed men, all thought to be low-level suspects, and confiscated computers, membership lists and tax records from the Cordoba Cattlemen's Association.
Nearly three dozen locales were searched, among them the home of a Cordoba senator, a cattle auction house, and a foundation set up by Mr. Castano's older brother.
Also raided was the home of the wife of Salvatore Mancuso, a Monteria native from a cattle-ranching family who is one of the AUC's top commanders. That's where agents shot and killed the chauffeur, who was apparently unarmed.
Cordoba's civic leaders say people in many parts of Colombia are welcoming the militias out of anger at the guerrillas and at the government's failure to protect them.
The success in the mid-1990s of Cordoba's local paramilitary front helped inspire its bloody expansion nationwide. Thousands of villagers have died in paramilitary massacres, and the U.S. government recently classified the AUC as a terrorist organization.
But Monteria's cattlemen say rebel harassment drove them into the arms of the paramilitaries.
Rancher Jose Matera said rebels tried to kidnap him and then threatened his life when he refused to pay them off.
"If you were drowning in a river and a crocodile swam by, what would you do?" he asked. "You'd grab onto the crocodile."

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