The civilians of Colombia have been caught between fights and engagements between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrilla groups. This battle for supremacy has persisted over a decade, with the local people suffering from these engagements. In 2003, however, Alvaro Uribe, the President of Colombia, took the initiative to stop the violence associated with either of the actors (Hanson 2008).
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Thus, he signed a peace treaty with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, also known as the AUC, as this was one of the largest paramilitary groups in the country. Hanson (2008) reports that after the peace talks initiation, at least thirty thousand AUC members have since left the group, with the top members relinquishing their positions. Despite all these efforts, a myriad of political scandals shows the depth in which the people have been engaged in paramilitary scandals and the infiltration and participation by the Colombian security forces.
Moreover, the country is facing infiltration by new criminal insurgents whose mode of operation is similar to that of the AUC. For a long period, Colombia has received funding from the government of the United States. This was meant to propel the government in their fight against the illegal trade of narcotics. However, the country’s rate was involved in paramilitary scandals meant that the United States could no longer extend funding to the country. It further chose to retract its promise of free trade.
Reasons for Establishment
The origin of various paramilitary organizations dates back to the 1980s. It is assumed that these groups were doing drug traffickers who were tired of being harassed by guerrillas. In effect, they sought to establish death squads they termed as Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores – MAS). The main reason why the paramilitary groups were established was to oversee that the guerilla units no longer harassed drug traffickers.
Thus, the proposed actions against these persons were to kill anyone associated with them without considering whether they were close associates or sympathizers. In the end, even innocent people lost their lives as they were unjustly indicted (Rabasa & Chalk 2001). Eventually, many other self-defense factions under the Colombian army or the directives of key politicians in the country were enacted, with the premise that they would offer protection to the local villagers.
Most of these self- defense units were legally recognized. However, other than offer security to innocent populations, most of the groups worked for drug traffickers. When the groups retracted from their original aim of establishment and started to associate with drug traffickers, they benefited from gaining access to top military weapons, cars, and communication gadgets to aid in their activities. Indeed, the rise of drug lords’ economic power has become the country’s new conflict. For instance, powerful members involved with the Medellin cartel heavily invested in land ownership. In an attempt to protect their investment, they, in turn, sought to finance paramilitary groups to gain protection from guerrilla groups. Over time, these groups were now protecting the drug warlords other than the civilian groups.
In the late 19th century, the Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) and el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) sought to create many other self-defense units. Thus, Vincente, Carlos, and Fidel Castaño decided to form such a unit in 1982, naming it Las Tangas, or popularly known as Los Dangerous. The aim of forming the unit was to fight the FARC group’s activities and seek vengeance for the death of their father, who had been killed by the latter group. In 1994, to become a paramilitary group, the Las Tangas colluded with the Colombian military and carried out its activities in the Antioquia and Urabá regions.
However, there later arose the need to form one unique group that would consolidate all the regional and local activities of other paramilitary groups. It is this need that led to the formation of the AUC.
Specifically, the AUC paramilitary group was established in 1997 through a move that sought to bring all the right-wing militia groups together. The AUC, also known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was one of the right-wing umbrella’s, operating as a paramilitary body in Colombia (‘Profiles: Colombia’s Armed Groups’ 2013). The top leaders of the group were prominent drug lords of the 1980s who sought to protect rebels.
Drug traffickers and elites were the group’s key supporters as they knew they would be able to gain protection against existing guerilla groups (Rabasa & Chalk 2001). This process was overseen by the heads of the ACCU militia group. Over time, several AUC militia groups were formed and regionally dispersed, with each group established to protect their local social, economic, and political interests. An achievement that would only be attained through engaging the local left-wing insurgents in combats.
The group’s popularity arose from their horrific actions ranging from murders and attacks meant to instill fear among guerilla groups. The group engaged in the ruthless killings of about 19,000 people assumed to associate or sympathize with guerilla groups between 1997 and 1999. For the first ten months of 2000, the group’s activities ranged from kidnappings, murders, and assassinations estimated at 203, 804, and 507, respectively.
At times when the AUC would get a hint of peace talks between the government and guerilla factions, they would seek to obscure further progress. One such example was in 2000 when the AUC hindered the peace talks between the government and guerilla groups. In opposition, they seized a sizable portion of the ELN territory. As a result, the ongoing peace talks were forced to come to an abrupt halt.
Goals and Objectives
When the Castaño brothers formed the AUC, their main goal was to limit guerrilla units’ operations, among them the FARC and the ELN. Other goals that led to the group’s establishment were to protect sponsor economic interests and protect the local communities and the elites (InSight Crime n.d.). Their protection activities later included drug traffickers when they became the key sponsors of the organization. Other members of the group, like Carlos Castaño, also viewed the AUC as a suitable political platform and an avenue through which he would become a reputable political actor. However, this plan conflicted with the group’s main political goal of violent conflict, which was highly popular with most AUC members and co-leaders like Vicente Castaño.
The operations of the AUC would not have been possible without funding. An analysis of the reason why it was established offers crucial information on its funding. They would be paid for the protection they accorded drug traffickers. All this offered to ensure protection from local guerrilla units (InSight Crime n.d.). For instance, cocoa farmers directly supported the activities of the group in return for protection.
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Also, this was easy as AUC was directly linked with the production and exportation of cocaine. The leaders of the group were very vocal about their receiving funds from dealing with the drug trade. In effect, the leader of the group, in March 2000, blatantly declared that trafficking, drug trade, taxation, and the production of coca, attributed 70% of the total revenues that the organization earned. He also added that the rest, which is 30%, was earned through extortion (InSight Crime n.d.). In 2003, a peace commission working in the country maintained that around 80% of the AUC’S finances were attributed to drugs.
In March 2007, one organization, the international fruit corporation, Chiquita, declared that it had financed the organization’s activities from 1997 to 2004. One prominent annual expenditure that the Chiquita group incurred was a payment of US$1.7 million that would be done to the AUC to ensure the protection of the company’s employees and activities in Urabá and Santa Marta (InSight Crime n.d.). At least US$825,000 of the monies remitted to the AUC after 2001 was done after the US state department had already termed the organization as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. To avoid suspicion and allegations of supporting a terrorist organization, most of the group’s finances were channeled through the Convivir network—the government-sponsored this rural security cooperative program.
The AUC has both positive and negative accomplishments. One positive accomplishment was collaborating with the military to fight against FARC. During this period, the AUC was still a legally recognized group to protect civilians. FARC’s activities were a threat to peace in the community as they extort people, kidnap innocent civilians, among others. It is only after the establishment of the AUC that the guerrilla group retracted its operations.
On the other hand, the AUC managed to engage in the most violations of human rights. The primary goal of establishing the group was to offer protection to the local communities. However, this goal was obscured by the love for money and infiltration by drug traffickers. In return, the group pledged their loyalty to protecting their key financiers, detracting from their primary goal. As a result, they murdered innocent civilians, raped women and children, and asserted their power through intimidation tactics.
Among the key regions that the AUC conducted their operations are the northwest of Antioquia, Bolivar, Cordoba, and Sucre. However, most of the southern and the northern departments grew rapidly from 1999. When clashes between the group and FARC insurgents ensued, the latter thought it wise to dominate all the country (The Guerrilla Groups in Colombia n.d.). The two main enemies of the AUC were FARC and ELN.
How the AUC conducted its operations led it to acquire a terrorist organization (The Guerrilla Groups in Colombia n.d.). Terrorism was the only better title to award the organization in light of their mass affliction to human rights like torture and massacres. Statistics from the National Colombian Police have shown that the AUC indeed carried out mass violations of human rights in 2000. Not only did they engage in murder, assassinations, and rape, but they also left behind victims from their activities (Trent 2012). A key example of these violations was the 3rd October incident when the militias attacked the Viajes town.
Since the incident, it is evident that the group delighted in the killing of innocent civilians. They first proceed to the homestead of Victor Rubio, a local farmer. They shoot and kill him, after which they take his Toyota pickup van. This move is highly calculated as the pickup is meant to ease their logistical struggles and make it possible for them to navigate the village easily. They then head to the home of the former inspector of police, killing him mercilessly. They then proceed to murder Rosendo Guzman, killing him as his wife watched on. As if that is not enough, they then proceed to the Ocache district and brutally kill five family members (Trent 2012).
They were a father, his three sons, and his son in law. Luckily, the children and women that had been locked in the rooms escaped through the windows. Otherwise, they too would have ended up dead. To prove that they were indeed responsible for the killings, they went on to paint the group’s initials on the roofs of all the homes they had visited (InSight Crime n.d.). Overall the group operated by using combat tactics to fight the forces and guerrilla units. Thus, they were in constant fights with the police and military.
As evidence of the group’s violation of human rights, one report submitted in 2005 to the human rights commission ascertained that, in 2004 alone, the AUC was liable for 342 counts of hostilities (InSight Crime n.d.). The various violations of human rights that the group was accused of are forcefully displacing people from their homes, recruiting demobilized people to the group, senseless killing of people, raping of innocent women and children, threats, kidnapping, looting wealth and intimidating innocent people through their actions to ascertain their power. Due to their defenseless nature, the group’s core target was indigenous communities.
They also constantly attacked and killed trade unionists, who, to them, were interference with people at work. Despite these crimes, the human rights watch has noted that there are people within the police and the Columbian military army who continually collaborate and support these insurgents (Arnson 2004). A specific example is how the organization developed a close relationship with Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta when it was under the leadership of Salvatore Mancuso.
The AUC first dissolved in 2002, which was informed by the need to eliminate its association with drug traffickers. Carlos, who was the group leader at the time, openly declared in 2003 that he was considering peaceful negotiations with the government, after which the group would be disbanded. However, most of the group members were against the idea of peace talks and dissolution of the group. Despite the resistance, Carlos proceeded with the talks with the promise of disbanding the group and acting in collaboration with the government towards a unilateral cease-fire (Trent 2012). However, the desired results were not accomplished as the government, and the AUC were not open. Thus, the demobilization process did not take place.
Furthermore, it was not on the government’s plan to offer the AUC extradition immunity members or to completely write off their crimes. Thus, the militant group was discouraged; they felt short-changed and resorted to their prior activities a year after the peace talks. Other attempts to hold a peaceful talk were erased when Vincent, the vice-leader, ordered his brother Carlos’s assassination. Thus, the group had engaged in killing 2,000 innocent civilians by the beginning of the peace talks (Layús 2010). In response, the United States Government started pressuring the Colombian government to take up the same tough stance it had taken when combating the activities of the FARC to curb the group’s illegal activities.
In 2005, the AUC and the Colombian government were able to reach an agreement. One of the initiatives that were agreed on was incorporating the Justice and Peace Law (The Guerrilla Groups in Colombia n.d.). The justice and peace law is a mechanism of transitional justice that was keen on the conviction of paramilitary members, sentencing offenders, and minimizing the jail terms of convicted offenders and other high ranking officials when they confessed their crimes and returned what they had stolen. Vincente finally ran away because the government was taking a no-compromise approach with the remaining group members. However, most human rights organizations condemned the government for giving the organization a very lenient deal.
Nevertheless, the peace talks between the group and the government were concluded in 2006, with the AUC completing the demobilization process (Layús 2010). However, there is no accurate figure on the number that is demobilized. Some reports state that about 4,000 members were demobilized by 2006, while others state that all the 30,000 members of the group were demobilized by 2006 (InSight Crime n.d.).
The majority of the AUC leaders were later extradited to the United States in 2008 (AUC – Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia 2011). Nonetheless, local groups that succeeded in the organization is still existing. An existing de-facto group is the Black Eagles, whose operations are carried out under the AUC name. An example of their radical behavior was evidenced by the various sanctions and threats issued to the Sarare FM Stereo, stating that the reporters should desist from engaging in discussing matters that were out of the radio station’s mandate. The threats further asserted that, should this warning be ignored, then the station’s reporters and their family members would be at risk (Arnson 2004).
The next day, the initials, A.U.C were drawn at their office front. The de-facto group was likely angered by the radio station’s participation in human rights matters as they had earlier attended a public meeting on the same, on 27 September 2007. The key agenda of the meeting was to denounce the AUC violations of human rights.
However, there has been selective acceptance concerning the continuity of the group. Most reports continue to deny the AUC’s existence even after these threats were issued to Sartre FM (United Self-Defense Forces/Group of Colombia (AUC – Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia 2011). Nonetheless, there is a considerable level of acceptance on the group’s re-emergence, stating that the group’s actions are now towards private business in Ecuador and Colombia.
Still, the government continues to deny that any paramilitary group in the country, despite some people claiming that they were indeed active group members of the AUC, post its demobilization in 2006. On the other hand, former AUC members who willingly demobilized from the group were paroled in 2013 just as had been agreed with Justice and Peace law (Arnson 2004). Also, there has been a re-emergence of several successor groups linked with the group assumed to have been formed by mid-level commanders of the paramilitary organization that is assumed to have been left out of the justice program were not demobilized.
Continuity (Existence and Operation)
Even though the demobilization and disbarment process has been completed, it is not clear whether the influence of AUC still lives on. One report from the northern part of the country has espoused that the group’s activities are still in continuity, though in a small capacity (International Crisis Group 2007). The existing small units continue to engage in the group’s former activities, such as killing innocent people, extortion, and abduction. In effect, the government has commanded the security organizations to increase their efforts to ensure better citizen protection and zero reoccurrences of insurgent activities.
Further, the AUC three founders’ whereabouts are also unknown as it is alleged that they are either dead or have disappeared. While it is assumed that Vincente’s killing took place in 2007, his death, just like his brother’s Fidel, has never been ascertained. Vincente is also alleged to have killed his brother Carlos due to the conflict they had over the peace talk deal. However, none of this can be ascertained. Therefore, the whereabouts of these three brothers remain a mystery to be unveiled.
The activities of guerrilla groups necessitated the formation of paramilitary groups. One such group was the AUC, whose initial motive was to offer protection for the local communities. However, as drug traffickers gained more economic power and began financing the group’s activities, their operation motives evolved. In turn, they offered protection for drug lords, attacking guerrilla groups and any sympathizers, including civilians. They also engaged in terrorist acts like kidnapping, rape, killings, extortion, among others. With President Uribe’s election, however, there was the containment of the groups as he sought to establish peace talks with them.
Slowly, the group was dissolved, and operations ceased. It is believed that the group members have since died, though there is limited evidence to back the claim. Despite reports of the group’s non-existence, other small units have since been formed, and their mode of operation is similar to that of the AUC. Thus, it is quite hard to substantiate whether the group still exists or not.
Arnson, CJ 2004, ‘The peace process in Colombia with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC,’ The Wilson Centre. Web.
Hanson, S 2008, ‘Colombia’s Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups,’ Council on Foreign Relations. Web.
InSight Crime n.d., AUC. Web.
International Crisis Group 2007, Colombia’s new armed group. Web.
Rabasa, A & Chalk, P 2001, Colombian Labyrinth: The synergy of drugs and insurgency and its implications for regional stability, Santa Monica, CA, Rand Corporation.
Layús, RF 2010, The role of transitional justice in the midst of ongoing armed conflicts: the case of Colombia (Vol. 5), Universitätsverlag Potsdam, Berlin.
‘Profiles: Colombia’s Armed Groups’ 2013, BBC News. Web.
The Guerrilla Groups in Colombia n.d., ‘United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe,’ United Nations. Web.
Trent, C 2012, ‘AUC,’ Colombia Reports. Web.
United Self-Defense Forces/Group of Colombia (AUC – Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia 2011, Global Security. Web.