True Confessions Of a Political Assassin
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
In Colombia, much, as the cliche goes, is not what it seems. The glitzy
former headquarters of the Hemophiliacs League of Colombia was once money-laundering
rental property for the country's largest drug cartel. That graying tourist with the thick accent? A member of the Irish Republican Army here on a working holiday.
But the same cannot be said of the celebrity tell-all autobiography,
a genre that in Colombia truly lives up to its name. It is not every public
figure who acknowledges
a role in dozens of political killings, admits to profiting from drug trafficking, writes sorrowfully of the loneliness of life in the jungle and describes shrapnel wounds in
the last place a man would want to be wounded.
This is the life of Carlos Castaño, head of Colombia's fearsome
paramilitary army, as revealed in his aptly titled autobiography, "My Confession."
memoir has struck a nerve in this troubled country and, through its pages of violence, treachery and pain, comes close to revealing Colombia's tormented soul.
Why Castaño has chosen to unburden himself in such an incriminating
way is a question no one has been able to answer. Officials at the U.S.
Embassy here have
been poring over the book, looking for motive and meaning, since it appeared on store shelves in December. They aren't the only ones: The book's first press run of
15,000 copies sold out in two hours -- a record for a publishing house that used to manage Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work.
With warrants pending against him for his alleged role in the murders
of human-rights workers, journalists and others, Castaño has understandably
forgone a national
book tour to explain himself. During a recent interview, at a borrowed farm with a view of the Magdalena River as it passes through central Colombia, Castaño said
the book is an attempt to bring candor to a conflict where hidden motive and shifting allegiance have long been trademarks.
"I've also always wanted to orient the Colombian middle class because
I don't believe they know what we are or where we are heading," Castaño
said. "It is an open
and frank book. But I should say that all the truth is not in the book -- but everything in the book is true."
Books in Colombia have frequently been a good measure of the public
mood. Last year, Ingrid Betancourt, a senator and presidential candidate,
overseas with her memoir, "Fury in the Heart." But the book, a condemnation of corruption, has not done as well here, where people are preoccupied with security,
and her left-leaning candidacy has yet to surpass 1 percent in the polls. In 1992, as Colombia suffered through the drug cartels' terrorist campaign against the state,
the book "At What Moment Did Things Go Wrong in Colombia?" sold a nonfiction-record 150,000 copies.
If the success of Castaño's "confession" is an indication of
the Colombian temperament, the year ahead promises to be a tough one for
the guerrilla insurgency he has
been battling for much of his life. The guerrillas, once powerful in his eastern home town of Antioquia, killed six of his siblings and his father.
Oveja Negra, the book's publishing house (whose name means "Black Sheep"),
has avoided criticism that it is helping advertise the paramilitary cause
simultaneously publishing a book by the largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). That book, "The Country We Want to
Construct," is a dense inventory of Colombia's problems and the guerrillas' mostly Marxist remedies.
Oveja Negra published 2,000 copies of the guerrilla book, while Castaño's
is in its fourth press run with 60,000 copies in print throughout Latin
America and in
Miami. In Castaño's literary assessment, the FARC "has written lots of books, all lying, changing the truth, cheating their readers. Common Colombians will say they
are so complicated, confusing, unclear. So maybe with my frankness I can force the guerrillas to be more frank."
Vladimir, a 17-year-old guerrilla in southwestern Cauca province, discussed
his reading habits on a cold, rainy day on the high plain near the town
Between participating in military strikes and manning roadblocks, he reads biographies of leftist heroes. But he was recently told by higher-ups that Castaño's work
was required reading. "It's important for us to know our enemies," Vladimir said. "And his lies."
The book benefits from a lively style and a gruesome story line. Not
surprisingly, according to booksellers, it is doing far better with men
than women. It has also
been helped by loud buzz: Before publication, a chapter of the book recounting Castaño's role in the 1990 assassination of former guerrilla leader and presidential
candidate Carlos Pizarro was the cover story of Semana, the largest weekly newsmagazine.
Castaño, who ordered the killing, argues that Pizarro would have
been the puppet president of Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin Castaño
helped hunt down. While
clarifying an unresolved episode of Colombia's recent history, the account of the chilling conspiracy behind the assassination, which took place during a commercial
airline flight, also gives credence to Colombians' most paranoid suspicions.
The book has also benefited from the recent trouble surrounding the
government's effort to end Colombia's nearly 40-year civil war. Peace talks
government and the FARC almost collapsed last month after three trying years, and an ensuing guerrilla offensive has been a marketing boon for Castaño.
"Sales have picked up enormously during this commotion," said Victor
Hugo Cangrejo, Oveja Negra's head of distribution. "People have taken a
lot more interest in
who this person is."
Since the book's publication, though, many Colombians have been torn
between an interest in reading it and qualms about handing over their money
to a confessed
killer. Pirate copies have sold briskly on Bogota street corners, the option of choice for those feeling guilty. But Castaño does not receive the royalties, which go to
the journalist Mauricio Aranguren Molina, who wrote the book based on a series of interviews.
The story has an almost Shakespearean beginning: Castaño is standing
over the grave of his brother, Fidel, who began the country's first paramilitary
group with a
few hundred men. The book sets the time of his death as 1994, when Fidel was wanted for an assortment of grave crimes including the massacre of dozens of
farmers in the town of Segovia.
Human-rights groups have doubted whether Fidel is really dead, but Castaño
says in the book that he tried frantically to keep his brother's coffin
from floating away
down the Sinu River. In a typical Colombian twist, Castaño says that his brother's murderer is now one of his commanders.
The story continues with Castaño succeeding his brother in the
top job, and the evolution of the regional paramilitary group into what
is now the 10,000-plus-member
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Along the way he describes his rationale for profiting from drug money (his guerrilla opponents do the same) and his secret
contacts with the Colombian government. As a story, it is hard to put down.
On Bogota's 92nd Street, in the city's wealthy northern district, the
book greets customers as they walk into Lerner Books. Alba Ines Arias,
the store's manager, said
the hype surrounding the book prompted her to order 150 copies. That is more than normal for "a book of this type," she said, meaning one perhaps less intellectual
than those favored by her educated clientele.
She has not been disappointed. Her shop has been selling 35 copies a
week and the demand is picking up. "Some people are buying it out of curiosity
-- after all, this
is a guy who runs his own army," said Arias, who has yet to read the book but intends to.
"I also believe, apart from whether it is a great work of literature,
it is important because [Castaño] is backed by a sector of this
society that has great influence," she
said. "So it is a way of understanding all parts of this war."