It was just after dark on the evening of February 7, 2001 when I arrived at the restaurant in the center of La Hormiga, Putumayo at the pre-arranged time. The restaurant was closed and I waited on the sidewalk until a pick-up truck pulled up. In the back were two large men who jumped down onto the sidewalk as another man got out of the passenger side talking on his cellular phone. He was Comandante Enrique, alias “the Cobra,” and at 28 years of age the commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia.
Someone opened the restaurant door from the inside and we entered, climbed the stairs to the second floor and sat at a table. Apparently, the restaurant had been closed solely for our meeting. Enrique is very security conscious and never sleeps at the same location two nights in a row. Considering the fact that he spends most of his time in the small town of La Hormiga where there is a Colombian army base at the end of the main street, it appears his security concerns stem more from the guerrillas than from government forces. Enrique was courteous and very self-assured. We ordered drinks and, between the numerous phone calls he took, conducted the interview.
Q. How long have you been here in Putumayo?
A. The self-defense forces have been here for approximately two years. I arrived here one year ago from Urabá.
Q. What is the mission of the self-defense forces in Putumayo?
A. First of all, where there are guerrillas, there are self-defense forces to free campesinos from guerrilla subversion. The civilian population and campesinos are the most important thing because we are a political and military organization. We are not here because of the coca. Believe me, where there are guerrillas there is coca business. You can see that if you go to a place that is very poor, you won`t find guerrillas because they don`t have any means of getting money.
In Putumayo, the campesinos and the self-defense forces perform eradication by hand. We are doing the eradication by hand because we don`t want the food crops to be affected by the fumigation. If you go to San Miguel you can find campesinos who don`t have food and money because the fumigation was indiscriminate and killed licit and illicit crops.
First, we have to provide security for the population. We didn`t come to Putumayo because there is coca here. We came because the guerrillas are here. I don`t want you to think that we are narco-traffickers because to maintain my men we ask for taxes from coca growers. It is prohibited by Carlos Castaño for members of the AUC to deal with narco-traffickers.
Maybe in the United States and Europe you see the self-defense forces as narco-traffickers, but we are not. We are poor people, we are not rich men. We are a poor organization that lives on money earned through commercial trade. We are here because the civilian population wants us here. We cannot win the war if the civilian population doesn`t support us. Because to win the war you need more than guns. Who is supporting us? The civilian population. And who is the civilian population? All of us are the civilian population. Where there are guerrillas and subversion, there are self-defense forces if the people want us.
Q. Why did you join the paramilitaries?
A. Why did I join the self-defense forces? Because we are not paramilitaries! Paramilitaries are people sent by the government. We are the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia! I joined because the government wasn`t able to protect our rights and goods. If I had a farm with goats, I wouldn`t accept the guerrillas coming and taking away all of my goods. I would have to find a way to defend myself, my things and my fellow campesinos because we are the lowest class in the country. For that reason, we are the self-defense forces. The self-defense forces were not created because the guerrillas existed, they were created because the government couldn`t defend the people`s rights.
Q. How many men are in the self-defense forces in Putumayo?
A. There are approximately 600 men here in Putumayo.
Q. Are there ex-FARC guerrillas who have joined the self-defense forces?
A. Yes, we have a lot of people in our ranks who are deserters from the guerrillas. They are here voluntarily because they want to defend their rights. They deserted the guerrillas and joined us because they know we are doing good for the communities. Three thousand guerrillas have joined the self-defense forces in Colombia. Since I arrived in Putumayo, 100 guerrillas have joined the self-defense forces here.
Q. How does the AUC feel about Plan Colombia here in Putumayo?
A. We agree with it. In this way we show other countries that we don`t agree with the narco-traffickers. For example, I have my men doing eradication of illegal crops.
Q. What do you think about the demilitarized zones for the FARC and the ELN?
A. This comment I reserve for myself, because this is a topic that is addressed by the high commander, Carlos Castaño, and I don`t have anything to say. Although, we are expecting a force of 1,200 guerrillas to attack us from the Zona de Despeje and massacre many people.
Q. What happened in the municipality of Los Angeles yesterday?
A. The guerrillas took 15 campesinos. We recovered six bodies, but the rest were taken by the guerrillas. They were just campesinos, not members of the self-defense forces. The parents of two boys who were taken by the guerrillas were killed. Also, a pregnant woman and her husband. The massacre was committed by the FARC`s 48th Front and they killed them with stone hammers and guns.
Q. There are six bodies at the cemetery in El Placer. What happened to the other nine people?
A. They disappeared them. We recovered some of the bodies, but we have to fight with the guerrillas to get the bodies. The guerrillas are so close to here. This morning we were fighting with the guerrillas while searching for more bodies.
Q. How many people fled to Ecuador after the massacre?
A. I don`t know the exact number. I think that all the campesinos in this area are scared, all the people who live in the area of Los Angeles are now displaced. The displaced fled because they are afraid of the guerrillas. We are trying to find them and help them, but many went to Ecuador. But the Ecuador police turn them over to the guerrillas.
Q. Why do human rights organizations claim that the self-defense forces are responsible for the majority of the massacres here in Colombia?
A. It is very simple. It is not a secret that the NGOs are managed by guerrillas. NGOs are giving money to certain people so they’ll make claims against army generals. We are just working to defend our rights, defend the campesinos, defend the people here. We fight for our belongings and to defend the people. The NGOs are managed by the subversives.
Q. Do you work with members of the military here in Putumayo?
A. Everybody says that. The answer is simple. The guerrillas have been fighting for 35 years and there are 350 of them in jail. The self-defense forces have only been fighting for 12 years and there are 770 members in jail. Who is the government targeting the most, the guerrillas or the self-defense forces? We have more men in jail and we are pursued more than the guerrillas because we are illegal. But we are legitimate.