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Drug War's Secret Alliance
Published on Thursday, April 12, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Drug War's Secret Alliance
Right-wing gunmen say U.S.-backed government troops helping them drive rebels from Colombian coca fields
by Karl Penhaul, Chronicle Foreign Service
 
Valle del Guamuez, Colombia -- The U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate drug production in this nation's cocaine heartland is being carried out with the covert cooperation of paramilitary warlords, according to paramilitary leaders.

Gunmen of the ultra right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) boast that they are closely coordinating their "dirty war" against leftist guerrillas in southern Putumayo province with the Colombian military to pave the way for a huge anti-drug offensive by U.S.-trained Colombian troops. They say they are being protected by army and police units in their war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and their civilian sympathizers.

Putumayo Province
Putumayo Province
The Colombian military "knows where we are and sprays (defoliants to kill coca plants) where they know we have consolidated zones," said a paramilitary chieftain known by the pseudonym Commando Wilson, who heads AUC operations in Putumayo's Guamuez Valley and, like many of his men, is a former army soldier.

"Plan Colombia would be almost impossible without the help of the (paramilitary) self-defense forces. If we did not take control of zones ahead of the army, the guerrillas would shoot down their planes."

The army-paramilitary alliance has resulted in a resounding success in the opening phase of Plan Colombia, the government campaign to wipe out the drug trade in rebel strongholds that is being bankrolled by the United States with more than $1 billion, mostly in military aid.

President Andres Pastrana and his top military brass deny that there is any army collusion with the AUC, and they have vowed to crack down on paramilitary activities. In public statements, they argue that armies of the left and right are simply battling for control of the 300-ton-a-year cocaine industry in Putumayo, which accounts for about half of Colombia's total output.

But official promises to rein in paramilitary violence have failed to convince many human rights officials.

"The paramilitary phenomenon in Putumayo is the spearhead of Plan Colombia: to create territorial control for the areas to be sprayed and to control the civilian population," said German Martinez, who concluded his three-year term as municipal human rights ombudsman in Puerto Asis in March. "This is a terror tactic."

A paramilitary hit squad first arrived in Putumayo's capital of Puerto Asis in early 1998. A year later, they pushed into the Guamuez Valley, a major coca- growing region, with a wave of massacres and murders that killed about 100 civilians, according to the Catholic Church-sponsored Center for Popular Research and Education.

Since then, hundreds of reinforcements have arrived from the north, bringing the AUC's total combat forces in the area to 1,350, Commando Wilson said.

Elsewhere in Colombia, the AUC has 8,000 fighters and is closely linked to the drug trade, from which it reaps a fortune in drug taxes. In Putumayo, however, paramilitary leaders appear to have sacrificed potential income to wrest areas from the guerrillas, who also earn millions by taxing the local coca trade.

Political analysts say the AUC may also be trying to win favor with Washington, which has long threatened to include the group on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Commando Wilson said the long-term strategy for Plan Colombia was mapped out by his superiors and the military. He admitted that he swaps daily coordinates of his fighters' positions with army officers.

Uniformed AUC gunmen now routinely patrol the village that has become the paramilitary regional headquarters. Recently, a Chronicle reporter was allowed to visit the base on the condition that he not pinpoint the location. Trucks packed with as many as 40 fighters and bristling with assault rifles and rocket launchers rumbled down the main street as they headed out on a search- and-destroy mission against FARC rebels.

Army detachments are located only a 20-minute drive away on either side of the AUC headquarters, and the dirt highway carved through the valley is pockmarked with foxholes manned by paramilitary sentries. Army units make no attempt to dislodge them.

Between mid-December and the end of February, spray planes, backed by Vietnam-era Huey helicopters piloted by armed American civilians, eradicated 72,500 acres of coca fields -- completing the goal set for the first two years of Plan Colombia in the Guamuez Valley.

"Aerial eradication operations were focused primarily in that area of the Guamuez Valley considered to be under paramilitary influence," said a U.S. military official. "It was anticipated that spray operations directed against paramilitary coca fields would experience fewer hostile fire incidents," he added, rejecting suggestions that the two forces were working in unison.

Aerial spraying continues in other areas of Putumayo under FARC control, but progress has been much slower since government aircraft typically come under heavy ground fire.

In February, an armed rescue team that included several U.S. civilians came under fire when the rescuers plucked the crew of a downed police helicopter from the middle of a firefight with guerrillas. About 200 U.S. military advisers and 30 civilians work with the Colombian army.

AUC Supreme Commander Carlos Castano concedes that up to 70 percent of paramilitary revenue comes from donations from drug traffickers and taxes on the export of pure cocaine from Pacific Coast and Caribbean Coast ports. But he insists the taxes are simply a means to finance his primary goal of destroying the guerrillas.

The destruction of coca crops in Putumayo undoubtedly hurts the FARC more than AUC since the bulk of rebel income stems from taxes levied on the sale of semiprocessed cocaine, or coca paste, produced by peasant farmers.

Analysts say there are several plausible explanations for AUC's decision to join the anti-drug battle in Putumayo province.

"They are happy simply to see the FARC driven out and their income from coca taxation reduced," said Adam Isacson, an associate at the Washington- based Center for International Policy. "They also may feel that their role in making the first fumigations (of coca crops) happen so easily might make Washington view them more favorably."

Just this month, Castano began a public relations offensive through the U.S.

media and letters to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, offering to force 20 top Colombian drug traffickers to surrender to U.S. authorities. The proposition, which the State Department has already rejected, appears to be designed to keep the Bush administration from including the AUC on its terrorist list.

In September, Colombia's attorney general opened an investigation into the actions of five army and police commanders, including former 24th Brigade chief Col. Gabriel Diaz for alleged collaboration with the paramilitary forces after complaints from the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights. The investigation is slow-moving, and Diaz is awaiting promotion to the rank of general after leaving the brigade in December.

The 24th Brigade is temporarily banned from receiving U.S. assistance as a result of allegations that soldiers killed three peasants in 1998.

In an apparent effort to spruce up its image, incoming commander Gen. Jose Antonio Ladron de Guevara transferred the brigade's entire 31st counterguerrilla battalion to Bogota for "retraining" last month. He estimated that 30 former members of that unit had quit since 1998 to join paramilitary ranks. Commando Wilson put the figure closer to 100.

Highly sensitive to international criticism, Colombia's Defense Ministry says it has pursued paramilitary forces as well as guerrillas. In its annual human rights report, the ministry said it killed 89 paramilitary fighters and arrested 315 others in 2000.

Those figures, however, are far below the 970 guerrillas killed and 1,556 captured during that period.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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