SOME of Colombia's death squads grew out of armed peasant self-defense organizations that were legally permitted by the government and openly supported by the military until last year. Many of the peasant groups were formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to kidnappings of wealthy farmers and other abuses by rebel leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The peasant organizations controlled by local bosses soon shed their defensive garb. ``At some point many of these groups became offensive rather than defensive and began attacking guerrillas and massacring peasants suspected of aiding them,'' says Emilio Aljure, the government's human rights adviser.
Most analysts agree that in the case of the Central Magdelena region, drug traffickers were principally responsible for transforming self-defense groups into right-wing death squads.
In the mid-1980s, members of the Medell'in cartel began buying up the region's rich land.
The FARC still controlled much of the zone. They extorted payments from farmers there and often either kidnapped or killed those who would not cooperate. But the drug traffickers refused to play by the rebels rules. Instead they decided to provide private counterinsurgency groups with sophisticated weaponry to confront the rebel problem.
The Central Magdelena squads have spread out over Colombia in what human rights activists say is a formula by traffickers and extreme rightists to take control of large sections of the country.