Making a deal with The Devil

GUAMUEZ VALLEY, COLOMBIA — Here amid the cocaine-producing drug plantations of southern Colombia, five recruits with shaved heads and armed with wooden stakes march down the main street in a dusty village.
A truck packed with 40 right-wing paramilitary fighters, brandishing assault rifles and rocket launchers, heads off on a search-and-destroy mission against communist guerrillas. More camouflage-clad combatants of the outlaw paramilitary force are dug into foxholes in this farming hamlet and throughout Putumayo province.

These are the warriors of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), who are key to the opening phase of Plan Colombia — the government offensive, bankrolled with $1.3 billion of mostly military aid from Washington, to wipe out the drug trade in this longtime rebel territory.

Since mid-December, the skies above the Guamuez Valley have resonated with the clatter of Vietnam-era helicopters, donated by the United States, and the hum of crop-duster planes dumping defoliant on fields of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine.

The air assault was preceded by ground operations led by the illegal paramilitary forces, who drove out guerrilla units and reportedly massacred suspected civilian sympathizers in areas to be sprayed. That cleared the way for the Colombian Army’s new, US-trained antidrug battalions to enter without fear of ambush and reduced the risk of aircraft being shot down by the rebels. “Plan Colombia would be almost impossible without the help of the [paramilitary]self-defense forces,” boasts a paramilitary leader calling himself Comando Wilson, the head of the AUC’s military operations in Putumayo who formerly served in an Army counterinsurgency battalion.

Putumayo province, a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, is the hub of world cocaine production, responsible for about half of Colombia’s annual output of more than 580 metric tons. The rebels get their take in the drug trade, and those revenues are the mainstay of their war economy.

The AUC moved into Putumayo in early 1998 in an effort to drive out the FARC, carrying out a wave of massacres that have claimed around 100 civilian lives a year, according to the Center for Popular Research and Education, a Roman Catholic Church-backed human-rights group. Since the launch of Plan Colombia, the paramilitary force has stepped up efforts, and in January it added some 550 reinforcements to its 800-strong combat force here, according to Wilson.

Along with the coca fields, legal crops such as plantains, maize, and yucca are withered throughout the Guamuez Valley from defoliant spraying.

That is sparking bitter complaints from peasants like Irma Galarza, who describes Plan Colombia as a “plan of destruction.”

Success? The Army and senior US officials have heralded the initial results as a resounding success.

But they recognize that most of the coca crop — 60,000 acres of the total 72,500 acres so far sprayed-has been in areas dominated by paramilitary forces.

This has enabled members of the new Counterdrug Brigade to “get their sea legs before moving into areas more heavily controlled by the FARC,” said a US military official.

The Colombian government is ostensibly under pressure from Washington to cut ties to paramilitary groups, but there is much evidence that paramilitary groups are doing the groundwork for Plan Colombia. A recent US State Department report echoed human-rights groups’ charges that Colombian security forces still cooperate with paramilitaries. That hardly seems to be in dispute.

Wilson says he and Army officials swap information daily on the position of their forces, and some soldiers turned paramilitary fighters still wear the insignias of their former Army battalions. One paramilitary fighter was seen eating a US Army meal packet; the meals officially were issued to the US-trained military counterdrug units.

Publicly, President Andres Pastrana has pledged to crack down on the paramilitary forces.

And the state security services report killing 89 right-wing gunmen and arresting 315 others last year (while also killing 970 leftist guerrillas and capturing 1,556).

Still, it took repeated complaints by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights before Colombia’s attorney general opened an investigation into alleged paramilitary collaboration with police commanders and the former head of the Army’s Putumayo-based 24th Brigade. Although investigators recommended prosecuting at least five Army and police commanders, including former 24th Brigade commander Col. Gabriel Diaz, the inquiry is moving slowly, and Diaz is in line for promotion to general.

The brigade is currently banned from receiving US military aid because of its alleged involvement in human-rights abuses.

The brigade’s new commander, Gen. Antonio Ladron de Guevara, acknowledged to US News that at least 30 men from one of his counterguerrilla units have joined the paramilitary force (the remainder of that unit, the 31st Battalion, has been sent back to Bogota for retraining.) Paramilitary leader Wilson put the figure at 100 and said many others among his men also are former soldiers.

Military ties to the right-wing death squads color perceptions of the US-backed antidrug effort. “The paramilitary phenomenon in Putumayo is the spearhead of Plan Colombia,” said German Martinez, outgoing municipal human-rights ombudsman in the regional center of Puerto Asis. “It’s a terror tactic.”

* Story from Mapinc: