Colombia's paramilitary fighters


Strongman: The founder of Colombia's notorious right-wing paramilitary movement defends his personal war with Marxist rebels.

March 01, 2000|By Paul de la Garza | Paul de la Garza,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

DORADAL, Colombia -- Ramon Isaza, a small, handsome, dark-skinned man with a crown of curly black hair, greets a visitor to his second-floor patio wearing black Topsiders, black jean shorts, and a black-and-white T-shirt.

As the sounds of Colombian music float in from the living room, his wife, Estermila, walks around in a red-checkered dress with cups of coffee for him and his guests.

Everyone around Ramon Isaza, 59, addresses him with the title of Don, as a sign of respect. An admirer tells a visitor how Doradal, a village of 3,000 people in the mountains of northern Colombia, loves Isaza.

On a recent breezy afternoon, Isaza retraced his life story. He talked about growing up in abject poverty, about marrying because he needed a cook, about whiling away the time singing and playing the guitar.

Before too long, he began talking about the men he has killed.

"I told my men to hold him," he says, remembering a messenger for the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. "I killed him and we tossed his body into the river."

Isaza speaks without a tinge of remorse.

An uneducated peasant whose Spanish sometimes is hard to understand, Isaza is the founder of Colombia's notorious right-wing paramilitary movement. He asserts that his movement is the answer to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the Marxist rebels who have been at war with the government since 1964.

A small man with muscular calves and a worsening back condition, he is at home in the state of Antioquia, guarded by young men dressed in military fatigues and armed with sidearms and assault rifles.

"Ramon is the government here," says an associate, adding "you can assume" that he operates with the military's blessing. A National Police post is located down the road in Doradal, which is about 122 miles northwest of Bogota.

If a foreign journalist could track him down, it would seem logical that the Colombian authorities could nab him. But a high-level Colombian official, who requested anonymity, said it wasn't that easy.

"You go into some of these villages, the paramilitaries are stronger than the government, simply because there is no government," the official said.

"These guys have a level of security that is extremely effective, and most of all, they have the support of the population, and that support, most of the time, is out of intimidation, perhaps."

Human rights activists allege that the paramilitaries, or so-called death squads, are largely responsible for rights violations in Colombia's protracted civil war.

Over the years, the paramilitaries have been implicated in a series of massacres, and activists say they have played a major role in the displacement of up to 1.5 million Colombians caught in the bloodshed.

As U.S. congressional committees begin considering a $1.3 billion emergency aid package, ostensibly for Colombia's war on illegal drugs, some congressional leaders are demanding that Bogota rein in the paramilitaries.

"Before going down that road the administration needs to tell us what they expect to achieve, in what period of time, and what the costs and risks are," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said in a statement.

"And we at least need to see a concerted effort by the Colombian army to thwart the paramilitary groups, who are responsible for most of the atrocities against civilians."

Isaza, however, prefers the term self-defense forces to paramilitaries. He insists the movement is not funded by the Colombian government and says the rival FARC guerrillas and their sympathizers are bandits, not worthy of human consideration.

"I think human rights should exist, and we know about human rights," Isaza said.

"We know how to handle that situation, but come on, we should be human with the people, but like the guerrilla is not human with us, we cannot be human with the guerrilla."

A little more than a year ago, the guerrillas killed Isaza's 33-year-old son, Omar de Jesus, in an ambush.

Isaza, one of 12 siblings, was born on a ranch in this picturesque region of mountains and rivers and cattle and crops. His deeply religious Roman Catholic parents preached, above all, respect for the government.

Their property was so isolated, with no roads to speak of, that the nearest village was 11 hours by foot. Although they raised coffee and corn and sugar cane and beans, Isaza remembers a life of privation.

"Work was totally peasant work," he said. "My father was poor, poor, poor but a fighter for his life, thanks to God. And I grew up that way."

At age 23, Isaza moved to Doradal and soon began battling cattle thieves after he acquired a small ranch with about 26 cows. He said FARC guerrillas surfaced in his community in 1977. The rebels began extorting money from the ranchers, and the ranchers complained to the military.

It was rough terrain, however, and the military needed guides. Isaza said he volunteered.

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