Published on Thursday, August 10, 2000 at 7:21 PM by Reuters
Colombia Ultra-Right Warlord Talks of U.S. Covert Ops
by Karl Penhaul
BOGOTA - Colombia's most-feared death squad leader has alleged that U.S. anti-narcotics agents sought to enlist his outlaw paramilitary gang to combat drug traffickers, raising fresh fears of U.S. covert operations in this war-torn Andean nation.

In a television interview late Wednesday, Carlos Castano, leader of the 5,000-member, ultra-right United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) asked him to force Colombian drug traffickers to surrender to U.S. justice.

The plan, he said, was also a way of eroding the economic mainstay of powerful Marxist rebel factions, whom U.S. and Colombian authorities accuse of funding a long-running uprising with proceeds from the booming cocaine and heroin trade.

In Washington on Thursday, the DEA declined to comment on the allegations, which came less than two months after U.S. Congress approved a record $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to help Colombia fight the drug trade and guerrillas.

``The (U.S.) DEA...sent me a message and through that there was a possibility of ending narco-trafficking in Colombia,'' Castano said Wednesday, speaking with RCN television in his stronghold in northern Cordoba province.

``I received a call saying the DEA was opening the doors so that Colombian drug traffickers could surrender to U.S. justice and ... it needed a significant force in Colombia that would induce these people to take that decision,'' added the ultra-right warlord, who swapped his trademark combat fatigues for a white knitted sweater and drab green pants.

At a news conference in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said State Department officials had ''no intention of soliciting his (Castano's) help'' but did not address claims against the DEA.

Us Covert Operations

Some U.S. officials have accused Castano of funding his anti-guerrilla crusade with drug money and insist he has heavy backing from the military in his ``dirty war'' against suspected leftist sympathizers. In practice, however, President Andres Pastrana has done little to track him down.

The RCN interview with Castano coincided with a visit to Colombia by a high-level U.S. delegation, including White House anti-drug chief Barry McCaffrey and Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering. President Clinton plans to visit Colombia on Aug. 30.

The U.S. aid package has fueled fears that Washington could be dragged deep into Colombia's civil conflict that has cost 35,000 lives in just the last 10 years. Castano's comments renewed suspicion that U.S. agencies have been carrying out secret operations behind the back of the Colombian government and the U.S. Congress.

``There are serious concerns about the nature of the U.S. engagement and fears about covert operations and escalating paramilitary activity,'' said Winifred Tate, Colombia specialist at the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Allegations, though hard to prove, about U.S. covert operations in Colombia are not new.

DEA agents were suspected of forging a covert alliance linking the Cali drug cartel, Castano's paramilitary gunmen and Colombian security forces to combat Pablo Escobar's Medellin cocaine cartel in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Washington-based Human Rights Watch has also accused U.S. military intelligence officials of helping Colombia set up the forerunners of today's illegal paramilitary groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.