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Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia

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Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) or AUC is a terrorist umbrella organization formed in April 1997 to consolidate most local and regional paramilitary groups in Colombia, each with the mission to protect economic interests and combat insurgents locally. AUC itself estimates that they have authority over about 90% of the paramilitary forces within Colombia, with the remainder being independent factions.

The AUC claims its primary objective is to protect its sponsors from insurgents and their activities, including kidnapping and extortion, because the state historically failed to do so. The AUC now asserts itself as a regional and national counterinsurgent force. Former AUC supreme leader Carlos Castaño Gil in 2000 claimed 70 percent of the AUC's operational costs were financed with drug-related earnings, the rest coming from "donations" from its sponsors.

Contents

Activities

The AUC's main enemies are leftist insurgency groups, the FARC and ELN. All three are in the European Union's list of terrorist organisations and also classified as foreign terrorist organizations by the US State Department. The US State Department added the AUC to the list in 2001, condemning it for massacres, torture, and other human rights abuses.

According to the Colombian National Police in the first ten months of 2000 the AUC conducted 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings, and 75 massacres with 507 victims. The AUC claims the victims were guerrillas or sympathizers. Combat tactics consist of conventional and guerrilla operations against main force insurgent units. AUC clashes with military and police units are increasing, although the group has traditionally avoided government security forces.

A February 2005 report by the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that, during 2004, "the AUC was responsible for 342 cases of violations of the cessation of hostilities. These include the presumed reincorporation of demobilized persons into its ranks, massacres, forced displacements, selective and systematic homicides, kidnappings, rape, disappearances, threats, intimidation and lootings. These actions took place in 11 departments and targeted the civilian population, in many cases indigenous communities." [1] (http://www.hchr.org.co/documentoseinformes/informes/altocomisionado/informes.php3?cod=8&cat=11)

Some analysts and recent Human Rights Watch reports allege that numerous elements within the Colombian military and police still continue to either collaborate with or tolerate local AUC paramilitary groups.[2] (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/colombia/index.htm) A number of these analysts may concede that there has been a noticeable reduction in such behavior in recent years and that there have been increasing efforts to combat paramilitary influence, but most consider that much more remains to be done and thus they remain seriously critical of this situation.

2003-2004: Initial negotiation efforts

Recently, after a cease-fire was declared (which in practice has been publicly admitted by the AUC and the government to be partial, resulting in a reduction but not the cessation of killings), the government of Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez has begun talks with the group with the aim to eventually dismantle the organization and reintegrate its members to society. The stated deadline for completing the demobilization process would be December 2005. Several hundred members of the organization (more than 600) have already demobilized under existing laws.

A new law project was presented to the public which offered to pardon the members of any illegal armed group (which would legally include both guerrillas and paramilitaries) that declared a cease-fire and entered talks with the government, in return for, mainly, their verified demobilization, concentration within a specific geographic area and the symbolic reparation of the offenses committed against the victims of their actions. After much discussion and controversy over it, a further revised draft was distributed to the media and political circles. This new project was not officially submitted for approval by the Colombian Congress and further public discussion on the matter continued.

The project, among other details, called for the creation of a three to five member Truth Tribunal which would study each case brought before it (at the request of the President), after the groups/individuals sign an agreement to respect international humanitarian laws and accept the authority of the Tribunal, in exchange for a minimum sentence of five to ten years (part of it could possibly be served outside jail) for those guilty of the most serious crimes, the confession of the crimes which were committed in connection with the activities of the illegal armed group, and the completion of concrete acts of reparation towards the victims.

If the Tribunal were to deny the benefits to anyone, there would be no possibility of reconsideration. However, the President would be able to veto individuals who did receive a favorable sentence. The new law would be in effect only until December 31 2006.

Human Rights Watch spokesman Jose Miguel Vivanco publicly stated, during one of the final audiences which were created to discuss aspects of the original project (of which he remained highly critical), that the new proposition seemed to be considerably more in line with international standards, at first glance, but that more needed to be done in order to fully resolve the issue.

In contrast to these efforts, Salvatore Mancuso, one of the AUC's main commanders, publicly expressed that he is against both any potential extradition of himself (and his "comrades in arms") towards the USA and refuses "spending any day in jail".

Also, there have been internal conflicts within the illegal organization, as other AUC leaders have mutually accused each other of being tainted with narcotrafficking and their troops have even met in combat. These different, regionalistic and sometimes warring factions within the AUC, make successfully concluding any peace initiative a considerably difficult task.

In mid-May 2004, the talks appeared to move forward as the government agreed to grant the AUC leaders and 400 of their bodyguards a 142 square mile (368 km²) safe haven in Santa Fe de Ralito, Córdoba, where, under OAS verification, further discussions will be held, for a (renewable) trial period of 6 months. While the AUC leaders remain in this area, they will not be subject to arrest warrants. That condition and most of remaining legal framework invoked was previously implemented for the much larger San Vicente del Caguán area that former President Andrés Pastrana granted the FARC guerrillas as safe haven during the 1998-2002 peace process, but there are differences.

The local, state and police authorities will not leave the zone, since Colombian laws will still be fully applicable within its limits. The paramilitary leaders will require special permission to leave and re-enter the zone, and government prosecutors will be allowed to operate inside it in order to investigate criminal offenses.

Disappearance of Carlos Castaño

Paramilitary leader Carlos Mauricio Garcia alias "Doble Cero" ("Double Zero") or "Rodrigo", who since the 1980s had been a close associate of Castaño within the AUC (but had fallen into disgrace in recent years, leading to the formation of his own independent "Bloque Metro" ("Metro Bloc"), which operated in the Antioquia area until it was exterminated by rival paramilitary commanders from the AUC mainstream) was found dead on May 30 2004. He had strongly objected to what he considered an improperly close relationship between the AUC and drug traffickers, and was also opposed to the group's talks with the government.

Separately, in events which remain clouded and confusing, former AUC supreme leader Carlos Castaño, who had become relatively isolated from the organization, apparently suffered an attempt on his life on April 16 2004, presumably at the hands of either his own bodyguards, those of rival paramilitary troops, or perhaps even other entities altogether. Acting AUC commanders claim to believe that there was an accidental exchange of gunfire between his bodyguards and a separate group of paramilitary fighters, but that he may still be alive and possibly in hiding.

Other independent sources within the group and among its dissident factions claim that he and his men were captured and tortured before being executed and then buried by order of other AUC top leaders (perhaps his own brother Vicente Castaño and/or another commander nicknamed "Don Berna"), who have become increasingly close to narcotraffickers and their trade. Colombian investigators found a makeshift grave and an unidentified body (yet apparently not Castaño's) near the supposed area of the events. Those same sources allege that the bodies of Castaño and his other companions were dug up and taken to other locations before the investigators could arrive.

It has been speculated in the Colombian and international press that this could be a potential blow to the peace process, as Castaño seemed to become relatively critical of the increasing association with narcotraffickers in recent years and more willing to compromise with the Colombian state, and thus the remaining AUC commanders (such as Mancuso and alias "Don Berna") would potentially maintain a much less open negotiating position in the ongoing talks with the Uribe government.

The death of AUC co-founder Carlos Castaño remains in the air and has been the subject of wild and rampant speculation. One of the more exotic rumours (dating to June 1 2004), states that unidentified diplomatic sources told the AFP agency that Castaño may have been spirited away to Israel, via Panama, with U.S. assistance. No specific reasoning or details regarding this claim have yet been produced. The U.S., Colombian and Israeli governments have denied this allegation, which remains unconfirmed by any other parties.

Despite these claims, the truth regarding Castaño's exact condition has yet to be revealed.

Possible paramilitary presence in Venezuela

In early May 2004, Venezuelan authorities arrested at least 100 individuals that they accused of being Colombian paramilitaries and of scheming, together with part of the Venezuelan opposition, to begin a series of scheduled attacks against heavily fortified military targets within Caracas, aiming at the overthrow of President Hugo Chávez.

The AUC officially denied that they had anything to do with them. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe congratulated the Venezuelan president for the capture and pledged to cooperate with the investigation, while President Chávez himself declared that, as far as he was concerned, he did not believe that Uribe had anything to with the operation, for which he blamed "elements" within "the oligarchies of Miami and Bogotá", also implicating individual high-ranking U.S. and Colombian military officers, who have denied such involvement.

Colombian Vice-president Francisco Santos Calderón added that he hoped that the Venezuelan government would pursue with equal zeal those FARC and ELN guerrillas who would also be present in Venezuela. The Venezuelan opposition dismissed the whole event as a "setup", claiming that Chávez intended to interfere with the potential approval of a referendum which sought to remove him from power.

Most of those arrested were apparently unemployed poor peasants, some from the Cúcuta area, that had at some point in their lives done standard military service in Colombia and thus qualified as reservists. Some women and underage children were also included among them. The latter were speedily repatriated to Colombia. The alleged paramilitaries, who numbered approximately 100, were caught wearing Venezuelan Army uniforms and had a single gun in their possession. At least two supposed paramilitary commanders were also captured.

Late 2004: Demobilizations

In November 2004, the Colombian Supreme Court approved the extradition of top paramilitary leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño, together with that of the guerrilla commander Simón Trinidad, the only one of the men to be in state custody (Castaño's extradition was approved because the court considered that the matter of his death is not yet clear).

The court ruled that the three U.S. extradition requests, all for charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, respected current Colombian law procedures and therefore they could now proceed, once the Colombian president gives its approval. [3] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4040567.stm)

It has been speculated in the Colombian press that the government would possibly approve the extradition of Salvatore Mancuso, but would delay it for the duration of the peace talks that he and his organization are conducting with the state. Mancuso himself has declared that he will continue to participate in the process despite the Supreme Court's ruling. [4] (http://www.aucbc.com/pacificoauc/detalle_seccion.php?tipo=Articulos&id=2483)

In early December and late November, there have been new events in the peace negotiations with the AUC. First, several hundred men of the Bloque Bananero (loosely translated, the Banana Producers' Bloc) turned in their weapons and demobilized in order to be reintegrated into civilian life. This group operated in the Uraba region of northern Antioquia, where the AUC had dislodged the FARC and gained total control in the mid to late nineties. However, the AUC remain in the area with the presence of other divisions in order to maintain the peace and prevent the FARC from returning.

A few weeks later, the Catatumbo Bloc also demobilized. This was a milestone in Colombian history, for, with its 1425 mercenaries, the Catatumbo Bloc was one of the most important AUC groups in Colombia. With them Salvatore Mancuso, the AUC's military leader, turned himself in. A few days later, the government announced that it would not make Mancuso's extradition effective as long as he avoided criminal activities and fulfilled his commitments to the peace process.

Both of these massive demobilizations of AUC groups are an apparent improvement over the first one earlier this year in Medellin because this time actual leaders came in and the weapons turned in were assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and rockets, rather than homemade shotguns and old, malfunctioning revolvers, as in Medellin. The AUC is supposed to demobilize completely by 2006.

2005: Legal framework and controversy

Many Colombian and international observers are skeptical about the demobilization's prospects and see multiple causes for criticism. A concern shared by a high number of critics, both inside and outside the country, is that the demobilization process, if it doesn't provide a legal framework that contemplates the proper doses of truth, reparation and justice, could allow those who have committed human rights violations to possibly enjoy an undue degree of impunity for their crimes. A different kind of concern is held by a few of the supporters of the demobilization process, some of which believe that, without a certain degree of acceptance from the paramilitaries themselves, any unillateral attempts at reducing impunity could stay in writing and not be practically effective.

A smaller number of the critics have also expressed their fear that the current administration could integrate the AUC into its civilian defence militias or other military structures. Military and government spokesmen have stated multiple times that there is no intention to integrate the AUC into the state's legal security apparatus. While no reports of that occurring have been put forward yet, there have been signs of some individual paramilitaries expressing an interest in wanting to join (or form) privately financed security companies in areas that formerly were under their influence and control, in order to prevent possible guerrilla inroads.

The debate on the subject of potential impunity has had a high profile in both the international and Colombian media, with critical views being expressed in Chicago Tribune and New York Times editorials, in addition to many Colombian outlets. The main argument of several editorials has been that the international community should not help fund the demobilization process until the necessary legal framework to minimize impunity is in place. This position was also echoed by representatives of the international community in a February 2005 donor's conference in Cartagena. [5] (http://www.codhes.org.co/deditorial.php?editorial=60) [6] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4234939.stm)

After many public and private discussions through mid-to-late 2004, in early 2005, a number of Colombian congressmen, including senator Rafael Pardo and Gina Parody (traditionally holding pro-government positions) and Wilson Borja (a former leftwing labor leader who survived a paramilitary assassination attempt back in 2000) among others, independently presented a multiparty draft bill that, according to several observers such as Colombian and international NGOs (including Human Rights Watch), indicates a substantial improvement (compared to the government's previous initiatives) in meeting the necessary conditions of adequately dismantling paramilitarism and reducing impunity. Among these sectors, there is a semblance of a broad concesus in support of this bill. [7] (http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000031.htm) [8] (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2005/01/18/colomb10032.htm)

Colombian Congressional discussion on the subject was set to begin on February 15 2005, but suffered several delays. The Colombian government's own official draft had apparently gradually incorporated several of the provisions in the Pardo, Parody and Borja proposal, but a number of disagreements remained, which would be the source for further debate on the subject. Other congressmen, including supporters of the government, also begun to present their own draft projects.[9] (http://eltiempo.terra.com.co/poli/2005-02-06/ARTICULO-WEB-_NOTA_INTERIOR-1964257.html)

On February 23, the top AUC leaders published an online document on their webpage which stated [10] (http://www.colombialibre.org/detalle_col.php?banner=editorial&id=10577) that that they will not submit to a legal framework that, in their own words, would force them to suffer through an undue humilliation that their leftwing guerrilla foes would not contemplate for themselves. They also declared that they are in favor of laws that will allow their fighters to return to civilian and productive lives in a fair, peaceful and equitative manner. In the abscence of such conditions, they claimed that the consequence would be the end of the negotiations and their preferring to face the prospect of continuing "war and death". A government communique answered that the AUC should not put pressure on Congress, the media or the Executive on the matter of the legal framework, and that they would have 5 days to leave the Ralito zone if they chose to quit the talks. The AUC later reduced the tone of its earlier remarks. [11] (http://www.caracol.com.co/noticias/155976.asp)

On April 11, an AUC spokesman repeated their claims that the current proposal for amnesty was too harsh primarily because it still allowed extradition for drug charges. [12] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4429727.stm)

External links

es:Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia pl:AUC

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