Paramilitary Patriarch

By Joseph Contreras
6 September 1999

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Paramilitary Patriarch: In a rare interview, vigilante leader Ramon Isaza talks about his 21-year private war against the country's leftist guerrillas and his determination to fight on

The old man could be just another aging Colombian campesino --except for his bodyguards, the gold ring on his left hand and the automatic pistol strapped to his waist. He speaks the slurred Spanish of a peasant farmer, and Ramon Isaza, 59, looks the part in his white straw hat and knockoff sneakers. But here in the steamy lowlands of Colombia's Magdalena River valley, Don Ramon's word is law. He founded the first of Colombia's notorious right-wing paramilitary groups in 1978.

Now, defying the Bogota government's peace efforts, he swears to intensify his personal war against the country's leftist guerrillas. "We must press ahead," he tells NEWSWEEK. "Our mission is to remove the subversives from any part of the country where they exist."

Isaza's crusade is already drenched in blood. He says he has lost track of how many leftists he has personally killed in the last two decades, but he reckons the total to be well into the dozens. He and eight other vigilante commanders have pooled their forces in the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia. Most Latin Americans would call them old-fashioned paramilitary death squads. The Colombian Army says the country's nine major "self-defense" forces, with a total of some 10 000 men at arms, were responsible for the murders of 361 people in the first seven months of this year alone. Hardly a day passes without news of another atrocity committed by anti-guerrilla militias. Just last week, paramilitary units swept through four villages near the Venezuelan border, far from Isaza's turf, hunting for rebels who had kidnapped a Roman Catholic bishop. The vigilantes killed some 50 civilians. The bishop is still missing.

On a Saturday morning a few days earlier, in a rare interview with NEWSWEEK, Isaza talked about his unwavering faith in the paramilitary cause. He pulled into a roadside cafe in Doradal, a bus stop of a town on the two-lane highway between the central Magdalena River valley and the city of Medellin. The paramilitary commander seemed incapable of relaxing, even on his home ground. His leg twitched constantly, and his mocha-colored eyes darted around the open-air cafe, registering every customer's comings and goings. He denied some of the atrocities that have been blamed on his forces--among them the 1998 massacre of more than 25 slum residents in the city of Barrancabermeja. "Those were guerrilla fighters disguised as peasants," Isaza said of the killers. "We have them on our lists, and we know who they are."

Unfortunately for Don Ramon, he has lots of enemies who keep similar lists. Last December, near the town of Puerto Boyaca, guerrillas ambushed and killed his 33-year-old son, Omar de Jesus. Another son, John, 18, died in 1991, gunned down by hit men working for Pablo Escobar. The notorious cocaine merchant was once a major financial supporter of the paramilitaries, but he and Ramon Isaza had fallen out. The Colombian Attorney General's Office reportedly issued a warrant for the paramilitary commander's arrest on drug-trafficking charges in the early 1990s, but Isaza emphatically declares his innocence. "The police and the Army know that I personally have never gotten mixed up with that," he asserts. "I have been the greatest enemy of drug trafficking." He claims (without evidence) that U.S. officials even offered him a $10 million bounty to kill Escobar in 1992--only days before the Medellin cartel chief died in a shoot-out with Colombian security forces.

Lately Isaza's battle has been getting lonelier. Tacitly, at least, Washington and Bogota used to tolerate paramilitary excesses, contending that the vital thing was to defeat the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). The insurgency only kept growing. Now the official stance has shifted. Trying to persuade the U.S. Congress to vote increased military aid for the Colombian government, the Clinton administration has been pushing Bogota to clean up the country's human-rights record --with a degree of success. Earlier this year Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, sacked two generals who allegedly had been working hand-in-glove with paramilitary organizations. The U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Curtis Kamman, endorses the policy change: "There is a very different legal status between the guerrillas, [who are] people with a political agenda in rebellion, and the paramilitaries, who are regarded as criminals."

Colombian police should have no trouble finding Don Ramon if they ever decide to arrest him. He frequently appears in public around Doradal and nearby villages. He's easy to spot in his white pickup with six heavily armed vigilantes riding in the back. His cattle ranch, Las Mercedes, sits just off the area's main highway. Isaza says the police don't worry him. "Every so often they try to arrest us or chase after us," he says with a shrug. The guerrillas are still his chief concern: "As self-defense groups, we can't drop our guard. We have to defend our region." No one around Doradal is arguing with him.

© 1999 Newsweek, Inc.