Paramilitaries Keep Nation in State of Terror

Paramilitaries Keep Nation in State of Terror
Posted by FoM on December 18, 2000 at 07:31:14 PT
By Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
"We're not bad. We're waaaay bad," said Joanny, puffing out his chest in a boast that would have fit right in at a gathering of any U.S. inner-city gang. Except for a few details. Such as the machine gun cradled in Joanny's arms and the bandoliers of bullets over his shoulders. And the long trail of corpses that he and his fellow paramilitary gunmen have left in recent months. 
They are the government's tacit allies and the nation's most feared killers: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, whose 8,000 fighters have terrorized vast stretches of the countryside and countless towns and cities. The paramilitaries, as they are known, present Colombian and American officials with a big dilemma. Their death squad-style violence - executions of large numbers of peasant activists, trade union members, student leaders and alleged rebel supporters - has been crucial in helping the Colombian military hold off the guerrillas. But the terror has morally tainted the U.S.-backed war. The relationship between the military and the rightist paramilitaries is controversial in the U.S. Congress, and allegations of collusion have prompted Washington to bar aid to two army brigades, including one based in Putumayo province, where Joanny and his comrades operate. Government officials hotly deny the accusations. "We fight the illegal armed groups of the right just like we do the ones of the left," Gen. Mario Montoya, the government's military commander for southern Colombia, said during a recent visit to Putumayo. Montoya, who is highly regarded by U.S. diplomats and military brass, said the charges of cooperation are "utterly false." But in Putumayo, where the paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas are fighting a bloody war of attrition for control of the world's largest concentration of coca fields, there is little doubt that Joanny and his fellow gunmen are doing the army's dirty work. Since early last year, when the army started a gradual offensive to try to take back rebel-dominated Putumayo, the paramilitaries have been right behind them, working in silent tandem. The paramilitaries came to La Hormiga in January 1999. With army troops from the nearby 24th Brigade blocking roads behind them, the gunmen selected 26 people, mostly youths, and executed them on suspicion of being guerrillas. In November 1999, the death squads massacred 12 more people in El Placer, 10 miles away. And over the past year, as many as 100 civilians have been killed in the province, mostly one by one. Human-rights groups in Bogota and Washington complained, government investigators were sent, reports were written. No one has been convicted. Instead, U.S. diplomats temporarily blacklisted the 24th Brigade, barring it from receiving U.S. aid or training. However, American assistance is flowing faster and faster to Montoya's regional command these days as the U.S. aid program gets cranked up. Critics call the process a public-relations shell game, in which wrists are slapped yet vast quantities of U.S. aid wind up helping the paramilitaries. A study released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch concluded that despite the official denials, the Colombian military is in close collusion with the death squads. The report's conclusions included: - There is "abundant, detailed, and continuing evidence of direct collaboration between the military and paramilitary groups." - Many army officers implicated in death-squad killings remain on active duty. - The armed forces blocked or took no action on most arrest warrants issued by the attorney general against paramilitaries. Many of the killers "collected warrants like badges of honor," and paramilitary commander Carlos Castano moves freely despite 22 outstanding warrants. In Putumayo, paramilitary leaders, army officials and local residents admit that nothing has changed. "The army collaborates by not bothering us, and we don't bother the army," said Joanny's boss, a paramilitary commander who uses the pseudonym John Byron. "When the army leaves a place, we enter it." He was speaking in an open-air ice cream parlor on La Hormiga's main street, surrounded by armed bodyguards. Suddenly, a platoon of army troops marched past on the sidewalk. They looked stone-faced at the paramilitaries; the paramilitaries looked back with the same expression. The soldiers continued. Many military officers privately admit that they help the paramilitaries - or at least do nothing to hinder them. "The paramilitaries are helping us by fighting the same people I'm fighting, " said one aide to the 24th Brigade commander. "Why should I fight them?" "The army has its hands tied by human rights," said Byron. "We don't. We are free to fight the war." The paramilitaries were founded by Fidel Castano, a wealthy landowner in northern Cordoba province, after the leftist guerrillas kidnapped his father in 1980 - and then, after the family paid a ransom, returned him dead. The paramilitaries were lavishly funded by drug traffickers, including Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar, and were given weapons and training by the Colombian army - a shadowy alliance that made a mockery of the government's war against drugs. Castano disappeared in uncertain circumstances in 1994, and three brothers and a sister were killed by the rebels. Now Carlos Castano, another brother, carries on a fiercely personal, scorched-earth war against peasant organizers, trade unionists, leftist civilians or anyone suspected of links to the guerrillas. Castano said earlier this year that about 70 percent of his organization's revenues come from taxing drug traffickers. Government and paramilitary officials say drug traffickers who depend on Putumayo's coca crop financed the paramilitaries' incursion into the province because the rebels have raised the traffickers' costs. Since earlier this year, when the FARC grabbed control of the region's coca business, the rebels have forced traffickers to raise the price for coca paste by about 25 percent (to an average of $1,000 per kilo) and pay a "tax" of 500 pesos (22 U.S. cents) per kilo. The paramilitaries, in areas they control, allow traffickers to set prices, and charge only 100 pesos tax per kilo. "We were invited here by many businesses, including the drug traffickers," said Byron. Most paramilitary members are from lower-middle-class origins, and some are motivated by money: Starting pay for paramilitary recruits is $400 per month (volunteer army soldiers receive half that, while guerrillas are unpaid), while officers such as John Byron receive more than $1,000 per month (the same as an army general). But like the Castanos, many paramilitary members are motivated by sheer revenge. And because the guerrillas also practice an eye-for-eye philosophy, there's plenty of killing to be done. For example, Joanny and Byron said several of their family members had been killed by the guerrillas. Joanny admitted that he enjoys killing. When he does it, he said, he thinks of his dead brother. Executions, however, are a drag. "I like killing in combat, but point-blank is disagreeable. It gets messy, you know?" Byron felt otherwise. "To kill is easy, as long as the person is guilty," he said. "You just point and pull the trigger." But for a fearless killer, Byron said he has a soft side. Since three years ago, when he quit his old job as a hotel receptionist in northwest Choco province and joined the paramilitaries, he hasn't squared with his mother about his new job. "I told my mother I'm a bodyguard to a drug lord," he said. "It's safer and more acceptable. If she knew I'm doing this she'd be very worried."Note: Despite official denials, feared fighters known for death squad tactics work closely with the army.E-mail Robert Collier at: rcollier Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff WriterPublished: Sunday, December 18, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Articles By Robert Collier:Rebels' Grip Tightens of Coca Money Hard for Farmers to Resist War in the Jungle Articles - Colombia 
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Comment #2 posted by Stripey on December 18, 2000 at 09:41:25 PT
Let's hear it for prohibition. . .
It's okay for folks to die, as long as they're not Americans.The War on Drugs is a War on People. And mostly innocents. . . I think Barry MeCaffFree needs to take a trip sout' a da' boarder and look at all the corpses he's piled up. . . The wet bastard.
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on December 18, 2000 at 08:06:39 PT:
Read this article, and the one that preceeds it. Who is better, FARC or the paramilitaries? Neither, is my answer. Nevertheless, we are there fanning the flames. Our idiotic War on Drugs perpetuates this horrendous conflict.
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