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Paramilitaries' Infighting Batters Delicate Colombian Peace Process

June 09, 2003|Rachel Van Dongen | Special to The Times

BOGOTA, Colombia — Infighting among Colombia's right-wing paramilitary commanders is threatening to undercut a fragile peace process begun by President Alvaro Uribe last year as part of an effort to end the nation's four-decade civil war.

In December, a large swath of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, an outlawed, ultra-right-wing group created in the 1980s to combat the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, declared a cease-fire as the start of a peace process with Uribe's government.

But some AUC factions, such as those in the Medellin area and on the border with Panama, have refused to join the negotiations, and the commander of the Medellin faction claimed this weekend to be under attack by his former comrades in arms.

In an e-mail interview, a person who identified himself as the Medellin-area commander known as Rodrigo said fighting had commenced last week in the Medellin suburbs of La Ceja and Montebello.

He said 2,000 AUC fighters had descended on his territory with the intent to attack, and that two men in his 1,200-strong Metro Bloc had been killed. Another 10 had disappeared, he said. The deaths have been verified by journalists who traveled to the region.

Meanwhile, in another potential blow to the peace process, AUC factions in the regions of Meta and Casanare, representing 4,000 to 7,000 men, suspended negotiations with the government Friday after 12 of their members were killed by the army.

Those factions said that the 12 slain fighters were minors ready to surrender to the government. But the government said that the combatants were attempting an assault on an army convoy and that autopsies prove the combatants, dressed in camouflage, were adults.

The reported attacks and suspension of talks by various factions underscore the difficulty the government faces in securing a peace with the 12,000-strong paramilitary forces, experts said.

"They are not a national group," said Alfredo Rangel, a defense analyst and former consultant to the Colombian army. Instead, Rangel said, the paramilitaries are fundamentally regional groups controlled by strongmen.

The fighting in Medellin is reportedly a battle between Rodrigo's faction and another bloc headed by a commander called Adolfo Paz, better known as Don Berna. Don Berna holds the title of inspector-general in the AUC and supports the cease-fire declared by AUC leader Carlos Castano. Thus, Rodrigo believes the orders to attack him are coming from the top.

In the e-mail interview, Rodrigo said that his faction is upholding the ideals of the AUC and alleged that top leaders of the group have become tainted by involvement in drug trafficking.

"For us, the AUC headed by Don Berna is an armed narco-trafficking cartel and we are an armed political and ideological force," wrote Rodrigo, whose own faction is known for killing civilian FARC sympathizers.

Rodrigo announced last month that Castano had given his unit an ultimatum: Join the peace negotiations and abandon your territory, or be annihilated by your ex-comrades in arms.

"If the choice proposed to us by the AUC is to renounce our ideals or fight until death, then we will fight until we triumph because not only us, but all of society is threatened," Rodrigo said this weekend.

Rodrigo's claim about the ultimatum could not be confirmed. Neither Berna nor Castano responded to requests for interviews.Rifts among the paramilitary commanders began last summer, when Castano abruptly resigned from the political leadership of the AUC after he said it had become too involved in drug trafficking. He himself is wanted in the United States on charges of drug trafficking.

Rodrigo has refused to join peace negotiations before the FARC lays down its weapons. He also argues that the negotiations are meant to benefit AUC leaders seeking government pardons or reduced sentences, rather than the paramilitary movement as a whole.

The intra-paramilitary fight "logically is going to radicalize the AUC between the narcos and those who are not narcos. It will affect the peace process in that the AUC is not complying with the cease-fire agreement it unilaterally agreed to with the government, and it is going to affect the country," Rodrigo said.

Both the AUC and the FARC have been declared terrorist groups by the U.S. government, and Washington recently placed both organizations on its list of narco-traffickers. Some observers said the infighting threatens to exacerbate the violence in Colombia.

But Rangel argued that the conflict had more to do with a personal rivalry between Rodrigo and Don Berna and less to do with the peace process.

"It is a war of territorial disputes for control of the zones of Medellin," Rangel said. "I don't think there is any plan to exterminate the other."

In recent interviews with El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper, Castano has said that negotiations with the government are moving along and that the AUC would "soon" move to "gradually demobilize."

"I will keep my word with whoever wishes to accompany me," Castano told the paper.

Uribe recently proposed that insurgents who have committed certain crimes be allowed "conditional liberty" if they demobilize or enter a peace process with the government. Because the AUC is the only group currently engaged in peace talks, some observers believe the controversial proposal, to be submitted to the Congress next month, is aimed directly at the paramilitaries.

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