A Meeting with Paramilitary Leader Carlos Castaño

September 25, 2007

Colombia's northern plains were made for cattle. C~bu and Brangus cattle graze along the SinO River, which occasionally wanders out of its shallow bed, turning the land into a vast marsh. A colleague and I were on our way to meet Carlos Castahio. The drive was calm and tense, uneventful and deeply threatening. I'm tempted to say it's a Colombian kind of feeling, this marriage of quiet and menace, the smell of wet earth amid a limitless potential for violence. At a ranch, Castaio and his elite guard waited. For a man so legendarily ruthless, Castahio is pleasant looking. Compact and fair-skinned, he has the gruff paisa accent of his Antioquia childhood. He is young. The 30 equally young men guarding him had Uzis, AK-47s and machetes. Before sitting to talk, Castaho removed a silver Beretta from his belt, shook my hand and called for a tinto, the coffee that accom- panies any serious conversation in Colombia. Castaho grew up in the shadow of his eldest brother, Fidel, who apprenticed in cattle sales before moving on to more lucrative cocaine. Fidel invested his profits in land, and made his mother and 11 sib- lings millionaires. Although it is rumored that he had cashed out of trafficking by 1990, Fidel remained a powerful figure in the market, and a vengeful one. When Pablo Escobar tortured and killed two associ- ates, Fidel retaliated by blasting Escobar from his lux- urious hiding places and, ultimately, into the gun sights of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Colombian police. Fidel shared with his younger brother his hatred of the guerrillas. A colleague who once interviewed Fidel at Las Tangas, a Castaho ranch, told me Fidel wanted no revenge for the FARC's 1981 kidnapping of his father, who died in the guerrilla's custody. Fidel hated his father with the venom first-born sons reserve for an abusive and hard-drinking parent. Fidel hated the guerrillas for other reasons-because they stole his Robin Kirk is a researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of The Monkey's Paw: New Chronicles from Peru (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997). beloved cattle, because they killed his younger siblings because of their last name, because they got in his way. Castan Fidel vanished in 1994, perhaps in the war. An' Darien Gap, perhaps to a Portuguese rest home for the mentally unstable. Carlos part be Castaho inherited his brother's wealth and hatreds. He left middle school after his him, so father's death. Ever since, he's been at . war. of his Castaho leads the Peasant Self-Defense Units of C6rdoba and Urab6 (ACCU), the 1990s outgrowth of Fidel's Tangueros, who took their name from the Castafio ranch. The Tangueros perpetrated the most gruesome massacres of the pre- vious decade. The look, however, is new. Castafio has recruited not a band of professional hit-men, but a pri- vate army, which he describes without irony as a new kind of guerrilla. The men guarding him have blue uni- forms with baseball caps printed with the letters "ACCU." They have wartime regulations, a joint chiefs- of-staff, and even "hearts-and-minds" civic-outreach campaigns. And they have a goal. "We are going to end this war once and for all," Castaho says. To this end, Castahio has since forged an alliance of like-minded paramili- taries, which he calls the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). The AUC is his attempt to propel his regional war into the national arena. Castafo admits what he calls "errors"- the killing of innocents. "Especially at the beginning, we made mistakes, since we had poor training," he says. "But we have matured as a fighting force. We now have units throughout the country, and have recuperated many areas from guerrilla domination." But war is not all he thinks about. He has hired soci- ologists, anthropologists and agronomists, he told me, to come up with solutions to Colombia's problems. The ACCU sponsors grade schools, cooperatives, land reform and agricultural credits. As we spoke, he drew from a battered rucksack a sheaf of neatly printed reports, on ACCU letterhead. One surveys problems facing poor youth. Another addresess the elderly. These reports, Castafio explained, also served as intelligence, the work the ACCU does before launch- Castano's life is war. And in large part beause of him, so is the life of his country. "ing an attack. For instance, he explained, they had recently discovered that the guerrillas were "laundering cattle." After stealing a herd, guerrillas would trade several steers to a peasant in exchange for onefor one "clean" steer. The reduced but "laundered" herd would then be sold to the slaughterhouse. "Butchers were helping fund the guerrillas through this process," Castaio said, "so we had to send them a message that it would no longer be tolerated." The message was direct. The bodies of butchers began to appear on the country roads of Cordoba. "What if the butcher did not know the origin of a steer?" I ventured. "If he didn't know," Castaio countered forcefully, "he should have." Castafo argues that most of the hundreds of murders attributed to the ACCU annually are guer- rillas-either trained fighters or supporters who, in his view, are equally guilty. He categorically denies allowing his men to torture or mutilate, although the evidence is overwhelming that such practices are common. But in Castahio's world, almost any activity-boarding a bus, buying beef, treating a patient, paddling a canoe-can seem like part of a vast, silent conspiracy. Just as guer- rillas threaten and kill suspected paramilitary sup- porters, so do paramilitaries threaten and kill suspected guerrilla supporters. Who will be left when the fighting is finished? Castahio is sure of one thing-he will likely die before he reaches his goal of a guerrilla-free Colombia. The million-dollar reward the govern- ment has put on his head annoys him, if only because he believes that he has done more for Colombia than anyone. Sometimes, he says, he thinks of what he will do when it is over-work the cattle, which he loves, have his wife and children near. But he knows, better than most, that a man with so many enemies is unlikely to see a Colombia at peace. His life is war. And in large part because of him, so too is the life of his country.

Tags: Colombia, civil war, paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño

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