The charismatic leader of Colombia's top paramilitary militia has resigned his post, the outlawed right-wing group said Wednesday, in a shake-up thought to reflect internal divisions in the rapidly growing force.
Carlos Castano was reassigned to manage the political affairs of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, but with no top leader named in his place, observers aren't expecting him to fade from the scene.
The group, known as the AUC, has become a major force in Colombia's 37-year civil war. It is waging a brutal campaign against guerrillas and their suspected collaborators, often massacring them. Fueled by drug profits and the government's failure to provide security in the countryside, it has expanded into an 8,000-strong, nationwide force.
However, the rapid expansion--and a recent government crackdown against the group--prompted internal rifts that apparently led to Castano's resignation.
Under pressure from Washington to improve human rights, President Andres Pastrana's government has begun confronting the AUC following years of state tolerance. The United States is providing Colombia with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.
Tensions within the AUC bubbled over in recent days, following recent arrests of militia members and a raid on the home of an AUC commander's wife.
Castano earlier made public a resignation letter in which he cryptically indicated his disagreement with other AUC commanders who were reportedly calling for retaliation strikes against the government. Castano is considered a relative moderate in the organization.
In a statement posted on the AUC's Internet site Wednesday, the group said it had accepted Castano's resignation. It said he had been appointed to conduct the AUC's political affairs.