United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia

FormedApril 1997
Disbanded2006
First AttackJanuary 1999: The AUC attacked six regions in Colombia and killed suspected FARC sympathizers. The attack was in retaliation for the FARC’s attack on AUC headquarters the month prior. (150 killed, Unknown wounded) [1]
Last Attack2008: In 2008, several reports were released saying the AUC reemerged and was responsible for attacks on businesses and private citizens in Colombia and Ecuador, challenging the groups publicized demobilization in 2006. [2] [3]
UpdatedAugust 28, 2015

Narrative Summary

The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, was a right wing umbrella paramilitary organization in Colombia active from April 1997 to 2006. In the 1980s, guerrilla groups, including Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) and el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), prompted the creation of many small self-defense units and paramilitary units. [4]. In 1982, brothers Carlos, Vicente, and Fidel Castaño formed such a group, Las Tangas (also known as, Los Tangeros) to combat the FARC and avenge the death of their father, who was killed by the FARC. In 1994, Las Tangas aligned with the Colombian military to become a paramilitary defense group operating in Antioquia and Urabá, the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU).  In 1997, the brothers established the AUC, a distinct group that consolidated local and regional paramilitary groups. Elites and drug traffickers immediately supported the AUC, expecting protection from guerrilla groups in return. [5] The AUC became known for their horrific killings and gruesome attacks in order to instill fear in individuals associated with guerrilla groups. [6]

 In its first two years, between 1997 and 1999, the AUC killed more than 19,000 people in areas with suspected guerrilla sympathizers. [7] In the first 10 months of 2000, the AUC was responsible for 804 assassinations, 203 kidnappings, and 507 murders. [8] [9] The AUC’s attacks were also sometimes directed at disrupting peace talks between the government and guerrillas. For example, in 2000, the AUC opposed the ongoing peace talks between guerrilla groups and the government and in response, seized a large portion of ELN territory. This is regarded a contributing factor to the peace talks’ abrupt end, the AUC’s desired outcome. [10]

 In the early 2000s, the Colombian government overlooked many of the AUC’s routine executions. When the AUC attacked a village in 2001, the government did not respond. In contrast, when the FARC committed similar attacks in neighboring areas, the Colombian government responded immediately and forcefully. [11] [12] As AUC violence increased, the group entered the drug trade to fund its activities, and by 2001, more than two thirds of the AUC’s profits came from drug trafficking. In an interview that year, AUC leader Carlos Castaño said that producing, taxing and trafficking coca provided the AUC with approximately 70% of its funds. [13] [14]

 In 2002, the AUC dissolved for a short period of time, claiming to purge itself of its factions most involved in drug trafficking. [15]  [16] In 2003, Carlos Castaño publicized that he was ready to enter peace negotiations with the government and potentially demobilize. Many members of the AUC, including his brother and co-leader Vicente Castaño, opposed demobilization and peace talks. [17] Nevertheless, by the end of 2002, the AUC declared a unilateral cease-fire and, in 2003, entered peace talks with the Colombian government, promising to demobilize by 2005. [18] [19] [20] A lack of transparency and organization in the peace talks undermined the demobilization process.  In addition, the government refused to meet AUC members’ demands such as immunity from extradition and pardoning for their crimes.[21] [22] One year into the peace talks, the AUC abandoned the ceasefire and restarted its militant activities. The prospects of successful peace talks were further damaged when AUC leader Vicente Castaño orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of his brother, the AUC’s primary leader, Carlos Castaño in 2004. By 2004, the AUC had killed more than 2,000 people since the start of the peace talks. In response, the United States government started pressuring the Colombian government to take the same aggressive stance it had in combating the FARC with the AUC to curb its illicit activity. [23]

 In 2005, the Colombian government and the AUC reached an agreement, incorporating the Justice and Peace Law, a transitional justice mechanism that included convicting paramilitary members, sentencing them, and ensuring reduced jail terms if the highest-ranking AUC members returned stolen property and confessed their crimes. [24] The AUC’s remaining founder, Vicente Castaño, immediately went into hiding and was never arrested. The deal was criticized by many human rights organizations as too lenient. In 2006, the peace talks officially ended. While the AUC supposedly completed the demobilization process, the reported number of those who demobilized in 2006 varied; some reports said less than 4,000 demobilized by 2006 and many others report that all 30,000 members demobilized by 2006. [25] [26]

 In 2008, more reports were released reaffirming the AUC’s demobilization. Simultaneously, additional reports were released alleging that the AUC reemerged, attacking businesses and private citizens in Colombia and Ecuador. [27] [28] In 2009, the Colombian government denied the possibility of paramilitary existence in the country, including the AUC’s. [29] In the years following demobilization, many have still claimed to be active AUC members despite the 2006 demobilization. In 2013, approximately 65 ex-AUC members were eligible to file for parole as promised by the Justice and Peace law. [30]    

Leadership

  1. Carlos Castaño (1982 to 2004): Carlos Castaño was the AUC’s main ideologue and the AUC’s political leader. By 2003, Carlos, disillusioned with the group’s involvement in the drug trade, wanted to leave the AUC and considered turning himself in to U.S. authorities. The majority of AUC members, including his brother Vicente, felt Carlos was a risk; for this reason, Vicente had the AUC’s head of security kill Carlos in 2004.[31]
  2. Vicente Castaño, also known as "El Profe" (1982 to 2006): Vicente controlled the AUC’s finances and saw the AUC as a way to increase his wealth. As such, Vicente started including top drug traffickers in the network of paramilitaries consolidated under the AUC. Vicente immediately went into hiding when the government released arrest orders for paramilitary leaders in 2006. In March 2007, he was supposedly murdered in his home. No reports can confirm his death and some believe he is still alive in Panama.[32]

Ideology & Goals

The Castaño brothers established the AUC to combat guerrilla forces, particularly the FARC and the ELN, and protect economic interests of its sponsors: the local community, elites and, later, drug traffickers. [33] [34] Some members of the AUC, such as Carlos Castaño wanted political influence and status as a political actor but this conflicted with continuation of the violent conflict, which was preferred by many AUC members including co-leader Vicente Castaño. [35]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

[41] [42]
   

Resources

Throughout the AUC’s existence, the group received funding from drug traffickers, economic elites, and local communities in exchange for security from guerrilla groups. Funding came directly from coca growers, who expected protection in exchange, and the AUC was directly involved in the production and export of cocaine. [43] The group’s leaders were very open about receiving the majority of their funds through the drug trade; in March 2000 Carlos Castaño said that the drug trade, through trafficking, taxation, and production of coca, accounted for 70% of the AUC’s earnings and that extortion accounted for the rest. [44] By 2003, a peace commission in Colombia speculated that around 80% of the AUC’s earnings came from drugs. [45]



External Influences

The AUC reportedly never received external aid or funding but has carefully avoided attacks that affect United States personnel or interests to not disturb the relatively positive relationship between the United States and the Colombian government. [46] [47]

Geographical Locations

The AUC was most active in the Northwest regions of Colombia including Antioquia, Cordoba, Sucre and Bolivar. [48] [49] The AUC was very active in Uraba, near the Panamanian border. InSight Crime reported that, at its height, the AUC operated in approximately two-thirds of Colombia with over 30,000 soldiers. [50] In 2008, some speculated that the AUC reemerged and was involved in a series of attacks both in Colombia and Ecuador. [51]

Targets & Tactics

The AUC targeted left wing insurgents, left wing activists, indigenous persons, trade unionists, human rights advocates, religious leaders, and rural populations they believed to be collaborating with or supporting guerrillas. [52] [53] [54] In the 1990s, the AUC also targeted members of the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party founded by the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party.

 The AUC’s tactics include displacement, kidnapping, extortion, massacres and assassinations. Tens of thousands of attacks involving these tactics were attributed to the AUC during its official existence. [55] The AUC’s tactics were aimed at instilling fear in anyone who had ties to guerrillas. [56]

 During peace negotiations, AUC members confessed their illicit tactics in exchange for lesser jail sentences. [57]

Political Activities

While the AUC was never directly involved in Colombian politics, the group greatly affected the political dynamic in the country. In 2006, reports began to surface alleging that over 11,000 governors, congressman, lawmakers, and other public officials in Colombia made pacts with the AUC in return for protection against guerrilla groups; this relationship has been called the Parapolitics scandal. [58] [59] Since then, over 100 members of Congress have been investigated and dozens tried and sentenced. [60] [61] [62]    

Major Attacks

  1. January 1999: The AUC attacked six different regions in Colombia and killed suspected FARC sympathizers. This attack was motivated by the FARC’s attack on AUC headquarters the month prior. (150 killed, unknown wounded).[63]
  2. February 17, 2000: Three hundred AUC members, guided by captured FARC guerrillas, entered the town of El Solado, where there were, supposedly, FARC sympathizers. The AUC killed thirty-eight in Solado and another 28 in the surrounding area. (66 killed, unknown wounded).[64]
  3. October 3, 2000: AUC members went from home to home in the town of Vijes, killing specific targets, including the town police inspector. (9 killed, 0 wounded).[65]
  4. December 3, 2001: The AUC killed farmers in Curumana who they suspected were working with the FARC. (22 killed, unknown wounded).[66]
  5. January 18, 2003: The AUC attacked a province on the Colombia-Panama border. They believed community members assisted the FARC, and therefore, the AUC tortured and killed four indigenous Kuna leaders. The AUC also planted landmines and took the community’s food, displacing 400 adults and 200 children. (4 killed, unknown wounded).[67]
  6. April 16, 2004: The AUC’s main leader, Carlos Castaño, was mysteriously killed in a gunfight. Carlos’ brother, Vicente, allegedly ordered the AUC’s head of security to kill Carlos but some speculate the Uribe administration killed him. Carlos Castaño’s remains were found in August 2006. (1 killed, 0 wounded).[68]

Relationships with Other Groups

The AUC’s two main rivals were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), both leftist guerrilla groups that fought, originally, to take power in Colombia using tactics including kidnapping, extortion, assassinations and massacres to further their mission.

 The AUC was created to combat guerrilla groups, including the FARC, and to eliminate FARC presence in the country, and therefore, directly attacked FARC members and any suspected FARC supporters. The drug trade also contributed to competition between the two. Following the disbanding of the Cali and Medellin Cartels, competition between the AUC and the FARC developed for control over the drug trade. [69] The AUC and the FARC reportedly began to work together in the drug trade in the mid-2000s. [70]

 Similarly, the AUC attacked suspected ELN sympathizers in addition to targeting ELN controlled areas. [71] At the end of the 1990s, the FARC seized ELN territory and, in doing so, weakened the guerrilla group’s presence and presented an obstacle to the ELN’s peace negotiations with the government in 2002. [72]

During and following the AUC’s reported demobilization, many splinter groups were created, the most prominent being Bandas Criminales (BACRIM). These groups, which operate today, include former AUC members and some still claim to be AUC fighters. BACRIM is only involved in illicit activity and is dedicated to activities including drug trafficking and attacking civilians, activists, and community leaders. [73] [74]

Community Relationships

The AUC operated by instilling fear in communities and, many times, attacked communities simply because AUC leaders believed community members sympathized with the FARC, ELN, and other leftist groups. AUC attacks displaced entire communities and forced hundreds to leave their homes. [75] Nevertheless, throughout its existence, the AUC consistently received support from elites, drug traffickers, and politicians who sought protection from guerrilla groups. [76]


References

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