Doing the US's Dirty Work
The Colombian Paramilitaries and Israel
By Jeremy Bigwood
Special to the Narco News Bulletin
April 8, 2003
“I copied the concept of paramilitary forces from the Israelis.”
-Carlos Castaño, Mi Confesión, 2002
According to his recently published autobiography, Carlos Castaño was only 18 years old when he arrived in Israel in 1983 to take a year-long course called “562.” Castaño, a Colombian, had come to the Holy Land as a pilgrim of sorts, but not to find peace. Course 562 was about war, and how to wage it, and it was something Carlos Castaño would eventually excel at, becoming the most adept and ruthless paramilitary leader in Latin America’s history.
Castaño was propelled down this path a few years earlier, after the killing of his father, a cattle rancher who was being held for a “tax” ransom by the FARC - Colombia’s strongest left-wing guerrilla army. As a 1994 DEA document put it, “Colombian guerrilla groups traditionally have supported their activities through extortion and kidnapping, with ranchers and other wealthy individuals being the primary victims.”
Bitter over their father’s death, the result of a botched rescue attempt by the Colombian army, Carlos and his older brother, Fidel, vowed revenge, a vengeance that would dovetail with both the interests of the Colombian landholding classes, and, to a large extent, U.S. foreign policy. It is a vengeance that continues unabated to this day.
The Castaño brothers first offered their services as scouts for the Colombian Army’s Bombona Battalion – fingering FARC sympathizers, providing intelligence and even participating in military operations. But Fidel – some 14 years older than Carlos – concluded that by merely working for the army, they were going to get nowhere. One of the battalion’s majors introduced them to a local paramilitary death squad called “Caruso,” with whom they started a killing spree. When local police started to investigate them, they found it necessary to operate even more clandestinely. Unlike in many other third-world countries under the U.S.’s shadow, Colombia’s police and judiciary have sometimes played a role independent from the Army.
Later, according to press reports, Fidel started his own paramilitary death squad called “Los Tangueros,” named after his ranch, “Las Tangas.” Los Tangueros was responsible for more than 150 murders during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his book, Castaño talks openly about murders he has committed or ordered during this period, making his habit of killing what he calls “guerrillas in towns” routine. In one massacre alone, the Tangueros captured dozens of campesinos from a neighboring town. Back at the ranch, “they tortured them all night with crude instruments before shooting some and burying others alive.” Los Tangueros, along with other death squads dispersed throughout the country, would evolve into the present 9,000-strong paramilitary force in Colombia, which is now killing an average of up to thirteen civilians per day.
During the time Castaño’s father was been captured by the FARC, rural Colombia was rife with small diverse paramilitary units working for the army and the landholding upper classes. Many of these groups were merely the enforcers and protectors of the local wealthy, while others worked protecting the “new rich” of the cocaine trade from the “taxation” of the left-wing insurgencies. Some of these groups bore the names of petty criminal gangs or the names of their leaders. They called themselves “self-defense” or “auto defense” groups, but because of their propensity to operate in coordination with the Colombian Army, the term ‘paramilitaries” more accurately describes them and will be used here.
In the 1980s, these paramilitary groups were disparate and poorly trained, sometimes involving themselves in bloody internecine turf battles. In order to take the offensive against the steady advances of the leftist guerrillas, the paramilitaries needed both unification and political/military training. While these paramilitaries essentially worked towards the same goals as US foreign policy, the US government could not directly support them because of their death squad tactics. But others could.
Exactly how Carlos Castaño got to Israel is still a mystery, as is precisely which entity trained him there. But whoever set it up, the Israeli course “562” definitely had a strong effect on Castaño. “Something clicked in me, and I began to behave differently…My perception of this war changed radically after my trip to Israel,” he said in his best-selling autobiography, which is a series of interviews edited by Spanish journalist Mauricio Aranguren Molina.
In Israel, Carlos Castaño was clearly a good and highly motivated student. Of his studies there, he reminisces:
“Unlike what one might think, we studied in the classroom more enthusiastically than in the military training. The classes emphasized the regular and irregular ways in which the world operates… It was there that I rounded out my education… [The teachers] insisted on us carrying ourselves well, in both the way we dressed and in the way we spoke in public. I also received a class on how to enter and register in a hotel and we analyzed how to behave around immigration police in airports. We read in libraries and spent long sessions on both the self-esteem and the security that an individual should have. This was an invaluable process which taught me to respect and have confidence in myself, to triumph during tough intimidating moments.”
Most importantly for the eager student, he “received lectures on how the world arms business operates, and how to buy arms.”
And of course, there was also a military component:
“I received instruction in urban strategies, how to protect oneself, how to kill someone or what to do when someone is trying to kill you… We learned how to stop an armored car and use fragmentation grenades to enter a target. We practiced with multiple grenade launchers, and learned how to make accurate shots with RPG
-7s, or shoot a cannon shell through a window.”
“We also took complementary courses on terrorism and counter-terrorism, night vision equipment, and parachuting. We also learned how to make homemade bombs. In short, we learned what the Israelis know, but, in all sincerity, very little of all of this has been applied to the war in Colombia. I got a very good basic education, and there I learned how to do the most important thing – I learned how to control fear…”
Castaño also describes training that could not have taken place without the express permission of the highest authorities of the Israeli Defense Forces, such as when he performed “airborne maneuvers and [we] parachuted at night over islands of the Mediterranean. I had to carry weights as ballast to adjust my free-fall speed.” However, sources in Israeli daily Ha’aretz doubted the veracity of this story, when this author asked them about it.
According to his book, not all was study for Castaño in Israel, and he used his free time to meet with Colombian soldiers undergoing regular military training there – soldiers of the worst human rights violators in the western hemisphere were being trained by some of the worst human rights violators in the Middle East. But these were precisely the connections that would prove so useful in the future.
“In the Sinai desert, I also had the opportunity of meeting military men from our country, the men of the Colombia battalion [of the Colombian Army]. I did not meet the battalion as a whole, but on my R & R days, we went to the same places, and I spent time in the company of sergeants and officers.”
Castaño summarizes his epiphany in Israel in the following terms: “Upon returning to Colombia, I had become another person… I learned an infinite amount of things in Israel and to that country I owe part of my essence, my human and military achievements, although I repeat, in Israel I didn’t only learn about things related to military training. There I became convinced that it was possible to destroy the guerrillas in Colombia. I started to understand how a people could defend itself against the whole world. I understood how to bring into the “cause” a person who had something to lose in the war, with the aim of converting him into the enemy of my enemies.”
By 1985, shortly after Castaño returned to Colombia, some of the paramilitary groups that were springing up had become completely dependant on the monies from drug trafficking. Indeed, some paramilitary units had merely evolved as such from drug protection rackets. In fairness it is true that some of the paramilitary groups were not involved in illicit drug protection or other aspects of the business: some were formerly the guards of rich landowners, cattle ranchers and the like. A secret 1989 Colombian Police (DAS) Intelligence document includes a section on the “Contamination of the Paramilitaries by Drug Trafficking,” even places a time and a place on this event, although there is other evidence (below) that this took place earlier. “The economic crisis facing the paramilitary forces in 1985 was resolved by an alliance with drug trafficking… This alliance came about in mid-1985 when the Paramilitary intercepted a camper full of cocaine... After conversations with the drug traffickers through the initiative of HENRY PEREZ, the Paramilitary forces returned the camper and the drugs to their owners, receiving in exchange for it a four-door Toyota pickup…” It should be noted that Henry Perez was part of the Caruso paramilitary gang, at the time also known as the Autodefensas del Magdalena Medio (Paramilitary Militia of Magdalena Medio)- as were the Castaños. In fact, Castaño calls Henry Pérez one of the “fathers” of the paramilitaries, along with his brother Fidel (who is mentioned in the DAS document), and the previously mentioned Bombona battalion Major Alejandro Álvarez Henao, who had introduced the brothers to their first death squad.
From this point onwards, these paramilitaries expanded, protecting operations of the Medellín cartel and others, including that cartel’s competition in Cali.
The DEA was also watching: Its agents had noticed a paramilitary/drug trafficking connection at least as early as1993: “Intelligence indicates that some of Colombia’s private paramilitary groups have been co-opted by cocaine trafficking organizations. Throughout the 1980s, the Autodefensas del Magdalena Medio (Self-Defense Militia of Magdalena Medio), one of the most important of these groups, had close ties with the Medellín Cartel’s organization.”
A year later, in another report, the DEA looked at the relationship between the left-wing insurgencies and the drug trade, accurately stating: “Despite Colombian security forces’ frequently claim that FARC units are involved directly in drug trafficking operations, the independent involvement of insurgents in Colombia’s domestic drug production, transportation, and distribution is limited…No credible evidence indicates that the national leadership of either the FARC or the ELN has directed, as a matter of policy, that their respective organizations directly engage in independent drug production or distribution. Furthermore, neither the FARC nor the ELN are known to have been involved in the transportation, distribution, or marketing of illicit drugs in the United States or Europe.” In other words, the left-wing insurgencies taxed the production of coca or its products’ transportation through insurgent-controlled areas, but were not involved in its processing to cocaine, shipping or marketing – as opposed to the paramilitaries who ran and still run processing factories and were and still are actively involved in shipping it out of the country. There are some, yet unproven indications of greater insurgent involvement in the trade since the time of that report.
Paramilitary leaders also set upclandestine training schools in Colombia, or “schools for assassins” as they were called by the previously mentioned secret 1989 Colombian Police (DAS) Intelligence report. The first such school that was discovered was called “El Tecal,” and it trained the first of the paramilitary forces, and as these extended themselves deeper into the countryside and received greater funding form the drug trade, they formed other schools in other areas. For instance, “Cero Uno [Zero One] located at kilometer 9 of the Puerto Boyocá-Zambito road,” and “El Cincuenta” Number 50” – called “La 50” in Castaño’s book] located on the road between El Delirio and Arizá (Santander).” There were also “satellite schools” with names like “Galaxias” reminiscent of bars and brothels. According to the DAS report, “Personnel graduated from these schools to incorporate into the ‘paramilitary-narcotrafficking’ structure with an aim to undertaking four specific jobs:
- Protect the community and the properties of narcotrafickers from the guerrillas and rival groups…
- Be responsible for the personal protection of the heads of the cartels and those of the paramilitary forces, functioning as bodyguards.
- Produce cocaine in the laboratories of that organization…
- Attack members of the Unión Patriótica [a leftist legal political party affiliated with the FARC that was the only party on the continent to have been decimated by political murder] and members of the government or political parties that opine against the drug trade.”
To qualify as a candidate for training in these “schools for assassins” one had to be interviewed by narco Henry Perez and his cohorts, all friends of the Castaño brothers. Students were selected by “the express recommendation of a rancher, farmer or narcotraficker from the region.” with questions like “What is your ideology? Are you capable of killing your father, mother or brother if it can be confirmed that they are guerrillas?” The candidates were told that the war may go on forever and that the only enemy was communism. And “upon the evaluation and verification of all of the information supplied by the candidate, the candidate is given a medical exam and placed in a basic training course. During the first stage of training, recruits are selected to work in the financial apparatus (drug production) or security (bodyguards, patrolmen). The training course includes: a.) Camouflage techniques, b.) Handling small arms and parading, c.) Explosives, d.) Personal defense, e.) Identity preservation, f.) Body guarding, g.) Intelligence, h.) Counterintelligence, i.) Communications, j.) First Aid.”
But apparently this training by fellow Colombians was not enough, and in 1987 the Israelis were called in to help, probably through Colombian Army intermediaries.
In the mainstream media the 16 Israeli and some British trainers were presented as “mercenaries,” perhaps because of the bias of the Colombian DAS agents who wrote a report on them. These foreign military trainers were far too well connected to be ordinary “mercenaries”—they clearly acted with some government approval, most definitely that of Israel, and probably of some US entity also – as we shall see below. Castaño, who attended these courses, said that members of the Colombian Army had actually arranged the courses, which featured the training by a famous Israeli officer, Yair Klein.
Again, it was Castaño ally Henry Perez who picked the candidates – along with drug kingpin Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha. According to his book, Carlos Castaño took part in the courses, and their organization occupied five of the 50 scholarships. According to the DAS document:
- A group of five Israelis taught the course called “PABLO EMILIO GUARIN VERA” in the “El Cincuenta” school of Puerto Boyocá.
- The instructors were in the area for a period of 45 days after having entered the country through Cartegena (Bolivar). Initially, they stayed in the “El Rosario” residence of Puerto Boyocá and later in a rustic house on the Isla de la Fantasía (Fantasy Island)...
Another thirty scholarships were awarded so that the best students could undergo further training in Israel, just as Castaño had done: “According to what these instructors said, they were going to send the best 30 students for further schooling in a special course that would be taught in Israel.” Thirty paramilitaries being sent to Israel would have clearly required the permission of the Israeli Defense Forces – the Israeli government. It is hard to imagine anything else for a country continually at war.
And there was also a Nicaraguan Contra connection: “TEDDY, the Israeli interpreter told our source that they should shorten and speed up the course because they had promised to train the Nicaraguan Contras in Honduras and Costa Rica.” Anyone who thinks that these were simple “for hire” mercenaries would do well to analyze this quote. At the time, only with express US government approval – particularly that of the State Department and CIA – could one get into the contra camps located in Honduras or Costa Rica, let alone a group of men bearing arms. These Israelis were clearly trusted at the highest levels of both the Israeli and US governments.
During this time, and even up until the present, the Colombian state has not shown itself to be a monolith. Even today, in spite of all of the US influence, one still finds government ministries, such as that of the Environment and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office that refuse to go along with the official line crafted by the US State Department and filtered through the presidency or some other ministry. This explains why part of the Colombian state -justice and police – were so clearly disturbed by the paramilitaries’ advances that in 1990 police units raided a Castaño property and exhumed 24 decomposed corpses, some showing signs of torture.
And there were other troubles too: competition was growing between the Medellín and Cali drug cartels. According to a DEA Intelligence Report from 1993, “By 1990, for reasons that are still unclear, the Autodefensas del Magdalena Medio and the Medellín Cartel emerged as bitter foes.” Former ally, Medellín cartel drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar was now being hunted by the Colombian state, aided by US intelligence agencies and the DEA. The Castaño brothers, under a new organizational name “MAS” helped the Colombians and the U.S. in the hunt for Escobar, which resulted in Escobar’s death. Carlos even had lines of communication to the police squad that killed Escobar, as he had known “the brother of the famous police colonel, Hugo Martínez Poveda, commander of the Search Team that killed Pablo Escobar” from time both of them had spent in Israel.
After Escobar was out of the picture, the Castaño brothers consolidated and unified the paramilitaries under the name “Auto-Defensas Unidas de Colombia” (Unified Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), known by its Spanish acronym AUC. As the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson reported:
“From these death squads grew the Peasant Paramilitary Force of Cordoba and Urabá (ACCU), the oldest and largest of the AUC’s confederation of privately funded armies across the country. This was a result of Carlos Castaño’s new leadership: He transformed a regional protection force into a national political movement.”
The effect was dramatic. The paramilitaries grew in size from a few thousand to nine thousand or more, and as Time magazine reported in 2000: “Fear of AUC vengeance is one reason at least 1 million peasants fled their homes during the past decade.” Like the Nicaraguan Contras, the Salvadoran and Guatemalan death squads, the paramilitaries were known for using excessive violence to terrorize the population, and on at least one occasion paramilitary units used chainsaws to torture and kill their victims.
But there were also losses for the paramilitaries. In 1994, Carlos’s elder brother Fidel or “Rambo” as he was known – then the paramilitaries’ leader – was – according to Carlos—killed in a chance combat with FARC guerrillas in northern Colombia. However there exists some doubt as to whether he is really dead. There are those in the State Department who apparently believe that he may still be alive – and a recent article rumours him to be living in Israel.Whatever the truth may be, Carlos took over the top paramilitary position at that point, and the movement grew even more, even acquiring a rudimentary air force, something that CIA black propaganda was always trying to pin on the guerrillas, so it could induce the mainstream press to argue for more military aid to bolster the Colombian government.
In reality, the insurgents didn’t have an air force, but the paramilitaries did and still do. By the late 1990’s, the paramilitaries had acquired several helicopters
, along with maintenance mechanics and pilot training. Helicopters are extremely costly to purchase and maintain, but are very useful in this type of war, as Carlos was soon to find out. According to his autobiography, his life was saved during the Christmas holidays of 1998 when a large FARC
contingent attacked his base-camp in a surprise assault. It was the Sicilian-born Israeli-trained pilot
and paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso who rescued him in a paramilitary helicopter.
According to his own autobiography and dozens of press reports, Castaño has often met in secret with government officials. By 2000 the meetings were being openly reported. On November 6, 2000, he met with Colombia’s Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle of then-President Andrés Pastrana’s Government. As a result of the meeting, Castaño released two of seven legislators that his paramilitaries were holding captive. Indeed, at the time of this writing, as we shall see later, Castaño and Mancuso are in negotiations with the new Colombian government.
As the paramilitaries expanded, continuing to absorb other paramilitary organizations, it needed arms, and probably had several sources for them, one of which came to light last May. It should come as no surprise to the reader that the major suppliers were Israelis. Israeli arms dealers have long had a presence in next-door Panama and especially in Guatemala. While some of the details of this particular deal have been contested and are still sketchy, one thing is clear: by a series of misrepresentations, GIRSA, an Israeli company associated with the IDF and based in Guatemala was able to buy 3,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition that were then handed over to the paramilitaries in Colombia through a Colombian port controlled by a US banana company.
This may remind us of what Carlos Castaño said about his course in Israel – when he received “lectures on how the world arms business operates, and how to buy arms.” Was Israel where he also made the connections to do so?
This arms deal, like most, featured many layers of deniability and smokescreens. Although Colombian police uncovered the deal, no one has been indicted over it. The only players who appear to have known what was going on were the Israelis and the paramilitaries. The Nicaraguan police who sold the arms thought they were trading them for Israeli mini-Uzis and Jericho pistols, although the OAS, led by former Colombian president César Gaviria blamed the Nicaraguans in its report. The US State Department, which had recently placed the Colombian paramilitaries on its “terrorist” list claims though spokesperson Wes Carrington that the department was under the impression that the fully automatic assault rifles were going to collectors in the US!
The President Uribe – Castaño Connection
Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, like Castaño, also lost his narcotrafficking father to the FARC, but in the case of Uribe, the father died fighting on his ranch that was attacked by the insurgents. And there are other similarities, too: like Castaño, the Uribe family has had close ties to the cocaine trade, even renting out a helicopter to the business. In fact, Uribe’s father was once indicted for his role in the notorious Tranquilandia cocaine-processing lab, after it was taken out by a combined DEA-Colombian police operation. From 1980 to 1982, Uribe was head of Civil Aviation (Aerocivil) in Colombia and controlled all of the aviation licensing throughout the country at a time when small planes did most of the drug running.When Uribe was governor of Antioquía department in the mid-1990s, he helped set up a paramilitary force called Convivir, in which paramilitary boss Salvatore Mancuso is rumored to have served.
Legitimizing the paramilitaries
During the last Colombian presidential elections, a “cleansed” Uribe was voted into power and applauded by the US State Department. Many of the plans for his government are based upon a US-generated Rand Corporation study. A major part of both the Rand study and Uribe’s plan involve the creation of a large civil defense/government informer force that will be beholden to the Colombian state. The Rand report, like all things “Plan Colombia,” was first written in the United States. It bases a new Colombian Civil Defense counterinsurgency structure on the Peruvian “Ronda” system or the old Guatemalan “PAC” system – in which “civilians” must serve as local counterinsurgency fighters under Army supervision. In both Peru and Guatemala these were greatly responsible for reducing the size of the guerrillas but at an extreme cost: committing a multitude of human rights abuses. When this idea was first floated during the unveiling of the Rand Report on June 13th, 2001 by authors Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Rabasa indicated that the present paramilitary structures could be dissolved and re-enrolled in the new “civil” defense forces, but now under direct Army control.
To make sure of the AUC leadership’s compliance in this restructuring plan, and to keep US liberal Congressmen on board with Plan Colombia by feigning to initiate the prosecution of the paramilitaries, US Attorney General John Ashcroft announced on September 24, 2002 that Carlos Castaño, Salvatore Mancuso and Juan Carlos Sierra were under indictment by the US government for arranging the transport of some 17 tons of cocaine into the U.S. and Europe since 1997. Not that the smuggling of cocaine by the paramilitaries was actually news to the US – since US documents as early as 1993 confirmed this allegation. But did the Colombians arrest the AUC leadership? After all, the Colombian government is receiving millions in US AID and in most cases works hand-in-glove with the US. Instead of arresting Castaño and company, by November 24, 2002, the news from Colombia revealed that the US-backed Colombian government was now involved in direct full-scale negotiations with them!
Castaño and Mancuso also came through for the Colombian government: they announced a “ceasefire” with the army – a farce as the paramilitaries have always fought alongside the army and have only come to blows when there has been a local dispute between the two over control over some kind of criminal enterprise. But this “ceasefire” had good propaganda value in both Colombia’s cities, and more importantly in the US Congress.
As it stands now at the time of this writing, if Uribe and the US Embassy have their way, the AUC paramilitaries will now be demobilized as the AUC per sé and then transformed into legal entities of the Colombian state as “peasant soldiers;” trained by the army, but living in villages and not at military bases. Thus Castaño’s men will become retrained and legitimized and continue the counterinsurgent war under the aegis of the Colombian Army with the direct assistance of the United States, their bloody hands washed in State Department PR.
At that point, the Israelis will no longer be needed in Colombia, although the will keep their Galil rifle business alive there (see sidebar). And indeed, they would prefer their presence to be forgotten, as there can be no doubt that Israeli interests share some blame for the many years of ongoing bloodbath in Colombia, which kills as many as 20 people a day – some 70% or more of which is attributed to the paramilitaries, totaling tens of thousands over the last decade- most of whom are killed for merely being suspected of sympathies to the insurgency, not for being actual combatants. Unfortunately, in other new places around the world, we can expect the training of right-wing paramilitary groups to continue, as the Israeli state and its agents gleefully continue to undertake operations that are deemed too distasteful for its US counterparts.
Jeremy Bigwood is a Washington DC-based journalist with extensive experience reporting from Latin America, and the United States’ leading expert on utilizing the Freedom-of-Information Act to liberate censored government documents. A veteran war photographer, he is a professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism and during last February’s session served as photo editor of Narco News.
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