The Miami Herald
Fri, Apr. 23, 2004

Paramilitary leader's fate affecting talks

Colombia's peace commissioner is asking for an investigation into the fate of paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño, following an apparent attempt to kill him.

Special to The Herald

BOGOTA - The Colombian government Thursday was considering the future of peace talks with rightist paramilitary groups amid uncertainty over the fate of one of their leaders, Carlos Castaño, following an apparent attempt to kill him.

Peace Commissioner Juan Carlos Restrepo was writing to the attorney generals office asking for a thorough investigation, whose results would be used to decide how to proceed with the negotiations, a government spokesman said.

''The talks have to continue, with Castaño or without him,'' spokesman Ricardo Galán said. ``But they may have to take a different direction.''

Restrepo returned to Bogotá on Thursday from the northwestern city of Montería where he traveled to question leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the paramilitary group known as the AUC, about Castaños fate.

Castaño has not been heard from since an incident April 16, when family members said he and his bodyguards were attacked by fighters of a rival paramilitary faction at a ranch in northern Colombia.

A senior police source told The Herald that it appeared that two other paramilitary leaders had ordered the attack on Castaño because they believed he could be negotiating with the United States to turn them in.

However, Salvatore Mancuso, a member of the AUC high command, told the El Colombiano newspaper in an interview published Thursday that there had been no assassination attempt against Castaño. In the first statement by any AUC leader since the incident, Mancuso said paramilitary fighters had exchanged fire with government soldiers near the ranch where Castaño was hiding out. The military immediately denied the battle.

''Perhaps this is all part of a strategy by Commander Castaño to justify his flight to [the United States] . . . or maybe its a smoke screen to leave the limelight for a while,'' he said.

Castaño and Mancuso, as well as several other AUC leaders, are wanted in U.S. courts on drug trafficking charges.

Castaño, who helped found the AUC to fight off leftist guerrillas, has denied that he ever trafficked in cocaine but acknowledged that many paramilitary units obtain part of their financing through the drug trade.

His public efforts to break AUC ties with drug trafficking after a U.S. indictment 18 months ago led to schisms in the group that eventually saw him stripped of much of his power.

Most recently, Castaño was excluded from a 10-member team named March 31 to negotiate peace with the government.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood on Wednesday denied Castaño had been in recent contact with U.S. officials.

Even though Castaño has not been participating in the peace negotiations, one top AUC leader told The Herald in an e-mail message that the attack on Castaño would certainly affect the peace talks.

''Carlos was sort of an ally of the government within the AUC in the process,'' said Rodrigo Franco, an AUC leader who also is not taking part in the negotiations. ``With Carlos disappearance, the drug traffickers are in absolute control [of the AUC].''