Colombian Paramilitary Leader Again Admits Links with Cocaine Traffic, Calls for Tactical Retreat from the Trade 6/14/02

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Carlos Castaño, the head of Colombia's murderous, 8,000-strong, right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in the Spanish acronym), admitted Sunday in a signed editorial on the organization's web site that the AUC remains tied to the cocaine traffic and warned his commanders that those links could cause the Colombian and US governments to strike against them. The AUC should break with the trade for that reason, said Castaño.

Along with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and ELN, the AUC is deemed a terrorist organization by the US State Department. They are widely reported to be responsible for the vast majority of killings of non-combatants in the festering civil war that is taking 3,500 lives each year. But the paramilitaries, who have roots in drug trade enforcer groups and as hired guns for wealthy landowners, have established long-lasting links to segments of the Colombian military, according to all observers, and are de facto allies of the US and Colombian governments in their battle against the armed left.

"The penetration of the drug traffic in various groups that belong to the AUC is unsustainable and well-known by the intelligence organisms of Colombia and the United States, which could quite possibly lead the North American government to choose a high-priority generalized confrontation with the AUC," wrote Castaño.

The only way for the AUC to achieve "social normality," said Castaño, was to break with the drug trade.

"Only a complete break with the drug trade could open a door through which we could return one day to what was social normality," wrote Castaño. "On the contrary, an international offensive against the AUC would be unsupportable for us."

Signaling divisions within the AUC, Castaño openly accused one of his AUC co-leaders, Ernesto Baez, of involvement in the drug trade and wrote that his activities "damaged" the good image of the AUC. Shedding crocodile tears, Castaño wrote that "it is not easy and pains much" to denounce his comrades-in-arms, but that he had an "obligation" to do so.

The paramilitary chief warned his fellow AUC commanders that "our inability to end links with the drug traffic" could work to the benefit of leftist guerrillas by distracting attention from the civil war. Still, Castaño wrote that it would still be necessary to "tax" peasant coca and opium growers to support the AUC's war effort.

Castaño's warning appears to be part of an ongoing attempt to redefine his image from bloody-handed mass murderer to concerned citizen. Last year, after revealing that two-thirds of the AUC's funding came from the drug trade, Castaño retired as an active commander to pursue a political role for himself and his paramilitaries. Now, with the election of conservative hard-liner Alvaro Uribe as incoming president, Castaño is angling for a place at the negotiating table. When Uribe was governor of Antioquia province in the 1990s, he sponsored the organization of local "self defense forces" similar to the AUC, and he has announced plans to create a million-member "self defense force" among peasant villagers in the war-ravaged Andean nation.

Uribe has also signaled a willingness to sit down with the AUC, something his predecessors had refused to do. But he has also reiterated his support for an intensified war on drugs, which could make it difficult for the Colombian government to sit down with a drug-connected armed group.

On May 28, Uribe called the drug war "essential" because all sides in the armed conflict were profiting from the drug trade. "Colombia has to defeat drugs," the Harvard-educated president-elect told a news conference. "If not, we will not create conditions to negotiate peace. As long as the violent groups are financed, we will remain far from obtaining final accords."

Uribe, who promised a "hard hand" against the guerrillas, won the late May election with 53% of the vote. Liberal Party standard bearer Horacio Serpa came in second with 31%, and leftist candidate Luis Eduardo Garzon, who has called for the legalization of the drug trade, came in third with 12% of the popular vote.

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