The AUC, or officially the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, was a paramilitary organization that operated from 1997 to 2006.
The AUC was labelled a terrorist organization by several members of the international community including the United States and the European Union in 2001, after which the group agreed to demobilize. The AUC was known for its extensive drug trafficking as well as abundant human rights crimes.
The AUC was officially formed in April 1997 under the leadership of three brothers of the Castaño family: Fidel, Carlos and Vicente, who had been leading death squads since the 1980s.
While serving in Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, the Castaños received military training by Israeli mercenary Yair Klein.
But in 1989, the brothers — together with former EPL guerrilla “Don Berna” — deserted the cartel to form “Los Pepes,” a feared vigilante group whose purpose was to bring down the Medellin cartel and kill Escobar with help from sectors of Colombia’s security forces.
Following the death of Escobar in 1993, the Castaño brothers took over a number of the Medellin Cartel’s drug routes while Don Berna became the leader of the “Oficina de Envigado,” Escobar’s former enforcer army that had become Medellin’s dominant crime syndicate under the drug lord’s rule.
By 1994, the Castaño brothers controlled the ACCU, a vigilante group that was formed from local watch groups defending their lands against leftist guerrillas. These fledgling paramilitary groups, known as CONVIVIR, a Spanish acronym for “Special Vigilance and Private Security Services,” were initially supported by the government in an attempt to curb FARC and ELN guerrilla power in high risk areas of Colombia.
The Castaño brothers’ ACCU, or Peasant Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba were unofficially known as the “Tangueros.” It was in this period that the group cultivated the brutal reputation that the AUC would ultimately become known for, reportedly committing massacres and torturing civilians in the area where the Castaños owned their Las Tangas ranch.
The CONVIVIR groups attracted criticism due to their human rights abuses and were eventually outlawed, subsequently leading to the consolidation of the ACCU and the formation of the AUC umbrella group in 1997 as the remaining dominant CONVIVIR corollary and championed by the Castaños.
Growth and expansion
The paramilitaries were funded by wealthy businessmen and landowners. Cattle ranchers, mining and petroleum companies, and international fruit company Chiquita, accused the Colombian government of failing to protect their interests from insurgents, namely rebel guerrilla groups the FARC and ELN.
The official formation followed a two-year territorial offensive during which later AUC member groups pushed their way from the northwest of the country to regions crucial to the Colombian economy and drug trafficking on the eastern plains.
Though partially financed by “sponsor donations” the AUC’s main income was through drug trafficking. AUC operations were 70% funded through cocaine-related earnings, according to AUC founder Carlos Castaño, who by the end of his life was raking in millions of dollars through the drug business.
Intimidation and terrorist tactics were the AUC’s main strategies of crusading against left wing insurgents, committing multiple massacres of peasants throughout the country as well as individual assassinations, especially of left-wing political supporters mainly from the communist Patriotic Union political party. Tens of thousands of cases of kidnappings, rape, massacres, extortion, drug trafficking and displacement, among other crimes, have been attributed to the AUC during its reign.
Despite friendly relations with the Colombian authorities, the AUC’s interests began to increasingly clash with Colombian business and political interests as the paramilitaries continued to wreak havoc throughout the country, forcing fierce condemnation by foreign states and eventually its terrorist status in the United States, which was increasingly investing funds in Colombia’s counter-insurgency and anti-drug trafficking efforts through Plan Colombia.
Negotiations for the AUC to demobilize began under President Alvaro Uribe‘s presidency in 2003 and ended in 2006.
The demobilization process has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations and the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, claiming that the AUC demobilization did not meet international justice standards for the victims of human rights violations.
Justice and Peace law
As part of the process, the law of Justice and Peace was ratified in order to provide procedural and judicial benefits, including a maximum prison sentence of eight years and exemption from extradition to the U.S., to AUC members in exchange for their demobilization and cooperation.
However, in alleged violation of the law of Justice and Peace, several AUC leaders were extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking and money laundering charges following their demobilization.
Demise and extradition of leaders
The founders of the AUC, Fidel, Vicente and Carlos Castaño have all either mysteriously disappeared or been killed. The oldest brother Fidel, has not been seen since 1994 and his supposed assassination that year by the FARC has not been confirmed. Both deaths of Carlos and Vicente are also shrouded in mystery and have even been connected to former president Alvaro Uribe who was accused by former AUC commander “El Aleman” for their murders.
Carlos was killed in 2004, his brother Vicente convicted of the murder in 2011 before ex-president Uribe was accused of culpability for Carlos’ death. Vicente’s alleged motive was that Carlos was becoming critical of the organization’s dependence on the lucrative drug trade.
Vicente was supposedly killed in 2007 however his death, like Fidel’s, has never been confirmed.
Ties to politicians – “Parapolitics”
The AUC mutually benefited from extensive ties to the Colombian lawmakers and public officials, commonly known as “parapolitics.”
The parapolitics scandal broke in 2006, resulting in the conviction of dozens of congressmen and hundreds of public officials with proven ties to AUC.
The scandal became a prominent aspect in Colombian politics, with politicians at all levels of government being accused of using paramilitary backing for political support and benefits.
According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, more than 11,000 politicians, officials and businessmen are suspected of having made pacts with the AUC during its existence.
Uribe surprisingly decided to extradite the AUC leadership to the United States in May 2008, at the height of the parapolitics scandal that by then had begun incriminating the president’s own family, some of his closest allies and even himself.
According to the the then-president, the AUC leaders had broken their part of the bargain, but this was later denied by the Prosecutor General while the Supreme Court condemned the extradition that was carried out without any warrant or court approval.
Victims were most upset as they wanted the AUC leaders to respond before Colombian justice for the tens of thousands of human rights violations instead of drug trafficking.
Mancuso said later Uribe extradited the leadership “to shut us up” about the paramilitaries’ collusions with establishment politicians, the private sector and the military.
The extradition did effectively end the collaboration with Colombian justice of the the majority of the extradited paramilitary leaders, especially after the family members of some were assassinated. Only a minority continued their cooperation with the Justice and Peace courts that were put in place to provide justice for the vicitims.
Although the AUC formally demobilized in 2006 its dissolution marked the emergence of successor groups formed by mid-level commanders of the paramilitary organization who were exempted from justice or never took part in the demobilization process.
These commanders formed AUC successor groups like the “Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia” a.k.a. “Los Urabeños” and ERPAC, which later split into the “Libertadores de Vichada” and the “Bloque Meta.”
These neo-paramilitary groups work similarly to the AUC once did, carrying out frequent political killings while making most their money with drug trafficking.
Drug trafficking organization Los Rastrojos, formed originally as an enforcer army of the Norte del Valle cartel from Cali, used the demobilization of the AUC to recruit demobilized fighters to strengthen their organization.