|United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)|
Posted: September 2002
The AUC, short for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, is currently the fastest growing armed group in Colombia, claiming more than 15,000 troops. Part of its popularity, State Department officials say, is due to the sparse presence of federal security forces in the rural parts of the country.
The AUC's members come from right-wing vigilante groups, rural self-defense militias, and former military personnel and policemen. The AUC threatens anyone suspected of supporting guerrillas, including labor and religious leaders, politicians, journalists, teachers, union members.
The Colombian Justice Department has reported that at least 1,000 former personnel of the nation's military and police joined the AUC after being ousted for human rights abuses. Colombian authorities also suspect that these members colluded with their former colleagues to supply the AUC with intelligence and weapons.
The Colombian National Police hold the AUC responsible for at least 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings and 75 massacres with 507 victims in 2000. The Justice Ministry also blames the AUC for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
The AUC traces its roots to Colombia's regional "self-defense" movement of the 1950s when wealthy landowners commissioned regional militias to defend their property and business interests from marauding bandits, peasants, and early leftist groups. With a steady stream of funds coming from companies and agriculture-businesses, private self-defense militias burgeoned and effectively filled the void left by the sparse federal law enforcement in the remote, rural areas.
Private self-defense militias grew in the 1980s with massive financial support from drug cartels that had bought most of Colombia's arable land. Most notably, the Medellin and Cali cartels heavily funded militias to defend the narco-plantations and other interests from rural guerrillas, who often tried to collect "coca taxes" from plantation workers and even operate their own narcotics farms.
Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and Carlos Lehder operated the most powerful coca and poppy farms in Colombia. Fidel Castaño also ran a large narcotics ring associated with the Medellin cartel.
Castaño was the founder and chief of the strongest northern "para" called the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Uruba (ACCU), the AUC's predecessor.
Fidel Castaño and his brother, Carlos, formed the ACCU to avenge the murders of their father and family by FARC guerrillas, which had continually threatened their family's plantation in northern Colombia. The ACCU allegedly help protect and defend the large narco-plantations and trafficking rings.
As the drug trade grew in the 1980s, the cartels established urban militias to protect their business interests in cities.
The most powerful urban narco-militia, MAS (Death to Kidnappers), was created in 1982 when the leftist guerrilla group M-19 kidnapped the sister of the Ochoa brothers, leaders of the Medellin drug cartel.
The Medellin cartel nominated José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha to head the right-wing death squad, comprised of 2,300 sicarios, or hitmen, operating primarily in urban areas like Medellin.
To expand its elimination of guerrillas, MAS allied with rural paramilitaries, like Castaño's ACCU, to orchestrate their assaults against guerrillas, and left-leaning politicians, most notably from the UP, thought to be affiliated with "terrorist" guerrilla movements.
By the mid-1990s, with the decline of the drug cartels and the mysterious death of Fidel Castaño, Carlos Castaño inherited the commander-in-chief position of the ACCU. As its military chief, Castaño campaigned to transform the ACCU into a national coordinating body for all right-wing militias.
The AUC consequently gained many more members, but the ACCU, Fidel Castaño's legacy, continues to be the core military unit of the AUC.
Carlos Castaño, who has been profiled by mainstream U.S. press, is considered highly charismatic; many Colombians tacitly approve of Castaño's hard-line "self-defense" tactics against leftist rebels and dangerous criminals.
Castano has campaigned throughout Colombia to legitimate the AUC as a political party. In 2001, Castaño named himself the new political head of the organization, and designated Ramón Isaza and Salvatore Mancuso the new military commanders-in-chief.
Although Castaño openly admits the AUC receives up to $2 million a year from "coca taxes," he denies the AUC earns any more from drug trafficking. He also rejects the AUC or ACCU had any links to MAS, other narcomilitias, arguing that the AUC is not interested in the drug business, but wants to rid Colombia of its "subversives."
According to US DEA intelligence, Castaño maintains his connection to drug cartels, more specifically to the Henao Montoyo organization, Colombia's current top cartel. The State Department added the AUC to its list of foreign terrorist organizations in fall of 2000.
On Sept. 24, 2002, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment of Castano on drug trafficking charges. The U.S. will seek Castano's extradition.
-- By Liz Harper, Online NewsHour