The Miami Herald
Sep. 30, 2002

Warlord is called a terrorist, but sees himself as a crusader


  BOGOTA - Carlos Castaño is a Colombian warlord who admits hunting down the men who kidnapped and killed his father.

  He acknowledges ordering a brazen 1990 hit on a leftist presidential candidate, and he makes no apologies for leading a paramilitary group that
  massacres peasants in its zeal to beat leftist rebel insurgents. But lately the head of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, has been
  saying he is repentant for kidnappings and drug trafficking that have become synonymous with his illegal paramilitary army.

  And he's willing to surrender.

  Castaño was indicted by a U.S. court last week for allegedly smuggling 17 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe over the last five years --
  accused of everything from protecting jungle cocaine-processing laboratories to setting quality and price controls for cocaine, and managing maritime

  But experts say his public outpouring of remorse is one of a series of ''spins'' by a politically savvy, image-conscious murderer who likes to portray himself
  as a crusader who does evil for the good of his nation.

  President Bush calls him a terrorist.

  ''I don't know that he's had much formal education, but he's extremely smart, very quick,'' said Joaquín Pérez, Castaño's Miami lawyer.

  Castaño is the on-again, off-again leader of the AUC, a paramilitary army born 20 years ago as a response to the nation's leftist insurgency, now 38
  years old. Ranchers and other victims of kidnappings and extortion by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, banded together to fight
  back at any cost. The group, at first allied with the Medellín cocaine cartel, now is purported to have up to 14,000 members.


  Castaño is credited with taking a ragtag group of vigilantes and turning them into an organized, well-financed army. His involvement was triggered by his
  father's 1979 kidnapping, a crime that ended in the elder Castaño's murder -- despite the paying of a ransom. In his recent book, My Confessions,
  Castaño describes how at 14 he and his older brother avenged their father's death, hunting down the culprits one by one. In a publication some media
  have dubbed a ''kill and tell'' biography, Castaño confesses to his first slaying: emptying a fully loaded pistol into the face of his father's killer.

  The elder Castaño, a farmer in Antioquia, was kidnapped by FARC rebels who sought steep extortion. Ill and exhausted, he was killed months later when
  guerrillas feared a military operation was under way to rescue him. His sons went on a two-year killing spree, eventually killing eight men, including three
  of the elder Castaño's former employees.

  At 18, Castaño went for military training in Israel, where he says he learned the concept of ``armed self-defense.''

  ''They can paint me as Satan before the world,'' he says in the book, written by Spanish journalist Mauricio Aranguren. ``I'm only consoled by the fact
  that I did not start this war, and the self-defense forces are the legitimate offspring of the Colombian guerrillas.''

  But human rights reports say Castaño's group has become worse than the enemy it has been trying to beat. Although the AUC does not practice the
  random terrorism that has become the mark of the FARC, it commits more massacres and extrajudicial killings. Nearly 65 percent of the 439 people killed
  in massacres last year were victims of the AUC, according to the Colombian Defense Ministry's annual human rights report. The report says the AUC killed
  1,028 people last year; the FARC, 1,060.

  Castaño, a short man with a raspy voice, personally admits to 1,000 killings, among them those of Sen. Manuel Cepeda and presidential candidate Carlos
  Pizarro. Today, Castaño has 35 pending criminal cases and 27 warrants for his arrest.

  ''He believes this is all part of a war,'' Pérez explained. ``And in war, some people get killed.''

  Although few Colombians support the FARC, polls show not many endorse the AUC, either.

  Castaño, 36, is the father of two teens, 13 and 16, from a previous marriage. His second wife, 20-year-old Kenia, is expecting their first child in

  Castaño choked up last week when asked by a Colombian reporter whether he would miss the birth of his child if he surrenders to U.S. authorities.


  Castaño is facing a 12-page indictment, announced last week by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, which details a series of drug shipments to the
  United States and Europe.

  In an interview last week with a Colombian radio and TV station, Castaño asserted that he's willing to face up to the charges, because he is convinced
  both of his innocence and of the fairness of the American legal system.

  Experts say Castaño does not understand that the paramilitary army's system of ''taxing'' drug traffickers to generate $20 million a month makes him
  culpable. And Castaño seems unfazed by the legal consequences of the murders to which he happily admits in his memoirs.

  ''He has the erroneous belief that this book of his, this criminal testament, justifies what he did and after that, he's another person,'' said Salud
  Hernández-Mora, an El Tiempo columnist who wrote the prologue to My Confessions and has interviewed Castaño four times. 'He thinks, `Judge me for
  what I do from now on, not what I did before.' ''

  In July, Castaño publicly claimed to have stepped down from the AUC, saying he was disgusted by kidnapping and drug trafficking and had lost control of
  the commanders under him -- but he is still widely considered the boss. He also steadfastly maintains that he opposes terrorism and says he once
  worked as a government informant who reported locations of bombs planted by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

  ''This is a funny case of screwed up values and priorities,'' said José Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch. ``He considers narco-trafficking to be the
  worst thing, when his group, his leadership, and his confessions refer to so many extrajudicial killings, assassinations, massacres and atrocities of all
  kinds. It's an interesting manipulation of values.

  ``Something is wrong there.''

  Vivanco is leery of Castaño's latest media blitz offering his surrender. Aranguren, who recorded 38 hours of interviews with Castaño for his book, doesn't
  buy it, either.

  ''Carlos Castaño is a person of extremes, from passion and love to radical violence,'' Aranguren said in a telephone interview from Mexico. ``I totally
  believe half of Colombia is pro-Castaño. I am clear on that. And in that sense, Castaño has won the war -- his war.''