by Yadira Ferrer
(IPS) BOGOTA --
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a 10,000-strong paramilitary group classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and blamed by human rights groups for countless massacres of unarmed civilians, has splintered into three groups.
The announcement by Carlos Castano and Salvador Mancuso, the political and military chiefs of the AUC, that the organization was splitting up was interpreted by some analysts as an indication that this South American country's four-decade civil war is about to become even bloodier.
Analyst Luis Valencia at the public National University told IPS that the fracture of the AUC into three groups could degenerate into anarchy, leading to a further decline of Colombia's already dismal human rights record, and to escalation of the armed conflict.
"Rogue groups that are highly involved in drug trafficking and which in many cases have gone from coherence to anarchy or have lost their identity and their principles" triggered the rift, said Castano and Mancuso in a communique.
Castano had already resigned as the organization's political leader due to a crisis that came to a head with last week's release of Venezuelan businessman Richard Boulton. According to the paramilitary leader, Boulton was kidnapped two years ago by an AUC commando that had not consulted the rest of the organization.
"The efforts we made along with other honest commanders to save the name and existence of the AUC were fruitless," said the statement released by Castano and Mancuso.
The AUC will now be divided into three groups, the largest of which will be the United Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba, which accounts for 70 percent of the paramilitary umbrella's members, and operates in the north and northwest.
The other two groups are the Self-Defense Forces of the Magdalena Medio and of the Bloque Central de Bolívar, which are also active in the north.
The paramilitary militias from southern Colombia were expelled due to the internal crisis that was aggravated by Boulton's kidnapping.
The mission of the three groups will be "to defend and represent decent, honest Colombians," according to Castano and Mancuso. The three organizations will operate independently, but will come together "when it is time to hold talks with the government."
With the break-up of the AUC, Castano is seeking to clean up his image and fulfill his wish to be included in eventual peace talks, Valencia told IPS.
Rightist President-elect Alvaro Uribe, to take office Aug. 7, pledges a hard-line approach to the guerrillas. In the election campaign, his adversaries labelled him "the candidate of the paramilitaries."
However, he has stated his willingness to negotiate with any irregular armed group that agrees to international mediation and a ceasefire.
The outgoing government of Andres Pastrana has steadfastly refused to accept the AUC as an interlocutor in peace talks.
The AUC is the irregular army that has grown the most over the past decade. The two main leftist insurgencies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- with which the government broke off peace talks in February -- and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have an estimated 17,000 and 8,000 members, respectively.
The paramilitaries emerged in the 1980s as vigilante groups backed by the army and financed by merchants and landowners seeking to protect themselves from extortion, kidnapping and attack by leftist guerrillas.
But in 1989, they were declared illegal, due to their ties with the drug trade and their violent persecution of trade unionists and other social activists, who are frequently the targets of assassinations.
After joining together in the AUC, the militias turned their weapons on peasant farmers, to force them off their land and enable landholders and drug traffickers to seize a total of one million hectares of farmland, according to local and international human rights groups.
The amount of land that the paramilitaries occupied by force in the departments of Cordoba and Sucre in the north, Meta in the southeast, and along the middle stretch of the Magdalena river far surpasses the total acreage distributed by the government in 25 years of agrarian reform.
The AUC, which continues to have ties with the army, according to human rights groups, has been widely held responsible for the majority of mass killings of civilians in Colombia's civil war.
The ELN also accuses the AUC of blocking the peace talks it has tried to initiate with the Pastrana administration.
Mancuso claimed that 35 percent of the members of the legislature that convened on July 20 were candidates backed by or fielded by the paramilitaries.
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