The paramilitary machine of the AUC and the power of Carlos Castaño

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Between 1995 and 1997 alone, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (and later AUC after a unification and expansion plan), committed more than 100 massacres in the country in Antioquia and part of Magdalena Medio


Oscar Mauricio López

The paramilitary machine of the AUC and the power of Carlos Castaño

Before being the top commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Carlos Castaño Gil was one of the many gunmen at the service of Pablo Escobar. PHOTO: Infobae (Jesús Avilés)

On December 2, 1992, Pablo Escobar was killed by the Search Bloc after years of harassing persecution that was not enough with the leadership of all the Colombian Armed Forces, but the DEA also interceded in a large part of the operations that, Added to the pressure exerted by structures such as the PEPES (Persecuted by Pablo), they ended not only with the death of the drug trafficker, but also with a black period of violence, car bombs, pistol plans and a war against the State by him alone.

But Escobar's death did not end the armed conflict: on the other side, the Army not only had to deal with Escobar, but also with the rural struggle carried out by the guerrillas. The failed peace agreements in the 1990s, especially with the (now extinct) Farc, they brought with them new waves of violence contained in tacos, bomb cylinders, miraculous catches and takeovers of municipalities in almost all the departments of the country. Now, focused on the leader of the Medellín Cartel, someone had to continue his legacy by complying with the sometimes implicit drug law.

Carlos Castaño Gil was one of the hundreds of gunmen at the service of the capo, and three years after his dejection on the roof of a house in the Los Olivos neighborhood of Medellín, the man born in Amalfi (Antioquia) did everything possible to become the top commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia(AUC), a paramilitary front made up of almost all the structures created to supposedly 'guard' their lands from the guerrillas.

From 1993 to 1996, Castaño became one of the most powerful and feared men in Colombia. On December 4 of that last year, the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) took over the Pichilín corregimiento, located in the Morra municipality, Sucre. Approximately 50 men arrived in 10 trucks and summoned all the male inhabitants to the center of the hamlet. In total, they killed 11 of them, while many others managed to flee to nearby towns.

“«I heard that that number of cars came down first. On December 16 there was going to be a party because that party is held every December 16. I said: “Could it be that these few cars come […] to support the party”; but then what I noticed strange was that they began to burn ranches, that's when I said: “This is not a good thing”»” a survivor told the Truth Commission.

The paramilitary mega-structure that sought to finance itself with drug trafficking

That year's Defense Minister, Juan Carlos Esguerra, offered a reward of one billion pesos to anyone who gave information to capture Castaño. That amount was never delivered, because no one dared to denounce it. Despite this, he and his brothers (Fidel and Vicente) set up a bloody structure to counteract the barbarism of the insurgency. The problem is that this plan consisted of spreading terror through massacres, takeovers of towns, disappearances, torture, stigmatization and forced displacement.

On April 18, 1997, Vicente and Carlos Castaño summoned the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Boyacá, those of Ramón Isaza, and the Self-Defense Forces of the Eastern Plains to a conference whose purpose was to regroup these structures and form one for political and military purposes: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Between May 16 and 18, 1998, a second conference was held, three other groups joined: the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Casanare, those of Cundinamarca, and those of Santander and Sur del Cesar (Ausac). Two years later, the Central Bolívar Bloc (BCB) was formed, led by Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias Macaco, and with interventions by Iván Roberto Duque, alias Ernesto Báez.

In principle, the AUC insisted on consolidating its expansion plan to later ask for political recognition in the context of the internal armed conflict “through a narrative according to which the Army did not have the resources or the capacity to wage an irregular war, and that the way to defeat the guerrillas would be to oppose them with an irregular army that would focus the dispute on the territory and the population”, according to the Commission.

In that year, the FARC was in full expansion stage, attacking police stations, taking various towns in the country and carrying out the famous “miraculous catches”, which were experienced with more intensity between 1998 and 2002. The coming war was going to have a little-known magnitude despite the fact that the country had already gone through the tie-cutting of La Violencia and the dead wrapped in barbed wire that were thrown into the Cauca River.

The logic of expansion of the self-defense groups, according to the Commission, was guided by economic interests, especially those of drug traffickers who financed the AUC to guarantee the protection of the entire production and distribution chain against guerrilla attacks. Nor did they expand in a disorderly manner, but rather they did so according to the areas with the greatest presence of illicit crops. Said logic was related to the protection of certain oil and coal companies, both foreign and national.

Now, regarding their violent actions, both the Commission and other entities (including the National Center for Historical Memory and recently the Special Jurisdiction for Peace) have given an account of the complicity and coexistence between the Army and the Police, as well as the participation of members of the public force in the ranks of structures that also took the name parastatals, because as the term indicates, they acted hand in hand with legal actors.

Between 1995 and 1997 alone, the ACCU perpetrated at least 34 massacres in the country. In that last year, already converted into the AUC, they committed 70 in Bolívar, Magdalena, Sucre, Antioquia and Cesar.