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New Colombia drug gangs wreak havoc

The killing of a farm leader suggests the rise of former right-wing paramilitary fighters.

May 04, 2008|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

SANTA ROSA, COLOMBIA — In the end, getting his picture taken with President Bush and attaining a modicum of local fame was no help to Miguel Daza. In fact, his high profile may have been the death of him.

The young farmer was killed in a roadside ambush in February near this mining and drug trafficking hub in north-central Colombia, apparently by one of a new generation of criminal gangs that have emerged in the two years since right-wing paramilitary fighters officially disbanded.

The status of the paramilitary fighters has serious ramifications for President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative U.S. ally who famously broke up the militias, which were playing a role in destabilizing the country. But he has seen his presidency challenged by revelations that many of his closest allies were tied to the right-wing gunmen.

The paramilitary groups, originally formed to defend farmers and ranchers against leftist rebels, subsequently turned to drug trafficking and other criminal activities, including extortion and mass killings, prosecutors say.

The new gangs are more dispersed and lack the hierarchical structure of their predecessors. In some areas, such as here in Bolivar state, they have formed alliances with leftist rebels to manufacture and transport drugs, a move that was once anathema to the fighters.

How the new criminal groups should be tagged and whether they are growing have become matters of debate. The Uribe government prefers the term "emerging gangs" because it conforms with its position that paramilitarism is a thing of the past.

But critics, including human rights groups and opposition figures such as Sen. Gustavo Petro, say the groups are wreaking the same havoc and committing the same crimes. The government is merely "putting a new name on the same old phenomenon," Petro said.

What is certain is that the new groups act with the same murderous efficiency when someone such as Daza threatens their grip on an area and its people.

Authorities theorize that members of the notorious Black Eagles killed Daza, 37, because he had become what the drug trafficking outlaws fear most: a rising community leader who convinced 250 poor farmers that there was a better alternative to growing coca.

A former coca grower himself, Daza was a vocal backer of the government's manual eradication of the plants and in frequent public talks described coca as a "curse that must be driven from the heart of the pueblo."

"They killed him because he created a social order that went counter to what narco-traffickers need: social upheaval, secrecy and a submissive society," said Leon Valencia, director of New Rainbow Corp., a peace advocacy group based in Bogota, Colombia's capital.

Daza was the driving force behind the planting of 2,500 acres of cacao orchards where coca once grew. The farmers association he helped found, the Cacao Producers Assn. of Southern Bolivar, received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Organization of American States.

"He changed people's thinking," said Elias Bermudez, a friend whom Daza persuaded to switch from coca to cacao. "It wasn't easy because coca grows fast and there is always a market. But Miguel made us conscious that there was another way."

Daza's courage and leadership were so impressive that Uribe introduced him to Bush during the president's visit to Colombia in March 2007. Daza startled Bush by handing him a huge cacao fruit. Bush had to ask Uribe what the odd-looking fruit was.

"He was a beautiful son," his grief-stricken mother, Ana Cecilia Vaca, said after a ceremony here last month in which U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield presented her with a framed photo of Daza with Bush. "He said meeting Mr. Bush was going to lead to great things."

Gen. Jose Roberto Leon of the Colombian National Police estimates that there are at least 23 "emerging gangs" numbering 2,200 fighters, a fraction of the demobilized paramilitary groups. Peace advocacy organizations such as the International Crisis Group and Indepaz estimate the number of gang members is at least twice that.

The best-known of the gangs is the Black Eagles, suspected of killing Daza, which operates in the Magdalena River valley, a prime cocaine-trafficking area. After commenting at a news conference here that the Black Eagles had formed an unholy alliance with the leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to process and transport drugs, Brownfield was asked how authorities knew.

"Because there is no conflict between them here," Brownfield said. "In the regions where they are in competition for drugs and trafficking routes, there is a lot of violence."

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