Colombian Army Selectively Targets Paramilitaries
In recent weeks, the Colombian military has waged an offensive against a dissident paramilitary group in the eastern department of Casanare. The success of the campaign against the Casanare Peasant Self-Defense Forces (ACC) illustrates how easily the Colombian Army can combat the country’s right-wing paramilitaries when it chooses to do so. The country’s largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), is also fighting the ACC in a turf war over cocaine-producing territory. The army’s ongoing offensive against the ACC is helping the AUC consolidate its control over the region.
During the Colombian government’s failed peace process with the country’s largest leftist guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebels repeatedly demanded that the Colombian military dismantle the AUC. The government’s failure to seriously target paramilitaries responsible for the majority of the country’s human rights abuses was one of the major stumbling blocks in the peace process. The army’s willingness to go after dissident paramilitary groups now that the AUC is negotiating with the government not only illustrates the military’s sympathies towards the AUC, but also its ability to effectively target the paramilitaries when it wants to.
Unlike the guerrillas, who operate in remote rural regions with little government presence, the paramilitaries mostly exist in towns under government control. Often these towns contain army and police bases. Everyone in these towns, including the army and police, know full well who and where the paramilitaries are. Colombians in AUC-controlled towns have told me that the army and the paramilitaries are one and the same, and that they often conduct joint operations. The close ties and collaboration between the Colombian military and the AUC have also been well documented by human rights groups and the U.S. State Department.
The ongoing failure of the military to target the AUC is partly due to the operational convenience of having right-wing militias available to wage a dirty war against suspected subversives. The government has also lacked the political will to pressure the armed forces into dismantling the paramilitaries. That is until President Alvaro Uribe recently ordered the army to destroy the dissident ACC paramilitary group.
The army deployed more than 1,000 soldiers in an offensive against the ACC in August that resulted in the deaths of 21 paramilitaries. In a battle in late September involving aircraft and helicopters, the military killed another 13 ACC fighters, while capturing 32. With the group now in disarray and its leader wounded and on the run, General Carlos Alberto Ospina, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, stated that the ACC “has no reason to continue fighting, so the best thing for them is to surrender and accept the terms given by the government.”
The army’s recent battlefield successes against the ACC illustrate how easily the military could have targeted the AUC in the past if it had so desired. But the army has never mobilized against the AUC or its leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso with the same vigor that it has gone after the guerrillas or dissident paramilitary groups like the ACC. If it had, then the levels of violence in Colombia could have been reduced years ago and the Pastrana administration’s peace process with the FARC might have proved more successful. Instead, the army continues to collaborate with the AUC and, by targeting the ACC, is helping the country’s largest paramilitary group consolidate its control over the cocaine-producing regions of Casanare.