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
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.
THE "DRUG WAR" AND THE GUERRILLA 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
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
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.
FROM "SELF DEFENSE" TO THE OFFENSIVE
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
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
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
WAR AND PEACE
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.
South America watch