Paramilitary leader's fate remains a mystery
Eight months after he went missing, rumors still swirl around paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. Is he dead or in hiding?
BY STEVEN DUDLEY
CORDOBA, Colombia - In Colombia, it sometimes seems harder to kill someone after they're dead.
There are some, for instance, who believe that drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and his former partner, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, are still alive and were not gunned down by police more than a decade ago.
And now, eight months after feared paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño went missing, rumors continue to swirl about his whereabouts. Some say he's hiding in Panama or Israel, others say in the United States, and still others say he's dead. Either way, his legend is hard to bury.
''I'm sure he's alive,'' Castaño's former top political advisor told The Herald. ``[But] it's easier to stay alive by acting as if you're dead.''
Castaño's disappearance was significant because it came two weeks after he abandoned peace talks between the government and the 20,000-strong paramilitary force he created, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Yet the mystery remains.
Two witnesses who spoke to local media say that on April 16, Castaño was checking his e-mail at a corner store in a small settlement near here known as ''37,'' when a three-car convoy attacked his circle of bodyguards. One later told the police that Castaño yelled, ''They're coming to kill me,'' but that Castaño managed to flee the store.
What followed was more rumor than fact.
TAKEN TO FARM
Some versions say Castaño was captured and taken to his older brother José Vicente Castaño's farm, known as ''15,'' where he was tortured for two days, then killed. Other Colombians with very close links to the paramilitaries interviewed by The Herald say Castaño was shot as he scampered away from ''37'' and buried on the spot.
Government investigators who visited ''37'' never found a body or signs of blood. And Castaño's political advisor, who claims that he spoke to several people at ''37'' by phone after the incident, insists that Castaño was taken alive to `15.''
Castaño's advisor said José Vicente had earlier protected Carlos from other AUC leaders who wanted to kill him because they believed that Carlos, who had been openly critical of drug traffickers' growing influence in the AUC, was cooperating with the DEA. Carlos was under a U.S. indictment for cocaine trafficking and spoke openly about turning himself in.
The advisor insists that José Vicente protected Carlos again in April. ''They had a meeting . . . and they let him go,'' he told The Herald in an interview in a foreign country.
He also said said he communicated regularly with Castaño via e-mail until the day of the ambush, when Castaño's e-mail account was shut down.
Castaño's disappearance sent reverberations throughout Colombia. The peace process came to a temporary halt as government negotiators demanded to know what had happened to the man who until then had been the firmest advocate for a peace settlement.
But the AUC officially claims to know nothing.
''He disappeared. We don't know what happened to him,'' Diego Murillo, an AUC commander and former Castaño ally, told the Herald during a recent interview in the small region the government granted to the AUC as a safe haven while the talks go on. Castaño's ambush took place outside the safe haven.
Murillo -- who along with José Vicente Castaño is suspected of engineering the ambush against Carlos -- said he believed that Carlos might have staged his disappeared to take care of his daughter. Castaño's wife, Kenia Gómez, bore a daughter with an irreversible congenital condition in 2002.
''He was very affected by what happened to his daughter,'' Murillo said. 'And he wanted to leave. He would say, `I'm outta here. I'm packing my bags and leaving.'. . . He said goodbye to me at least five times.''
ALLOWED TO ENTER U.S.
Gómez and her daughter were whisked to the United States after Castaño's disappearance. Friends say U.S. authorities agreed to allow in the family so that the daughter could receive treatment in exchange for the mother's information on trafficking.
Kenia Gómez has told many people that she believes her husband is alive. She did not show up for a meeting The Herald had arranged with her recently in the United States.
Castaño's own history makes it hard for people to accept his death.
For more than two decades, he battled left-wing guerrillas and powerful drug traffickers. Along the way, he created the 20,000-strong AUC and gained the muscle to convoke meetings with traffickers, politicians and military officials at a moment's notice.
And then there's the story of his older brother Fidel, a drug trafficker and paramilitary leader in his own right who vanished in early 1994. Carlos's approved biography, My Confession, says Fidel was killed by guerrillas and buried on a family farm.
DEA officials have repeatedly said they suspect Fidel is working as an art dealer in Europe and Israel.