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.
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
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
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
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