- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

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.

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 supporters.

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 designation.

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 atrocities.

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 realized.

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-guerrillas.

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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