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Colombian paramilitary chief admits getting backing from businessmen

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) -- The head of Colombia's outlawed right-wing paramilitary forces, who has conceded most of his financing comes from the drug trade, said Wednesday that he also gets support from the local and international business community.

Carlos Castano, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), spoke of his ties to legitimate businessmen in an open letter to Congress, a day after Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez urged lawmakers to launch a probe into private sources of funding for the paramilitary militias that target leftists and suspected rebel sympathizers across Colombia.

"Why shouldn't national and international companies support us when they see their investments limited by the terrorism and barbarity of the guerrillas?" Castano asked in his letter.

"The growing support of the business sector is an urgent necessity in our case. Either they defend themselves from our national enemy or they will disappear," he added.

Mocking Ramirez, and his call for a crackdown on people who secretly back the paramilitaries, Castano said "the crime of anti-subversion or of pro-capitalism" was something that could not exist in a "civilized universe."

"We don't believe the country will advance toward peace by pursuing businessmen, civic leaders and defenseless citizens or by preventing them from adopting an anti-subversive stance," he said.

Local and international human rights groups say the AUC, which is responsible for most of the peasant massacres and other rights abuses committed in Colombia, operates with the support of state security forces in an increasingly dirty war with Marxist rebels that has taken more than 35,000 lives since 1990.

In a rare television interview in March, Castano said drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably financed 70 percent of his organization's operations.

He did not elaborate on his ties to the business community in Wednesday's letter. But Castano and his private army, which is comprised of an estimated 5,000 mostly working-class fighters, have long been seen as key defenders of the economic and political interests of Colombia's conservative financial elite.

"We have always proclaimed that we are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors," he said. "We have said over and over again that Colombian subversives are preventing the adequate development of productive forces."

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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