Wednesday, 28 March 2001
GUAMUEZ VALLEY, Colombia – While Colombia insists it is cracking down on outlawed paramilitary groups, commanders of the right-wing units boast that they are actually spearheading the government’s US-funded offensive to wipe out the booming cocaine industry in guerrilla-held jungles in the south.
President Andres Pastrana and the military’s top brass have repeatedly vowed to crackdown on the burgeoning paramilitary forces and on officers and soldiers found collaborating with them. But there is credible evidence to back the paramilitary commanders’ assertions that they are actually functioning as the vanguard of ”Plan Colombia” – the campaign to eradicate illicit drug crops that Washington is financing with $1.3 billion in mostly military aid.
In months of covert operations in large swaths of Putumayo province in remote southern Colombia, both sides say, the right-wing forces have driven out leftist guerrilla units and killed suspected leftist sympathizers.
That cleared the way for the army’s US-trained anti-narcotics battalions to move in without fear of ambush and with less risk of having their helicopters and defoliant-spraying aircraft shot down.
The army’s 24th Brigade and Anti-Narcotics Brigade ”know where we are, and they draw up sketches and decide to spray where they know we have consolidated those zones. They have depended entirely on us,” said a paramilitary chieftain known by the nom de guerre ”Commando Wilson.” A former member of an army antiguerrilla unit, he now runs paramilitary operations in Putumayo.
”Plan Colombia would be almost impossible without the help of the [paramilitary] self-defense forces. If we did not take control of zones ahead of the army, then the guerrillas would shoot down their planes,” he added, speaking on condition that the village that houses the paramilitary regional headquarters not be identified.
He said overall strategy was planned between his ”superiors” and the military, and he swaps the co-ordinates of his fighters’ positions with the army daily.
There are army detachments 20 minutes away on either side of the paramilitary command post. The dirt road through the valley is pockmarked with foxholes manned by paramilitary sentries. Trucks packed with up to 40 camouflage-clad fighters, bristling with machine guns and rocket launchers, rumble along the road regularly as they head out on search-and-destroy missions.
Karl Penhaul, BOSTON GLOBE