Paramilitary Ties to Elite In Colombia Are Detailed
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Top paramilitary commanders have in recent days confirmed what human rights groups and others have long alleged: Some of Colombia's most influential political, military and business figures helped build a powerful anti-guerrilla movement that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities.
The commanders have named army generals, entrepreneurs, foreign companies and politicians who not only bankrolled paramilitary operations but also worked hand in hand with fighters to carry them out. In accounts that are at odds with those of the government, the commanders have said their organization, rather than simply sprouting up to fill a void in lawless regions of the country, had been systematically built with the help of bigger forces.
"Paramilitarism was state policy," Salvatore Mancuso, a top paramilitary commander, said last week at a hearing in this city's Palace of Justice. "I am proof positive of state paramilitarism in Colombia."
In a scandal that began to gain momentum last fall, investigators have revealed dozens of cases of government collaboration with paramilitary groups. But Mancuso's testimony, buttressed with remarks made in a jailhouse interview by another top paramilitary commander, represents the first time that major players in the scandal have described in detail how the establishment joined forces with them.
Dozens of other top commanders are scheduled to testify before special judicial hearings in the coming days and weeks. Their testimony could help uncover the roots of the violence and drug trafficking that have plagued this country and commanded significant aid from Washington.
The administration of President Álvaro Uribe says that it has moved aggressively to dismantle the paramilitary groups, and that its determination to do so has made the investigations possible. The investigations, however, have resulted in a collective and painful catharsis for this country.
Ivan Duque, a strategist who helped formulate the ideology of the paramilitary coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, said in an interview that the group had alliances with anyone of influence in the regions where it operated.
"Could these three groups -- I'm talking about political people, economic people, the institutional people, meaning the military -- operate without having contact with the chief of chiefs?" said Duque, speaking from the Itagui prison in Medellin, which houses dozens of paramilitary commanders. "That's impossible. That cannot be."
Chosen by his fellow commanders to speak to two American reporters, Duque said last week that, now that the paramilitary commanders have decided to air their dirty secrets, it also was time for the elites who helped the AUC to come clean. He said paramilitary groups had 17,000 armed fighters and more than 10,000 other associates, from cooks to drivers to computer technicians and informers. And he said it was plain for anyone to see.
"Men armed to the teeth," Duque said, gesticulating as he sat in an office provided by prison guards. "Could you really travel the whole territory so that no one could see them, notice them, that no one collaborate with them? That's why I talk of this county of hypocrisies, this society of lies."
Colombia's paramilitary movement began more than a generation ago to counter a growing Marxist guerrilla force and quickly turned into an irregular army that committed widespread massacres and assassinations, funding much of its operations with cocaine trafficking. The attorney general's office estimates the paramilitary fighters killed about 10,000 people from the mid-1990s until the early part of this decade, when its commanders began negotiating a disarmament with Uribe's government. The AUC is on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.
Now, in a crucial post-disarmament phase that requires commanders to reveal their crimes in exchange for lenient treatment, Mancuso and others have begun to speak.