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Professor of international studies school of international studies university of miami

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The Paramilitaries, Human Rights and the Drug Trade

Like their leftist FARC rivals, Colombia’s approximately 7,000 rightist paramilitary forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia—AUC) also finance themselves at least in part by taxing the drug trade in the areas they control. In a televised interview conducted with national paramilitary chief Carlos Castano Gil in early January 2000, Castano openly admitted for the first time that his “self-defense” forces based in northwest Colombia routinely charged a 40 percent tax on peasants who produce coca. Indeed, the bloodiest conflicts between Colombia’s guerrillas and paramilitaries during the last decade have taken place in regions rich in natural resources (e.g., oil, gold or emeralds) or drug crops.33

Supported by many large landowners, drug traffickers and segments of the army, the virulently anti-Communist paramilitaries have been primarily responsible for the waves of civilian massacres that have swept Colombia in the last decade. Between 1998 and 1999 alone the incidence of massacres increased by 44 percent, leaving more than 2,000 Colombian civilians dead in 1999.34 Their systematic attacks on suspected civilian “sympathizers”, rather than on the guerrillas themselves, provoked the displacement of almost two million Colombians during the 1990s. Despite the “paras” brutality, fear of the leftist rebels has become so widespread that 60 percent of Colombians surveyed in a 1999 poll declared that they did not favor disbanding the self-defense groups. Moreover, a majority interviewed in the same poll stated that they wanted U.S. troops to intervene because their own government was incapable of protecting them.35
The FARC, along with most human rights groups in and outside of Colombia, have repeatedly denounced instances of collusion between the self-defense groups and government security forces over the last decade. According to FARC’s Marulanda: “The paramilitary groups are an official expression of state policy.” 36When the paramilitaries enter a zone, army units in the area routinely overlook their activities. On multiple occasions, the army has reportedly provided communications and logistical support for paramilitary operations. In mid-1999, when FARC rebels attacked and surrounded the headquarters of AUC leader Carlos Castano, army troops actually rushed to his rescue. To refute the high command’s contention that there are no close ties between the “paras” and the army, in 1999 the FARC distributed lists of paramilitary base locations, radio frequencies used to communicate with army units and the names of army officers who act as go-betweens.37
Such military-paramilitary linkages unquestionably constitute major impediments to any future progress in Bogota’s current peace negotiations with the FARC. Cognizant of this, in 1999 President Pastrana removed four generals from active military service for their links to the paramilitaries and put one of them on trial. He also completed the disbanding of the infamous Brigada XX (Intelligence Brigade) that had been closely connected to rightist paramilitary bands for years and began the process of reorganizing and modernizing military intelligence units with U.S. assistance. Nonetheless, the linkages persist and army-paramilitary confrontations remained extremely rare.38
In recognition of the paramilitaries growing involvement in the drug trade and their record as the worst human rights abusers in Colombia, in mid-January 2000 U.S. government officials called upon the Pastrana administration to move more forcefully to suppress paramilitary activities throughout the country. According to Washington’s public statements, the elimination of these self-defense groups remains an essential step along the path towards peace and the reestablishment of law and order in the country.39 For his part, Castano maintains that the Colombian government will ultimately have to grant his men amnesty and include the AUC in the peace negotiations or the peace process will fail.40

The ELN, the EPL the ERP and the Quest for Peace

The Pastrana administration’s quest for a negotiated peace settlement has been further complicated by the presence of three additional, leftist armed insurgent movements in Colombia. These include the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional –ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion—EPL), and the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo-- ERP). With some 5,000 combatants, the Castroite ELN is the second largest leftist rebel group in the country. Like the FARC, it operates through out the national territory. Unlike the FARC, however, the ELN does not appear to have engaged systematically in drug trafficking activities during the 1990s.41 Instead, it has financed its operations mainly by extorting money from multinational companies operating Colombia’s oil fields and by blowing up (50 to 100 times a year) the 900-kilometer pipeline that transports crude from fields along the Venezuelan border to port facilities on the north coast. It has also relied heavily on ransoms from kidnappings.42

. From the outset of Pastrana’s negotiations with the FARC, the ELN sought to participate in the peace process on an equal footing. Rather than including the ELN in the government’s dialogue with the FARC, however, President Pastrana -- at the FARC’s request -- opted to deal with the ELN separately in a parallel set of peace talks. While these negotiations proceeded fitfully over the first 18 months of the Pastrana government, no substantive progress was achieved. Moreover, Pastrana consistently refused to concede to the ELN’s demand for the creation of a zona de despeje in northern Colombia (in the Department of Bolivar) similar to, albeit smaller than, that he had granted to the FARC in southern Colombia.43
In mid-January 2000, the ELN launched a weeklong series of attacks that destroyed 28 electrical pylons in the northwestern Departments of Antioquia and Choco and left the country’s power grid on the verge of collapse. In a radio interview held on January 19, 2000, Nicolas Rodriguez – the top ELN commander – declared that his group had “lost patience” with the government’s peace strategy and vowed that his forces would continue their high-profile kidnappings and sabotage operations in protest. “The ruling class listens only to the voice of dynamite and rifles.”44 Colombian military spokesmen frankly admitted that it would be virtually impossible for the armed forces to protect the 15,000 electrical transmission towers spread throughout the nation. In 1999 alone leftist rebels had dynamited 169 towers, inflicting damages valued at US$ 13.2 million on the national economy.45
In the wake of these damaging bombing attacks, the Pastrana government reopened negotiations with the ELN and accepted, in principal, the ELN’s demand for the creation of a zona de despeje in southern Bolivar where the ELN could hold its national convention and begin peace talks with the government. Adamantly opposed to this concession to the ELN and determined to control the profitable coca and gold mining activities in the area, in mid-February 2000 the AUC paramilitaries carried out a series of brutal massacres in ELN-linked peasant communities designed to prevent the consolidation of an ELN zona de despeje in the region. The intensity and extreme cruelty of the recent AUC military campaign in southern Bolivar reflect both the depths and bitterness of their rivalry with the ELN and the high economic stakes that underlie the guerrilla-paramilitary struggle in the region. In the short run, at least, there appeared to be little likelihood that the complicated situation on the ground would permit the Pastrana administration to move ahead quickly with plans to create a new zona in southern Bolivar. Even in the midst of the carnage, however, government-ELN talks continued in Venezuela and most observers believed that a demilitarized zone would ultimately be conceded to the ELN.46
The EPL, with fewer than 500 combatants, was far smaller than either the FARC or the ELN at the end of the 1990s. Its principal bases of operation are located in the northeastern departments of Cesar, Santander and Norte de Santander near the Venezuela border. Like the ELN, the EPL appears to have stayed out of the drug trade, concentrating instead on extortion, kidnapping and assassination activities to finance itself. In the 1980s the EPL gradually abandoned its radical Maoist ideology and, in the early 1990s, negotiated a peace settlement with Bogota that led the bulk of its members (almost 3000) to lay down their arms and reenter civil society. The remaining splinter elements of the EPL, led by Hugo Carvajal (a.k.a. “El Nene”), steadfastly refused to enter into peace negotiations with the Pastrana government. With the death of Carvajal on January 12, 2000, a result of wounds received in a firefight with Colombian army troops on December 31, 1999, what role, if any, the EPL may play in the current Colombian peace process remains unclear.47
With only 150 combatants, the ERP was the smallest and least well known of the four guerrilla groups still active in Colombia at the outset of 2000. Its origin lies in a split within the ELN that occurred in August 1996 during the ELN’s Third Ideological Congress. Its principal base of operations was located in northern Colombia in the border areas of the Departments of Antioquia, Sucre and Bolivar. Under constant seige from Carlos Castano and his AUC paramilitary forces, especially in southern Bolivar, in 1998 the ERP guerrillas, with the backing of Frente 37 of the FARC, sought refuge in the remote Montes de Maria region in central Bolivar Department along the Sucre border. Given its small size and inability to hold its territory against AUC pressure, the ERP has not been a significant factor in drug cultivation or trafficking.48
After a prolonged period of quiescence, the ERP resurfaced in late 1999 – taking advantage of the Christmas truce between the Pastrana government and the FARC – when it launched a highly publicized series of “pescas milagrosas” ( random kidnappings) along the Sucre-Bolivar border. In mid-February 2000, the AUC renewed their attacks on the ERP with assaults on various small rural communities (corregimientos) near Ovejas, Sucre, in which some seventy people died. In late February reports of intense fighting between AUC and ERP forces in the Montes de Maria region indicated that the AUC offensive continued to escalate. Like the EPL, the ERP did not participate in peace negotiations with the government during the first eighteen months of the Pastrana administration, but its recent setbacks in combat against the AUC may well force it to consider entry into the peace process in coming months or face annihilation.49

Kidnappings for ransom unquestionably became one of the main sources of financing for all four guerrilla groups over the 1990s. At the start of 2000, the FARC held 850 kidnapping victims hostage. The ELN had another 702, the EPL 200 and the ERP a few dozen. During 1999 the AUC paramilitary groups kidnapped 120 people, reflecting a six-fold increase in their kidnapping activity over the previous year. In 1999, the total number of abductions reported in Colombia rose to 2,945 cases, compared to 2,216 the year before (a 33 percent increase over 1998 levels), breaking Colombia’s own kidnapping world record.50

This rising wave of kidnappings not only complicated Pastrana’s peace efforts, but also contributed to a growing exodus of professional upper middle and upper class Colombians fleeing from their troubled country to the United States. According to Colombian government estimates, 800,000 people – 2 percent of Colombia’s total population of 40 million -- left Colombia in the last four years. In 1999 alone, 366,423 Colombians applied for nonimmigrant visas to the United States, up from 150,514 in 1997. About three-quarters of the nonimmigrant and just over half of the 11,345 immigrant applications were granted in 1999. In addition, while still small in absolute terms (only 334 over the 12 months stretching from the last quarter of 1998 through the first three quarters of 1999), political asylum requests from Colombians have also begun to rise substantially (396 in the last quarter of 1999). The U.S. approval rate for asylum requests has also risen, from 19 percent in 1998 to 46 percent by the end of 1999. 51
Currently, there are, at least, 60 to 80,000 Colombians living and working illegally in the United States who have petitioned the Clinton administration to grant them temporary protected status to remain in the country legally for up to 18 months.52 Both Clinton and Pastrana have publicly opposed any such change in U.S. immigration law on the grounds that, were it to be approved, it would spark an even greater exodus from Colombia and, thereby, exacerbate the nation’s already serious problems of “brain drain” and capital flight. Pastrana has exhorted his fellow citizens to stay in Colombia and to support his peace initiative rather than leave. He needs them to work and invest in Colombia and to pay their taxes for his government to have any chance of reactivating the nation’s recessed economy and reestablishing political stability. Nevertheless, escalating violence and insecurity in both rural and urban areas are leading growing numbers to opt for immigration. The country’s budding “peace movement”, which on several occasions in recent years has mobilized millions of Colombians to march or demonstrate in favor of peace, to date has had little practical impact on either the pace of the peace negotiations or the escalating armed violence and kidnapping convulsing the nation.53

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