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Paramilitarism, U.S. "Plan Colombia" intensifies war against communist rebels

by Militante Friday, Dec. 28, 2001 at 10:39 PM

The ignorance about Colombian history in this article is deliberate. The U.S. "Plan Colombia" (Paramilitarism) will intensify the class war in Colombia. The Washington Post relies on its beltway network for all its information, and that makes the Post less than a real newspaper. It's a political rag, and always has been. But still an essential read -- Washington is the most powerful city in the world, and this is its newspaper. Washington's "Foreign Service Post."

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

By Scott Wilson

Washington Post Foreign Service

December 27, 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 .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 .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 0 tax per kilo of coca

base, his men take . 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 Casta, 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."



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