Pity poor Pablo Escobar. The flamboyant, brutal drug dealer always wanted a
clean slate â€“ to be seen, in journalist Mark Bowden’s words, "as a benevolent,
law-abiding citizen." But he came and went 15 years too early for that.
Had he been trafficking drugs and killing enemies today, perhaps Escobar could
have avoided ending up dead on a MedellÃn rooftop, surrounded by smiling, photo-snapping
policemen. Today, he could have put on camouflage fatigues, christened himself
"Comandante" something-or-other, and bought himself a seat at the
table in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone, where negotiations are proceeding
between the Colombian government and the AUC paramilitaries. There, Escobar
would have stood a decent chance of winning amnesty, or at least a vastly reduced
penalty, for his past crimes. His presence at the table would also have stymied
any U.S. attempt to extradite him.
Sounds farfetched? Well, it’s happening right now for an entire corps of Colombia’s
top drug dealers. An odd wave of brand-new comandantes has swept the
AUC leadership over the past three or four years: people with precious little
experience fighting guerrillas but a long record as capos in Colombian
narcotrafficking organizations. Among them are no less than three of the twelve
figures on the U.S. government’s "wanted" list of members of the North
Valle Cartel, Colombia’s largest existing drug organization.
Colombians even have a term for these traffickers-turned-paramilitaries: the
"paracaidistas" â€“ the parachutists â€“ as in people who’ve just
"dropped in." The paracaidistas’ presence at Ralito, and their
growing influence over the AUC, might be the largest obstacle the Uribe
government’s talks face right now.
The difference between these new leaders and more "traditional" AUC
comandantes may at first seem semantic, since today’s paramilitaries
got their start and get much of their support from drug traffickers’ money,
since they control 40 percent of Colombia’s drug trade (according
to U.S. Ambassador William Wood), and since much of the AUC leadership is
subject to U.S. Justice Department extradition requests. In addition to ordering
mass murder, longtime paramilitary leaders like Salvatore Mancuso, IvÃ¡n Roberto
Duque, "Macaco" and RamÃ³n Isaza have helped send prodigious amounts
of drugs to the United States.
As awful as they are, though, the paramilitaries’ old guard at least can claim
to have fought guerrillas and those they regarded as guerrilla sympathizers. The paracaidistas
can hardly even claim that. They have few anti-guerrilla credentials, but long
resumes in Colombia’s drug underworld. It is not even clear whether they view
the guerrillas as blood enemies or merely as rival drug mafias. In one celebrated
example from February, when Colombian troops participating in the early stages
of Plan Patriota captured "Sonia" (Nayibe Rojas Valderrama), the "financial
chief" of the FARC’s Southern Bloc, they found e-mails on her computer
asking the local AUC to lend a helicopter "to transport arms and drugs
through the jungle."
The distinction between old-line paramilitaries, however "narco,"
and the paracaidistas makes a world of difference for Colombia’s peace
talks with the AUC. First, it makes international support impossible: a negotiation
with longtime, unreformed cartel leaders â€“ regardless of the insignia on their
new uniforms â€“ is still a negotiation with cartel leaders, something that no
other government is going to touch. Second, the paracaidistas are rapidly
supplanting the AUC’s old guard â€“ even killing those who (like Carlos CastaÃ±o
in April, or the Metro Bloc’s "Rodrigo 00" in May) opposed the group’s
advanced narcotization and may have been seen as too likely to turn state’s
evidence. Under this new management, the paramilitaries are turning into a mafia,
or rather a set of rival mafias united only by their common hope to negotiate
Here are some examples of paracaidistas currently in the Ralito zone
talking with government representatives.
- Diego Fernando Murillo, nicknamed "Don Berna" or "Adolfo
Paz," is the AUC’s "inspector-general" and, by some accounts,
the group’s most feared and powerful leader. A July narcotrafficking indictment
issued by New York prosecutors calls him the "de facto leader of the
AUC." His long href="http://ciponline.org/colombia/040105isac.htm" target="_blank">biography
includes time spent as a MedellÃn cartel bagman, a participant in a Cali Cartel-funded
effort to kill Pablo Escobar, and leader of La Terraza, MedellÃn’s
feared, but now defunct, network of hitmen-for-hire and street criminals.
He did not join up with the paramilitaries until 2000 or so; thanks to a combination
of generous buyouts of paramilitary blocs and sheer ruthlessness, his rise
within the organization has been meteoric. Among several paramilitary units
that answer to him was a short-lived MedellÃn-based paramilitary front, the
Cacique Nutibara Bloc, that produced 860 young men for a widely questioned
November 2003 "demobilization" ceremony.
- VÃctor Manuel MejÃa MÃºnera, nicknamed "El Mellizo" ("The
Twin") but known in Ralito as "Pablo Arauca," is the head of
the AUC’s "Avengers of Arauca" bloc. MejÃa, along with his twin
brother, has long been on FBI most-wanted lists as a high-ranking figure in
the Northern Valle cartel. Apparently he’s a member of the "General Staff"
of IvÃ¡n Duque’s Central BolÃvar Bloc, and his group operates in Arauca, the
oil-rich department of northeastern Colombia where U.S. military personnel
have been present for nearly two years now, training the Colombian army in
pipeline-protection and offensive anti-guerrilla operations. Observers were
surprised to see him in Ralito when the current stage of talks was launched
in July; MejÃa was not before known to be a paramilitary leader. The "Avengers
of Arauca" purportedly plan to demobilize by the end of the year; if
that happens, though, few believe that it will mean an end to paramilitarism
- Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as "Gordo Lindo"
in the drug underworld but in Ralito as "Comandante Gabriel Galindo,"
is the political chief of Don Berna’s Pacific Bloc. He was an associate of
the MedellÃn cartel’s Fabio and Jorge Ochoa and later, a partner of narcotrafficker
Alejandro Bernal Madrigal, or "Juvenal," who was captured and extradited
in Operation Millenium, a large-scale 1999 drug sting. A court in Fort Lauderdale
requested Zuluaga’s extradition at that time, but he had evaded capture. Along
with MejÃa, his presence at the Ralito negotiating table in July surprised
many who did not know him to be a paramilitary associate.
- Ramiro Vanoy Murillo, or "Cuco," heads the Antioquia-based
Mineros Bloc. Along with "Gordo Lindo," Vanoy is sought by the Fort
Lauderdale court as an associate of "Juvenal."
- Guillermo PÃ©rez Alzate, or "Pablo Sevillano," heads the
Liberators of the South Bloc, based in the Pacific port city of Tumaco near
the coca fields of western NariÃ±o department. He is wanted by Colombian police
in connection with a shipment of 11 tons of cocaine. He also reputedly coordinated
the North Valle Cartel’s "mule" operation ( href="http://www.mariafullofgrace.com/main.html" target="_blank">recruiting women
to board planes to the United States after swallowing sealed packets of drugs).
He paid large sums to the AUC sometime after 2001 for control of southern
Pacific coast narcotrafficking routes and for permission to wear the AUC label.
According to Moritz Ackerman, a columnist for the MedellÃn daily El Colombiano,
Perez’s group routinely does business with guerrillas: "in the department
of NariÃ±o, in a region called ‘Coca City,’ the ‘Liberators of the South’ paramilitaries
buy the harvest and the FARC’s 29th Front supervises the refining
- Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, or "Jorge 40," runs the AUC’s Northern
Bloc and is based in and around the port of Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest
city. He allegedly controls the lion’s share of narcotrafficking in Colombia’s
Atlantic Coast region, though he disputes it with Santa Marta-based paramilitary
leader HernÃ¡n Giraldo. The dispute has often flared up into large-scale
internecine violence, including frequent fighting over routes through the
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of northern Colombia. Giraldo and the
rest of the AUC, led by Tovar, fought an all-out war in 2002 that killed dozens
in the port city of Santa Marta. The AUC allegedly sought to rein in Giraldo
after he ordered the murder of two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
agents, a crime for which the United States seeks his extradition.
A truce between Tovar and Giraldo has mostly held since then, though both
have committed numerous high-profile violations of the cease-fire the AUC
should be observing as a pre-condition for negotiations, among them the February
murder of park ranger Marta LucÃa HernÃ¡ndez, the abortive June kidnapping
of Sen. JosÃ© Gnecco, the August murder of indigenous leader Freddy Arias,
and the September killing of professor href="http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/blog/archives/000013.htm">Alfredo Correa.
- Last but not least, a recent
target="_blank">report in the Colombian newsweekly Semana asserts that,
after paying a US$5 million fee, top North Valle Cartel leader Diego Montoya
SÃ¡nchez, "Don Diego," is now in the Ralito demilitarized zone,
wearing olive-green fatigues and posing as the head of a new 150-man bloc,
the "Heroes of RÃonegro." Montoya is on the FBI’s worldwide list
of its target="_blank">ten most-wanted fugitives, alongside Osama bin Laden. If it
turns out that Don Diego has truly "parachuted in" â€“ and his online
wanted poster notes that "Montoya is presently protected by the Colombian
paramilitary group, ‘Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia’ (AUC)" â€“ it could
prove to be a near-fatal blow to the credibility of the Uribe government’s
Note as of November 24: Semana magazine has revised this claim. In a November 21 article, it contends that the AUC refused Don Diego’s request to play comandante in the Ralito zone, saying it posed to great a risk to the peace process. So Don Diego is probably not in Ralito – though his FBI wanted poster still claims that “Montoya is presently protected by the Colombian paramilitary group, ‘Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia’ (AUC).”
How remarkable that, in the name of peace and disarmament, some of the world’s
most prominent narco-criminals not only have a safe haven, but they have regular
opportunities to meet with government officials to demand an amnesty deal. If
they get even some of the impunity they want, the paracaidistas will
have succeeded in a scheme so brazen that even Pablo Escobar couldn’t have devised
How remarkable as well that the government of Ãlvaro Uribe â€“ which takes such
a hard line against the hapless peasants who grow the narco-kingpins’ coca â€“
has reacted so meekly to the growing presence of the kingpins themselves. So
far, the Colombian government has sought to extradite only one paracaidista
in the Ralito zone, Juan Carlos Sierra RamÃrez or "El Tuso," a
relatively minor figure who had bought up a small paramilitary bloc in Antioquia
department. And they didn’t arrest him; "El Tuso" remains at large.
The Colombian government has made no secret of its unhappiness with current
low levels of international support for the paramilitary peace talks. For donor
governments, though, the talks will remain radioactive â€“ utterly untouchable
â€“ as long as the paracaidistas remain at the table. They have to go if
this process is to have any credibility at all.
Coming soon: (3) Improvisation and secrecy