Paramilitaries, Drug Trafficking
and U.S. Policy in Colombia

by Samia Montalvo

Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2000


At 32 years old, Carlos Castano leads Colombia's largest paramilitary force, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The AUC has earned the nickname "The Head Cutters" because its victims are usually tortured, mutilated, and then decapitated. Waging a relentless war against Colombia's leftist guerrillas -the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)-the paramilitaries both launch attacks on guerrilla-held territory and target those they suspect of being guerrilla "sympathizers" (including labor-union leaders, peasants, peace advocates, and human-rights workers).

According to the U.S. State Department, there were 399 massacres in 1999 (up from 239 in 1998), 80% of which were carried out by the paramilitaries. The Colombian Armed Forces, meanwhile, often turn a blind eye to atrocities committed by the paramilitaries-their allies in the counterinsurgency war.


Colombia is already the world's third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, having received $308 million in 1999. In January 2000, however, the Clinton administration proposed a $1.28 billion Colombia aid package, most of which is earmarked for the Armed Forces and National Police, for the next two years. The House of Representatives has since approved $1.33 billion in aid for this period. The Senate is currently considering an aid package of about $1 billion. Though the Clinton administration is selling the "Alianza Act" as a drug-war measure, the real aim of the proposed new aid is to help the Colombian government defeat the guerrillas.

This is not the first time the United States government has, in the name of "counterinsurgency," armed and trained armies with links to death squads. Remember El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s? Yet the U.S. has failed to learn from what it now claims were the "mistakes" of the Cold War era. Last September, U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kamman formally announced, in a Bogota press conference, that aid to the Colombian military would "bolster its fight against drugs and the guerrilla insurgency."

Guerrilla groups like the FARC are, as the U.S. government claims, involved in the drug economy. The FARC controls up to 40% of Colombia's territory, mostly in the coca-producing southern states of Putumayo and Caqueta. It taxes peasants who grow coca and in exchange protects their crops. FARC combatants fire on aircraft spraying herbicides over the coca-growing regions.

Right-wing paramilitary forces, however, also benefit from the drug trade, perhaps even more than the guerrillas.

Groups such as the AUC not only protect coca fields, but also laboratories where the coca leaf is processed into cocaine paste. On May 6, 1999, the Colombian National Police raided three cocaine laboratories under paramilitary protection in the Magdalena River Valley of northern Colombia. The three labs were capable of producing eight tons of cocaine a month. Over the following three months, Colombian officials uncovered twelve more cocaine labs under paramilitary control in the same northern region.


During the 1980s, the FARC kidnapped, and in some cases killed, numerous landlords in Colombia's north-central Magdalena Medio region. One of those killed was Carlos Castano's father. After their father's death, Castano and several of his brothers signed on as guides for the Colombian army's Bombona Battalion, XIV Brigade, which armed and trained the first civilian autodefensas, or "self-defense" groups. Funded by large landowners and cattle ranchers, the autodefensas became today's paramilitaries. The Colombian Army openly armed and trained paramilitary groups until 1989, when the government banned them due to their ties with drug traffickers. Ties between the Army and the paramilitaries, however, have not been severed completely.

It was Carlos Castano's brother Fidel who turned the "self-defense" groups into a counterinsurgency force. He also helped build the link between paramilitaries and drug traffickers. In 1985, Fidel Castano met Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin drug cartel. Escobar in turn introduced Fidel Castano to Jose Rodriguez Gacha, a drug trafficker himself, fierce anti-communist, and leader of the cartel's military operations in Magdalena Medio. Together the two began a campaign of terror against the peasants, the guerrillas, and the government. The Colombian government would eventually accuse them of massacres and political assassinations (including those of two leftist presidential candidates). In April 1990, the authorities found six mass graves on two of Fidel Castano's ranches outside Medellin. They contained a total of 26 bodies, many of them showing signs of torture. Officials said there might be as many as 100 people buried on the paramilitary leader's 250,000 acres.

Sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for the 1988 massacre of 17 banana-union workers, Fidel Castano remained a wanted man until his 1994 disappearance during an arms-gathering excursion to neighboring Panama. After his brother's disappearance, Carlos Castano officially took over the leadership of the paramilitary forces and its death squads, giving them the name United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). It has been under Carlos Castano's command that the AUC has expanded beyond the cradle of Magdalena Medio and into Colombia's northern provinces. The paramilitaries now dominate the border zones with Panama and Venezuela, where most drug trafficking takes place. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, in 1998 testimony before Congress, linked Castano to "the most significant cocaine traffickers in Colombia today," the Henao-Montoya brothers, and identified him as "a major cocaine trafficker in his own right." In a recent interview with Colombian television, Carlos Castano announced that "drug traffickers and drug trafficking'' finance up to 70% of the AUC's activities.


Ties between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military remain much in evidence. Paramilitary death squads have raided towns, killing guerrilla "sympathizers," within sight of military bases. Between April and August of 1999, Colombian President Andres Pastrana cashiered five senior security officials, including three top generals, for sponsoring attacks on civilians by right-wing paramilitaries.

Pastrana, a Conservative, has come frequently into conflict with the high command of the Armed Forces. On May 27, 1999, as part of the peace initiative he has pursued since his election in 1998, he ceded authority over a large swath of demilitarized territory to the FARC. Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, 14 of the country's 30 generals, and 200 other military officers tendered their resignations in protest over the concessions. While Lloreda did leave the government, Pastrana convinced the generals and other officers to remain.

The President walks a fine line between war and peace. While he has taken steps towards peace, he also requested military aid for the "drug war" from the United States. (The U.S. is actually offering more than what he asked for.) Pastrana has not rejected the militarization of the drug problem, yet he does not appear to want to re-escalate the war against the guerrillas. A huge new infusion of military aid may upset his peace plans, and strengthen the hawkish forces in the military with whom he has come into conflict, yet he is unlikely to turn down any aid he is offered.

A new infusion of military hardware into Colombia will not solve the United States' drug problems, which have homegrown roots. The strategy of a "southern push" into guerrilla territory, as officials are calling the Alianza Act, will bring the U.S. effectively into an alliance with right-wing paramilitaries who are drug traffickers themselves!

While a peace accord is not impossible, one will not come easily. Colombians from many different walks of life are, under delicate circumstances, working toward this end. The country needs bolstered efforts to replace coca with other crops, economic aid and development, and above all peace. The United States' devotion to its time-honored counterinsurgency strategy, however, is not helping matters-and threatens to destabilize a region already burdened by economic and civil strife.


Samia Montalvo (not her real name) has a Bachelor's in Literature and Languages. She is a human rights volunteer and writes articles and short stories with a focus on Latin America.

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