The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed to combat leftist terrorist organizations operating in Colombia, primarily the FARC and ELN. The AUC grew out of local paramilitary and self-defense groups formed in the 1980s. These groups were dedicated to protecting the economic interests of wealthy citizens and of the state from the Communist-inspired guerilla movements that threatened them.
At first, the various paramilitary groups enjoyed the tacit approval of the Colombian military. The military even cooperated with the AUC in the fight against leftist guerillas. Eventually, however, the close financial connections between the paramilitaries and local drug cartels forced the military to officially sever ties with the AUC in 1989. Despite this, the military and the AUC have been accused of continuing their collaboration unofficially, and the AUC recruits many former military personnel.
The AUC functions as an umbrella organization comprised of independently-operated groups. One of these paramilitaries, the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), is thought to have spearheaded the formation of the AUC. Furthermore, Carlos Castaño Gil, the co-founder and leader of the ACCU, is recognized as the on-again/off-again AUC leader.
The AUC serves the interests of Colombian economic elites, drug traffickers, and any local communities that do not support the leftist rebels. According to the AUC, its primary objective is to protect its supporters from leftist guerillas. Clearly, however, the AUC is also keenly interested in controlling the drug trade, which is its primary source of earnings. AUC leader Carlos Castaño Gil claims that 70 percent of the AUC's operational costs are funded by drug-related sources.
The AUC began peace negotiations with the Colombian government in July 2004. The talks centered on the disarmament of AUC blocks and their reintegration into the Colombian Armed Forces in order to provide security in their local strongholds. Like in similar, previous negotiations (such as with Pablo Escobar's group), the AUC sought to negotiate surrender and disarmament for promises of non-extradition to the U.S. and reduced prison sentences for terrorist and narcotics crimes. Despite AUC pledges to work with the American and Colombian governments to take action against cocaine production in the areas in which they operate, the American government has refused to drop their demands for extradition of AUC leaders.
Although the peace talks proceeded slowly at first (hurting the AUC's standing with the public), the disarmament process accelerated in 2005. By early 2006, more than 26,000 right-wing paramilitaries had reportedly disarmed in a series of weapons submission ceremonies. On April 12th, 2006, 1,700 fighters turned in their weapons in the town of Casibare. This action marked the final scheduled ceremony in the demobilization effort. The disarmament process is now presumed to be over, having involved thousands more guerrillas than expected.
Now that disarmament is reputedly over, it remains to be seen what role former AUC troops will play in Colombian security and politics. Discouragingly, there have been reports from the north of the country indicating that a few small bands of officially demobilized AUC fighters are still involved in terrorist activities -- including extortion, kidnapping, and even murder. The Colombian government has demanded serious efforts to control any outbreaks from senior commanders, particularly Salvatore Mancuso, though Mancuso has denied having any ability to control his former forces.