Uribe’s Boys

“The judgment of History will recognize the goodness and nobility of our Cause.”[i]

–Salvatore Mancuso, military commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)

Salvatore Mancuso delivered these triumphant words in a July 28 address to the Colombian Congress. He and two other commanders of the AUC flew to Bogotá in a Colombian Armed Forces plane, as part of their negotiations with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s administration. The AUC is a right-wing paramilitary federation responsible for murdering tens of thousands and terrorizing millions of Colombian civilians, often using unspeakably gruesome means, and working together with Colombia’s armed forces.

The latest AUC proposal turned out to be pretty straightforward: not only should the government pardon their crimes, Mancuso argued, but the whole society should celebrate their heroism. “The reward for our sacrifice for our country, for having freed half the country from the guerrillas and having prevented another Cuba or the old Nicaragua establishing itself on the nation’s soil, cannot be to send us to prison.”

A human rights defender named Dilia Solano was dragged from the Congress shouting, “The victims’ blood cries out. Peace can’t come at the cost of impunity!”[ii] Solano had been seated next to the daughter of the late Senator Manuel Cepeda, who was murdered by the paramilitaries.


Colombia’s paramilitaries were organized in the 1980s, out of a network of alliances between military officers seeking a more effective counterinsurgency strategy, large land-holders wanting to protect their properties from seizure and their families from kidnapping by guerrillas, and drug traffickers needing private armies to conduct their business.

The paramilitaries established a reputation early on for spectacular massacres, open coordination with military and police officials, “social cleansing” policies that dictated conditions of daily civilian life, perverse tactics such as public tortures and decapitations, and primarily targeting civilians they accuse of collaborating with guerrillas rather than guerrillas themselves.

Paramilitary takeover of the northwestern banana-growing region of Urabá in the mid-1990s took place during current President Uribe’s governorship there. A stern young Uribe oversaw deployment of the CONVIVIR, a government-sponsored “civilian surveillance and intelligence” force in which a number of today’s AUC leaders reportedly served. According to a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report obtained by the National Security Archive, Uribe was also “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar” and among “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers.”[iii] Under his watch, paramilitaries wiped out civilians and seized territory, with homicides in Urabá tripling from 1994 to 1996.[iv] Military leaders hailed Uribe’s “pacification” of the region.

Shortly after taking office as President in August 2002, Uribe announced “peace talks” with the AUC.

With great fanfare, approximately 1,000 of the AUC’s estimated 15,000 troops demobilized by late 2003. In theory, they turned in their weapons and were “re-inserted” into civilian life. However, even U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood has pointed out that “the world doesn’t really know what has happened to the former combatants who participated in the program.”[v]

More importantly, Uribe’s government insisted a unilateral AUC cease-fire was the precondition for opening negotiations. No one even pretends to believe this has happened. Mancuso told Congress that “the ceasefire the Self-Defense Forces declared in December 2002 does not free us from the responsibility to defend people and regions from guerrilla attacks.” The killing continues.

The team asked by Uribe to prepare a confidential assessment of the nascent negotiations concluded in early 2003 that paramilitary leaders’ main goals included “judicial security” and “legalization of a part of their fortune,” according to a Washington Post reporter who saw the assessment.[vi]

Uribe and his supporters have pushed for a bill offering them just that: amnesty and legality. If they have their way, Colombia’s longstanding impunity for paramilitary crimes will be formalized. The slate will be wiped clean. And, if some can negotiate their way around U.S. extradition orders for drug trafficking, AUC leaders might well try to parlay what Mancuso called their “difficult, heroic and even mythical history” of “safeguarding a free Colombia” into political careers.

Accommodating foreign concerns

Because of the AUC’s documented drug trafficking activities and their classification by the United States as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” since 2001, Uribe can’t endorse them openly. To a certain extent, then, the peace process has to be dressed up for an international audience. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Catholic Church have been brought in as observers. Pomp and circumstance have secured media attention for each supposed milestone in the process: the ceasefire declaration in December 2002, the signing of a statement of intent in July 2003, the demobilization of 850 troops in November 2003, the “opening of talks” in July 2004. Uribe and his supporters make regular mention of past peace processes in El Salvador, Northern Ireland and South Africa as models. Rarely does anyone point out that all those negotiations were between groups who had been adversaries, not allies, like the Colombian military and the AUC.

It’s grand theater, if a bit thin on substance for those paying too close attention. Even a couple of Uribe’s staunch Congressional supporters expressed concerns after Mancuso’s visit that, as the Bogotá daily El Tiempo put it, “the administration never told them what the purpose was” for the speech.[vii]

The paramilitaries have done their part in improving the talks’ international image, reducing use of their trademark tactic of spectacular massacres and replacing it with individual assassinations. The switch has noticeably decreased the already meager amount of coverage foreign media give to their crimes.

Almost immediately upon taking office, Uribe began making extensive use of mass round-ups and other police and judicial tactics against his critics in civil society. Those critics, not coincidentally, are also strong opponents of the paramilitaries. Uribe’s repressive actions-including his varied attempts to formalize them in “State of Emergency” and “Anti-Terrorist” laws allowing detentions without charges, surveillance without judicial permission, restrictions on civilian travel, and the like-trigger reliable, loud condemnation from the United Nations and Amnesty International, but their immediate effects appear well worth the diplomatic hassle of such complaints. Nearly every night on Colombian television news, the authorities show off a few dozen just-captured, handcuffed “terrorists.” No matter if more than half of them are later released for lack of evidence or even charges. The government has flexed its muscles on TV, and further suppressed dissent.

A Colombian friend forced into exile in the United States jokes about “the thousands and thousands of ‘finance chiefs’ in the FARC and ELN [guerrillas].” Indeed, when TV news shows actually make specific allegations against the civilians rounded up as “terrorists,” it seems they’re usually either “finance chiefs” or “ideologues.”

The one sector of “the international community” that actually counts, as far as Uribe’s overall strategy is concerned, is the U.S. government and its allies (or rather its ally, the U.K., since the March election in Spain). The U.S. government is usually silent on such matters. Uribe’s backers often cite the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act as a precedent for their “preventive” measures.

The fever for mass detentions has gotten a bit carried away at times. In May 2003, for example, authorities arrested Roman Catholic Bishop José Luis Serna Alzate along with 17 current and former government officials in the central Colombian province of Tolima, charging they all worked for National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. In a country where more than 90 percent of the population is Catholic, the Bishop’s arrest meant the case actually received the media and public attention all such arbitrary round-ups deserve.[viii] Bishop Serna was released in December. Two former ELN members who had testified against him retracted their claims. The former guerrillas told reporters they were pressured into making the claims by members of an elite government anti-kidnapping task force.[ix]

While Uribe must engage in the theater of negotiation with the paramilitaries in order to accommodate international relations, he seems to have calculated that one area in which he does not have to give similar ground is in his relationship with human rights defenders and other civil society critics.

In September 2003 he delivered two speeches accusing human rights defenders of “serving terrorism,” effectively giving paramilitaries a green light to execute them. Always heedful of symbol and ceremony, Uribe made the second speech on September 11. U.S. officials didn’t even give him a slap on the wrist.

In May and June 2004, Uribe attacked again. First he threatened the work of Peace Brigades International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, two international accompaniment organizations working in the San José de Apartado peace communities in Urabá (the region Uribe was credited with “pacifying”). Then, in a June 16 speech to police officers, Uribe singled out Amnesty International, accusing the venerable human rights group of “legitimizing terrorism.” This time Secretary of State Colin Powell responded, saying the U.S. government supports Amnesty’s right “to work safely” and believes the organization has made “significant and important contributions in Colombia.” Uribe made no public rectification or reply. Some of his Congressional allies, however, decried Powell’s “interventionist” meddling[x]”-not their usual response to Bush administration suggestions for their country, to say the least. Perhaps Uribe recognizes that Powell’s censure has no teeth. Every year Powell’s State Department documents collusion between the AUC and members of Colombia’s Armed Forces, but the military aid never stops flowing.

Another favorite tactic against civil society leaders under Uribe has been prosecuting them for slander or calumny when they speak out about collusion between the government and paramilitaries.

The U.S. role

It’s hard to say what the actual U.S. role has been in the “peace negotiations.” U.S. officials have to juggle a number of conflicting interests regarding the paramilitaries, such as the need to not give any ground on pursuing drug traffickers.

The historical record doesn’t give much ground for optimism. In early 2003, U.S. Embassy officials held at least three meetings with an emissary for Mancuso.[xi] Virtually nothing is known about the content of those meetings. One of the few quoted statements, reported in the Cali daily El País, was U.S. official Alex Lee telling Mancuso’s emissary “the obstacles will be great and it’ll have to be maneuvered with extreme prudence.”

Despite the pretty obvious news value and potential eye-grabbing headlines (“U.S. officials admit to meetings with terrorists,” for example), after a single Associated Press report the story never appeared again in mainstream U.S. media.

A full look at the U.S. relationship with paramilitaries must go a lot further back. In 1962, two years before the formation of Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a U.S. Army mission to Colombia suggested that the United States support a new strategy called Plan Lazo (“The Noose Plan”). Under Plan Lazo, according to the mission’s report, civilian and military personnel would be trained to undertake “clandestine execution of plans developed by the U.S. government.” The report further explained that “this civilian-military structure … will be used to perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions as necessary, execute paramilitary sabotage and/or terrorist activities against communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.”[xii]

The ugly record began long before George W. Bush.

PHILLIP CRYAN writes the Media column for Colombia Week (http://www.colombiaweek.org). In 2002 and 2003, he did human rights work in Colombia. Next year Common Courage Press will publish News From the Southern Front, a book he is writing about the impacts of recent U.S. intervention in the country. He can be reached at: phillipcryan000@yahoo.com

* This essay was originally published in Connection to the Americas, the journal of the Resource Center of the Americas (http://www.americas.org).


[i] All quotes from Mancuso’s speech are taken from the AUC’s web site, http://www.colombialibre.org, visited July 30, 2004. All translations from Spanish are the author’s.

[ii] El Tiempo, “Agrias protestas acompañaron los discursos de los jefes paramilitares.” July 28, 2004.

[iii] Joseph Contreras and Steven Ambrus, Newsweek, “Blacklist to the A List.” August 9, 2004.

[iv] Andrés Davila, Rodolfo Escobedo, Adriana Gaviria and Mauricio Vargas. “El Ejército colombiano durante el período Samper: paradojas de un proceso tendenicialmente crítico.” Colombia Internacional #49-50, Centro de Estudios Internacionales, Universidad de los Andes (2001), p. 261. Cited in International Crisis Group, “Colombia: Negotiating with the Paramilitaries.” September 16, 2003.

[v] Colombia Week, “‘Transparency has been lacking.'” March 22, 2004.

[vi] Scott Wilson, Washington Post, “Colombian Fighters’ Drug Trade Is Detailed.” July 1, 2003.

[vii] El Tiempo, “Agrias protestas acompañaron los discursos de los jefes paramilitares.” July 28, 2004.

[viii] I highly recommend the 1993 Jim Sheridan film “In the Name of the Father” as a quick and powerful introduction to the scale and duration of efforts generally required to disprove government allegations made within “anti-terrorist” legal frameworks.

[ix] Colombia Week, “Rebellion charges against Bishop dropped.” December 8, 2003.

[x] El País, “Congresistas critican posición intervencionista de Estados Unidos.” June 21, 2004.

[xi] Associated Press, “U.S. Official, Colombia Emissary Meet.” June 13, 2003; El País, “Contactos secretos entre EE.UU. y ‘paras.” June 13, 2003; El Colombiano, “E.U. espera a Carlos Castaño.” June 13, 2003; El Tiempo, “E.U. sí reunió con ‘paras.'” June 14, 2003.

[xii] “Visit to Colombia, South America, by a Team from Special Warfare Center, February 26, 1962” in “Major Conclusions,” Low-Intensity Conflict Document Collection, National Security Archives. Cited in Dennis Rempe, “The Past as Prologue?: A History of U.S. Counterinsurgency Policy in Colombia, 1958-1966.” The Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, March 2002.