Dispatches From Colombia's Paramilitary Stronghold

Fearing Peace
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 10 2004 12:35 PM

Dispatches From Colombia's Paramilitary Stronghold

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For the connoisseur of slang, Colombia's rich lexicon of war and crime is a treasure trove.

In one short visit to this country, one may be the victim of "miracle fishing" (Marxist guerrilla roadblocks set up randomly in the hope of finding someone wealthy enough to kidnap), take a "millionaire ride" (be driven at gunpoint around the city withdrawing money from every ATM until your cash card is maxed out), or have someone "fall in love with you" (be murdered).

Colombia's extreme right-wing paramilitaries, originally founded by wealthy farmers as a vigilante group to guard against Marxist guerrillas, have been given numerous monikers, as if Colombians never tire of rolling the word "paramilitares" around their mouths only to spit out a new variation. The most common term is the simple abbreviation "para." Others call them "paracos," and an indigenous tribe in the north of Colombia inexplicably refers to them as "paraguayos" (Paraguayans).

The paramilitaries themselves prefer their official name: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym AUC. In some parts of the country, they're referred to as the "head-cutters," a nickname earned in the course of their merciless war against rebels and their sympathizers. The U.S. government calls AUC a "foreign terrorist organization" and lists them alongside al-Qaida.

In the Caribbean coastal department of Cordoba, the most commonly heard term is "protector." These hot lush plains, the center of Colombia's cattle industry, are the birthplace—and remain the heart—of the paramilitary movement.

Amid stories of paramilitary massacres, assassinations, extortion, U.S. extradition warrants, and human rights reports detailing the use of torture, it's easy to forget that there's a sizable minority in this country that approves and finances AUC. For many, especially the wealthy landowners who started the group, these fighters are saving the country from being overrun by guerrillas.

"More than anything, we want the government to fulfill their responsibility to protect this region,'' says Alfredo Garcia, president of Ganacor, an association of Cordoba's cattle ranchers. "But, if we have to choose, we'd prefer to live under the paramilitaries than the guerrillas, because we've had experience of both."

Locals say that when guerrillas operated in Cordoba in the 1980s, farm owners lived in fear of assassination, kidnapping, and extortion. Since the paramilitaries took over, the wealthy feel much safer, and now crime has dropped dramatically until it is one of the safer places in the country. It's a foolhardy criminal who strikes in an area under paramilitary control, with the prospect of immediate—and severe—justice.

Now AUC is about to embark on a peace process that could see its 15,000 fighters demobilized. The leaders of the group say that since the Colombian government has intensified its war against the guerrillas, putting the rebels on the defensive, there is no reason for the paramilitaries to exist.

Cordoba's paramilitaries were started by a pair of brothers, Fidel and Carlos Castaño, after their father was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, more than 20 years ago. From the home base in Cordoba, with the help of some parts of the armed forces, AUC launched a ferocious national counteroffensive against the guerrillas and suspected sympathizers, slaughtering thousands. As AUC expanded, smaller regional blocs were created in almost all of Colombia.

Over the last five years, the paramilitaries have grown quicker than any other armed group in the country and are now Colombia's country's second-largest illegal force after FARC.

Fidel Castaño was killed in a firefight with guerrillas in 1994. Carlos vanished in April of this year, with some claiming he was murdered by other AUC commanders and others alleging that he had escaped Colombia, possibly to Israel or the United States.

Surrounded by herds of cows and huge farms, the tiny village of Santa Fe de Ralito near the Caribbean coast will soon be the site of official peace talks between the government and AUC. The village will be the center of a 145-square-mile "zone of concentration," where at least 400 paramilitary fighters will gather for the discussions. While in this zone, the fighters will be immune from arrest. (Many paramilitaries have dozens of arrest warrants out for them, and several of the bosses are wanted for extradition to the United States to face drugs-trafficking charges.) Those fighters inside the zone will be observed by the Organization of American States to ensure that they are maintaining a cease-fire, a necessary condition for the talks.

Colombia is the birthplace of the world's most famous practitioner of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, and nothing can be taken for granted here. Rather than expressing joy that one of Colombia's most violent groups is laying down its weapons, residents of the region are fearful at the prospect of peace.

Many doubt the government's ability to control the country, which is twice the size of France. Since Colombia's inception, the central government has found it difficult to exert total control over the nation's thick jungles and ragged mountain ranges. The Colombian state has historically been weak, and many villages still lack any police presence.

"People here are worried that if the paras give up their weapons, the guerrillas will return, and we know that they think we're all paracos,'' said a motorcycle taxi-driver who gave his name simply as Raul.

This is not unfounded hysteria, but rather an acknowledgement of Colombia's recent history. On a 2001 visit to "Farclandia," the Switzerland-sized zone the government gave over to the Marxist guerrillas as the basis for peace talks, I heard residents talk about their fear of the paramilitaries should the leftists give up control of the zone. "The government has to keep this [guerrilla-controlled] zone alive, because otherwise we'll be hunted by the paramilitaries as collaborators," Lelo Celis, a taxi driver, told me.

Murdered later that year, allegedly by a hit squad of paramilitaries, Celis was a victim of his own prophecy. Amnesty International documented what they called a surge of paramilitary killings following the collapse of the peace talks and the end of the demilitarized zone in February 2002.

One of the most vocal critics of the peace process has been the former military chief of AUC, Fidel Castaño's right-hand man Commandante Rodrigo, also known as Double 0. A couple of years ago, he broke with AUC, criticizing the group's substantial links to drug-trafficking. AUC responded by destroying his renegade bloc of paramilitaries and forcing Rodrigo into hiding.

In an e-mail interview, Rodrigo argued that the peace process was nothing but a sham: As the paramilitaries "give up their mercenaries piecemeal, they earn time and keep abandoning their zones that logic dictates the guerrillas will retake.'' In the end, "they'll say that they cannot fully hand themselves over because the government has not fulfilled its obligations of containing the guerrillas." According to Rodrigo, the paramilitaries hope this peace process will whitewash their histories of drug-trafficking, legitimize the millions they've made, and remove the threat of extradition.

It would prove to be one of his last interviews. At the end of May, as Rodrigo walked along the street in the coastal town of Santa Marta, assassins fired five shots into his head.

The government is also worried about AUC's commitment. Luis Restrepo, Colombia's peace commissioner, who heads the negotiations with AUC, has criticized the group for not complying fully with the cease-fire. While acknowledging an overall reduction in killings and kidnappings, Restrepo said, "The tendency is that criminal acts by the AUC are growing month by month, especially homicides."

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