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Saturday, 26 August, 2000, 08:43 GMT 09:43 UK
Glamour in the jungle
Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whom the paramilitaries are fighting
Rival groups want control of the coca market
By Jeremy McDermott

Puerto Asis has the reputation of being one of the scarier places in Colombia.

It is a prosperous town of about 80,000 set deep in the southern jungles. The province in which it sits, Putumayo, is the epicentre of Colombia's coca growing region, and bitterly disputed by Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and a very distant third, the Colombian state.

I was looking to contact the paramilitaries who control the town itself and some of the neighbouring hamlets.

The driver would not go in and was nervous at the prospect of waiting for me

Unlike the guerrillas, they are media shy, knowing they will receive little sympathy due to their record of human rights abuses.

Through a process of terror and murder they pushed out the guerrillas and established themselves in Puerto Asis and the surroundings, some 800 of them, many ex-security forces.

The local population lives in fear of them.

Finding them was not as hard as I had thought. Despite the fact that the Colombian state denies there are any links between them and the right-wing death squads, their headquarters in Puerto Asis is five minutes drive past the local army base, in a luxurious villa.

To get there I just hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the paramilitary headquarters, as if I knew where it was and something I did every day of the week.

He did not even blink, simply put the car in gear and sped down the potholed streets, passing the army checkpoint and into the countryside outside the town.

Unexpected visitor

We pulled up outside a villa. From the road I could see the swimming pool, the covered gym and a huge pool table. Men were shooting pool, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, but even from the road it was clear they had something tucked into their belts.

The driver would not go in and was nervous at the prospect of waiting for me. It was clear to him now that I had not been here before and was probably not expected.

So I wandered down the drive, the green fields of Putumayo all around, the jungle visible in the distance, and out of sight, beyond the line of the jungle, the coca fields, some 60,000 hectares, producing much of the 600 tons of cocaine Colombia smuggles abroad every year. This is why the paramilitaries are here, to get a share of the massive income from drugs and deprive their guerrilla enemies of it.

Security seemed lax around the villa, more astonishing when one thinks that the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, control the surrounding jungle.

It was not until I had got to the house that I was challenged by a young guy in blue jeans and a designer T-shirt, a walky-talky in his hand and his shirt pulled up over a holster in which a 9mm pistol was nestling.

I was taken to see Commander Jair, who declared himself to be the training officer of the AUC Southern Block. The muscular former army sergeant proudly told me how he was passing on the skills he learnt from the US Special Forces in their bases in Fort Benning and Fort Worth onto the death squads of the paramilitary army.

He took me into his room where beside the bed lay his rucksack and camouflage uniform with the feared black and white AUC armband prominent. He showed me his new AR-15 rifle, the most modern US assault rifle, immaculately oiled and ready for action.

He was very matter of fact in his replies, giving me a case of when it was necessary to kill a civilian

He insisted they were not like other paramilitary squads, indulging in massacres, but were fighting a war against the guerrillas, attempting to cut off their supply lines of provisions and arms from neighbouring Ecuador.

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but did not tally with the figures dating back to when the paramilitaries arrived in Puerto Asis and up to eight bodies were being found every night, many shot through the back of the head.

I would have to wait to come back to meet the boss, who went by the alias Commander Hawk, Jair told me.

Gun power

The next visit was the same. Different taxi driver, same response. But it was now Saturday and beside the pool lounged the paramilitaries with their girlfriends, many half-naked and all very beautiful.

It was a scene reminiscent of the drug baron's heyday in Medellin just a decade ago. Jair greeted me like an old friend, inscrutable behind his wrap around sunglasses, and said that the boss was with his family, indicating Commander Hawk's wife and children lolling by the pool. But tomorrow he would be able to see me.

This meeting was in a hotel in Puerto Asis itself. Fit, looking young men guarded the hotel foyer. Commander Hawk cannot have been more than 28, solidly built with a thick gold chain around his neck.

He gave a lingering kiss to a stunning young woman who bore no resemblance to the wife that had been pointed out to me the day before, and we went upstairs for a chat.

In his hotel room he removed a semi-automatic pistol from his belt and placed it on the bedside table before indicating I could begin. It is difficult to ask positive questions about massacres and the killing of unarmed people, but he was very matter of fact in his replies, giving me a case of when it was necessary to kill a civilian.

If, for example, a boatman on the river was known to be giving rides to guerrillas often, not just under obligation, then what could he do, the man had condemned himself to death. He said it with finality, picking up the pistol from the bedside table.

It was time to go.

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