Two months after the disappearance of Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, authorities are no closer to finding out whether he is dead or alive.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
BOGOTA - Colombia's feared warlord Carlos Castaño was either strangled, executed in a hail of bullets on orders of his brother, or kidnapped, buried and exhumed.
Or perhaps the founder of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a notoriously brutal paramilitary group, staged his own death and is now hiding in Israel or the United States.
''There are a lot of rumors,'' said Castaño's lawyer, Miami defense attorney Joaquín Pérez. "I can tell you the Castaño family is fine and well.''
Was Pérez saying that Castaño, who disappeared April 16, is alive?
''How many people make a family?'' Pérez coyly responded in a telephone interview. ``I can't go beyond that.''
Since his disappearance, Castaño has become as large a myth as he was in life. Shrouded in mystery, contradictions and media buzz, accounts of his whereabouts have yet to yield a clear answer to the question everyone here is asking.
What happened to Carlos Castaño?
TALKS AT STAKE
The stakes are big.
Colombia's government soon will launch peace talks with Castaño's group, known as AUC and controlled since his disappearance by the country's most powerful drug traffickers. Castaño had been considered a voice of moderation within the AUC, arguing that it should stop financing its war against leftist guerrillas by protecting the cocaine industry.
With him gone, critics argue, the government will sit at the bargaining table with nothing more than drug lords.
Castaño, who would have turned 39 on May 15, was 14 when leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, kidnapped his father and demanded a ransom. The ransom was paid but Jesus Castaño was killed, and his sons Carlos and Fidel set out for revenge.
The result was the AUC, an illegal paramilitary group that grew to some 13,000 fighters by 2001. For two decades they have fought leftist guerrillas with selective assassinations, massacres and frontal combat, often with covert military collaboration.
Under President Alvaro Uribe, the AUC agreed to peace talks. But when Castaño spoke out against the use of drug trafficking to finance the war, AUC hard-liners began squeezing him out, observers say.
In quick succession, Castaño was indicted by a U.S. grand jury for drug trafficking and was left out of AUC's peace negotiating team. There were rumors that he had begun cooperating with the CIA or DEA. His title changed from military comandante to ``political chief.''
And then he vanished -- oddly, much as his brother Fidel had a decade earlier.
Carlos Castaño's approved biography, My Confession, says he was killed by guerrillas and buried in a family farm. Officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency have repeatedly said they suspect he's working as an art dealer in Europe.
''Carlos, like his brother Fidel, has just entered the land of fiction, as both have converted their deaths into myths,'' said Castaño's biographer, Mauricio Aranguren Molina.
``Remember the second paragraph of my book? . . . What I wrote in that moment was a kind of premonition, one of those reflections that turns into an unyielding reality.''
From the book: ``Carlos Castaño knew the mystery [of Fidel's disappearance] turned warriors into myths that feed the incredulity of men. That way, it prolongs life after death for unforeseeable times.''
BEGINNING OF RUMORS
Castaño was first reported dead April 16, when two of his bodyguards appeared at a northern Colombia hospital with an elaborate tale of an attempt to kill him by AUC gunmen.
Castaño's young wife, Kenia, surrendered to authorities and corroborated the story, but insisted that Castaño came out alive.
In the next weeks, the versions ranged wildly.
He may have escaped because he was alerted to the attack by cellphone, as the leading El Tiempo newspaper reported. Or he was strangled to death, like the news agency Reuters said. Radio Caracol said he was shot in a corral after a party drowned in whiskey.
He may have been ordered killed by his brother, as Agency France Press reported, quoting a now-dead dissident AUC commander. AFP later cited diplomatic sources as saying that the CIA had spirited Castaño to Israel. Israeli officials said they had no record of Castaño entering the country under that name.
''It's confusing,'' fellow AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso told journalists a few days after the disappearance. ``It's really worrisome for us. I and everyone else believe he's alive.''
Later, Mancuso told a Colombian newspaper that his sources had told him that Castaño was headed to the United States to cooperate with American justice.
The U.S. Embassy here denied it.
For its part, the Colombian government has said it doesn't have any information on Castaño aside from what has been reported in the media.
But many insiders remain convinced that Castaño was killed by the AUC.
''The very attitude of the paramilitary chiefs, who seem to have no feelings in regard to his supposed death, is an indicator that they killed him,'' said leftist Congressman Gustavo Petro. "You'd think that they -- even the savages that they are -- would show some grief.
"I think he's dead.''