"When I was 14 years old, my father was kidnapped. The FARC [the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] asked for $50,000, which was unattainable for a family like us. We had some land, so we raised $20,000 and they said the other 50 percent was missing, so they killed him. My case isn't that unusual. It's happened to hundreds of honest Colombians. There are a lot of people kidnapped by the guerrillas.
"We were friends of guerrillas at that time. They had ideals. We sympathized with their ideals. The same guerrillas who kidnapped my father had slept in our house. But our life took a complete turn. At first, it was the desire for revenge, to punish those responsible some of my brothers went to the authorities for help and denounced some of the guerrillas. But they were held for just a few days. So we sought justice, but when we couldn't find it, we knew we had a right to get that justice by our own means. In the beginning, the AUC wasn't a political movement. The reality was that each man had to defend himself. The ranchers had guards, the truckers too. The [drug] traffickers had armed gangs."
You admit that your organization makes money from the drugs trade, and yet you support Plan Colombia, which is designed to eradicate drug crops with U.S. military assistance. How do you reconcile these two positions?
"Plan Colombia changes the spectrum of the conflict. The military component will affect us, but it affects us less than the guerrillas. We control about 25,000 hectares in Santander province and another 20,000 in south Bolivar coca zones that we won in battle from the FARC and the ELN [the smaller leftist National Liberation Front]. We're not opposed to eradicating the coca fields, but as long as those crops are there, and guerrillas are nearby, we'll keep asking for a tax from the coca growers. This doesn't mean we're narcos. We don't export drugs, we tax the coca paste. It's just a phase, but the war on drugs does affect us. It will reach us.
"Coca doesn't help the peasant farmer to improve his life. The coca provides profits for narco-traffickers, and the guerrilla, and the AUC. The farmer earns more with coca than other crops, but at the same time, everything costs him much, much more in coca-producing zones. Plus there's prostitution, alcohol and there's no social fabric, no education, no health care."
What exactly is your view of drug trafficking, given the fact that the AUC makes a lot of money off this industry?
I know it's strange for me to say as an anti-subversive, but narcotics is a worse problem than the guerrilla. When guerrillas fought for social ideals we all liked them, but when they got involved with narco- traffickers, they lost their bearings, their popularity. They hit the middle class, the small farmer, the truckers, and that's when we rose up. The middle class needs us to defend them.
"I'd prefer taking cash from the narcos than from honest people whose legitimate businesses can't finance this war."
Do you see yourself as replacing the state in areas under AUC control?
"If you ask a Colombian whom he prefers to live with, the guerrillas or the AUC, he'll say the AUC. But if you ask him how he wants to live he won't hesitate in saying that he wants to live without an AUC presence, and without a guerrilla presence. He wants to live where there's a strong, solid state, where there are jobs and stability. The AUC is accepted, but it's not what Colombians want. The solution isn't the AUC. We're part of the solution. It's logical that we're accepted. It's the fault of the guerrillas' intransigence. People see us as the lesser evil.
"I've never seen Colombia in such bad shape, even during the narco days. The international community has to take an interest in Colombia. This is no longer an internal matter. It's crossing the borders."
The AUC frequently enters remote towns and massacres suspected rebel sympathizers. How do you justify these indiscriminate killings?
"No sane man would order a massacre. A just man wouldn't order indiscriminate killings. In the AUC we have 300 FARC deserters, captured and pardoned, and 300 ELN. The deserters go with us into the guerrilla zones as guides. We never rely on a single informant. We use a minimum of three unconnected sources. On some occasions there may be an exchange of gunfire when we're trying to clear out two or three of them and unfortunately innocent people get killed. This is lamentable. If you're asking me if innocents die in this war, yes, they do. But they're a minority. When the guerrillas massacre, most of those who fall are our men in civilian clothing. For us it's the same. We never fire indiscriminately."
You've been more visible to Colombians lately, and more vocal on domestic issues. Is the AUC trying to assert itself as a political force?
"I'm interested in serving my country. Some in the AUC want to transform ourselves into a political movement, but I'd rather unite with one strong party, that we identify with. I'm a defender of strong parties, in which everyone participates."
One issue you've been speaking about lately is the peace process. Do you oppose negotiations with the FARC?
"The government has been ceding unilaterally. We don't want [negotiations]to break off, but we want to see results. Otherwise, the guerrilla will be stronger than when Pastrana took over as president. Pastrana is a legitimate, solid, transparent president. But how is it that a president who is so strong, and the world believes in him, doesn't have the valor to negotiate with dignity for Colombia?"
"Some principles are not negotiable: the concept of national unity. If the guerrillas get what they want, it will fragment the country."
Do you see a political role for the guerrillas?
"The FARC do have political interests, and in the south of the country, they could probably govern better than the state. As for the ELN, they're almost a resolved case. They're returning to terrorism as a last desperate measure."
Are you in contact with the FARC?
"Yes, frequently. We carry out prisoner exchanges with them."
How do you see the situation in Colombia playing out?
"The art of the FARC is to hide themselves among civilians, among non-combatants. That gives them immunity against the state forces, but not against us. But you can't let the war be won our way, either. It would delegitimize the state. The only way out is through negotiation, under international auspices. The sad thing is there are people who think we're the solution. We're a solution for what's happening now, not a fix for the long term."