Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date



Colby College. Anthropology Dept.


On June 28, 2004, indicted drug trafficker and paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, wearing a fashionable Italian suit and tie, addressed the Colombian Congress from the podium. "The judgment of history will recognize the goodness and nobility of our cause," he told the assembled legislators and press. The day before, Mancuso, along with two other paramilitary leaders, had traveled in an official air force plane from the small northern Colombia hamlet where paramilitary leaders had assembled to begin talks with the Colombian government. After almost a decade of fighting outside the law, Mancuso was now addressing the heart of the state, his many arrest warrants-as well as the extradition order issued by the U.S. government that would land him in a jail in Washington, D.C., four years later-temporarily suspended as the Colombian government and the paramilitary leaders began negotiations intended to demobilize paramilitary fighters in exchange for state benefits.

Over the past decade, paramilitary forces under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) transformed themselves from regional renegades to political operators and valid interlocutors, respected in many quarters as worthy of sitting at the negotiating table with the government. This metamorphosis involved changes in paramilitary tactics, as well as a substantial public relations campaign aimed at changing public perceptions at home and abroad. These groups had begun new and wider military operations in the late 1990s, dramatically expanding their numbers from an estimated 2,500 in the early 1990s to more than 15,000 by the end of the decade, and embarked on offensive military campaigns to conquer new territory. Paramilitary leaders carried out a public relations campaign employing a range of strategies to engender public acceptance of their role as political spokesmen from the government and international funders. Paramilitary groups with significant links to a growing number of congressional and local politicians were central in transforming the electoral map of Colombia. These efforts were a critical component in the domestic and international support for current negotiations between the government and paramilitary leaders.


Originally published in Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War, Virginia Bouvier, editor. Washington: U.S. Institute for Peace, 2009.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.