Colombia's Other Army
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
NUDO DE PARAMILLO, Colombia -- After an hour skimming above the treetops,
the helicopter plunged toward a tiny clearing. Below was a slow-running
and ground mist from the clouds that settle each day into the ravines and shaded hollows of this mountainous rain forest in northwestern Colombia.
Nothing else was visible. But as the wash from the rotors reached the
ground, shaking the thick jungle brush, men emerged. Tents appeared among
Soon more than a dozen men surrounded the landing zone, dressed in camouflage, strapped with Chinese, Russian and Israeli rifles, wearing red berets and
armbands of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
This was an advance camp of Carlos Castano, the reclusive commander
in chief of a private army created more than a decade ago by ranchers in
to take on the country's leftist guerrillas. Today this dairy farmer's son, and his growing army of 8,000 members, loom at the center of Colombia's search for an end
to four decades of civil war -- and constitute one of the main challenges facing a U.S.-backed plan to take on the country's drug smugglers by eradicating their crops.
Castano's AUC holds vast swaths of Colombian territory and confronts
the guerrillas in many more. Along the way, it has amassed a record of
government calculates the AUC now kills more civilians than the main guerrilla army it was founded to combat. Its leader, although excluded from recently revived
peace talks, asserts he has earned the backing of the Colombian people to play a role in any arrangement to bring peace to the country.
On an afternoon last week, Castano's headquarters of the day was a collection
of tents invisible from the air. A path of plywood planks led from the
landing zone through the trees, armed men standing silently along each curve. A waterfall appeared. And a small generator. Then a satellite dish and a plywood table
set with a bowl of fruit, a thermos of coffee and a laptop computer.
Castano emerged from his tent in a crisp camouflage uniform buttoned to the top and tucked into jungle boots. He was unarmed and smiling.
After spending most of his 35 years in these backlands, having lost
his father and five siblings to leftist rebels, Castano has never held
more power or inspired more
fear among his enemies and the government than today. He says the doubling of his ranks over the past three years -- a rate five times greater than the growth of the
leftist guerrilla forces he battles -- concerns him as much as it pleases him because of what it says about the deterioration of government authority.
"Nobody has said that the AUC represent the best solution to Colombia's
problems," Castano said in an interview during a visit to this redoubt
about 200 miles
northwest of Bogota. "But it is one, perhaps the only one, and one that the Colombian people see at this moment."
Even though his army has no formal political standing, Castano plays
a central role in Colombia's peace process and in hopes for the success
of President Andres
Pastrana's U.S.-backed anti-drug and economic development program known as Plan Colombia. The United States is contributing $1.3 billion to Colombia over the
next two years, mostly in the form of transport helicopters and military trainers that will benefit Colombia's armed forces in their battle against the drug crops that
finance illegal armed groups of both the left and right.
Castano said his army does not plant or export drugs, but earns at least
$2 million a year by collecting money -- taxes, he calls it -- from coca
producers and dealers.
That is not the view of U.S. and Colombian authorities, who say the AUC is deeply involved in the drug industry and brings in significantly more than $2 million.
Nonetheless, Castano said he supports Plan Colombia's goal of eliminating the drug trade, which he says has corrupted every segment of Colombian society.
Facing more than 20 warrants for his arrest, including charges of murdering
human rights workers, Castano has eluded capture for years in fortified
camps such as
this one high in the clouds of northern Antioquia province, about an hour from enemy positions. He acknowledged that, as international pressure has increased, the
Colombian armed forces have trained more resources on his troops.
But he said a natural political affinity between the armed forces and
his own troops -- they both seek to defeat the leftist guerrillas -- allows
the crackdown to go only
so far. "They are like brothers," he said. "Our enemy is the guerrillas and that has not changed."
Castano said that approximately 35 retired officers and 1,000 former
soldiers are now AUC members, a connection human rights workers and Colombian
officials say allows the AUC to benefit from troops, equipment and intelligence provided by former colleagues.
"You fire these people, and immediately they are contacted by the paramilitaries," said Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez in a recent interview.
The flow of men from the armed forces to the AUC, which offers better
pay at every level than the armed forces, appears to be accelerating. Of
30 officers purged in
December for having paramilitary ties, 23 now work full time for Castano. He asserted that, in addition, his civilian supporters include former members of the
prosecutor general's office who maintain influence in the government.
"We started out as a reaction to the guerrillas, but we have evolved
and now represent the social interests of big sectors of this country,"
he said. "We now have a
concept of what the state should be in terms of economy, human rights, and justice. . . . We are now in the larger scene because there are no leaders who think this
In many ways, Castano's own background as a high school dropout and
farmer's son might have made him a candidate to become a leftist guerrilla.
His origins, in
fact, go a long way to explain Colombia's decades-old battle with itself -- a war in which allegiances are determined as much by geography, economic interests and
personal history as by political ideology.
The family of Jesus Castano, the paramilitary leader's father, lived
on 440 mostly wild acres of farmland. He supported his wife and 12 children
with what he could
earn selling milk, butter and cheese. To be a farming family in rural Antioquia in the 1980s was to live under constant threat from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's main guerrilla force and the hemisphere's oldest leftist insurgency, which now numbers 18,000 troops. The guerrilla group
controlled much of Colombia's countryside, as it continues to today, and farmers were subjected to kidnappings and extortion to help finance the cause.
In 1981, Jesus Castano was kidnapped by the FARC and held for a ransom
of $7,500, a fortune to the family. Led by Carlos's charismatic older brother
family raised half the money by mortgaging the farm and selling off what they could. But the FARC did not release their father after receiving the partial payment:
Jesus's body was found chained to a tree.
Fifteen years later, Carlos Castano kidnapped the brother of Alfonso
Cano, a member of the FARC's secretariat, and requested the same ransom
"to remind them
that they kidnapped and killed my father and had not returned his body or money." Cano's brother was returned unharmed, even though no ransom was paid.
Their father's kidnapping radicalized the Castano brothers, who turned
to the Colombian military for help. At the time, the military was training
paramilitary forces to
help protect remote villages at the mercy of the FARC. As Castano put it: "We invoked justice, we trusted justice, but when it did not respond, we felt we could take
justice into our own hands. And I'm not ashamed to say it was for vengeance."
The brothers trained with the Bombona Battalion of the army's 14th Brigade,
serving as guides in the northern state of Cordoba. Soon after, Fidel formed
Tangueros, named for a local bird, which became the most notorious death squad in northern Colombia, blamed for more than 150 murders in the late 1980s and
The group was one of many in Antioquia and Cordoba that human rights
groups say profited by protecting the interests of Colombia's huge cocaine
cartels of the
early 1990s, particularly the Medellin-based group run by petty thief-turned-kingpin Pablo Escobar. But in 1994 Fidel disappeared, allegedly killed near the
Panamanian border on an arms-buying expedition. His body has never turned up, though, and Colombia's prosecutor general continues to file arrest warrants against
From these death squads grew the Peasant Self-Defense Force of Cordoba
and Uraba (ACCU), the oldest and largest of the AUC's confederation of
funded armies across the country. This was a result of Carlos Castano's new leadership: He transformed a regional protection force into a national political
movement, pitching such populist, left-leaning ideas as land reform, social development aid and stronger courts.
Today his army reaches from Colombia's northern coast, the ACCU's stronghold,
to the principal drug-producing region of Putumayo in the south. Along
the way the
AUC has picked up support not only from beleaguered peasants seeking protection, but also from an exhausted middle class that has watched a once-powerful
economy savaged by guerrillas who target oil pipelines, electric distribution stations and other parts of the country's infrastructure. Despite the AUC's outlaw status, a
Gallup poll last year found that approximately 15 percent of the population approves of it, five times more than those who expressed approval for the FARC.
Castano said that the AUC still generates 80 percent of its funding
by collecting contributions from wealthy landowners and businessmen seeking
such attacks in zones that the AUC controls or operates in. The other 20 percent comes from the "taxes" on drug producers.
At the same time, the AUC has emptied out entire regions of alleged
guerrilla supporters through massacres, including one Jan. 17 in the northern
village of Chengue
where members of the ACCU Northern Bloc allegedly killed 26 townspeople with rocks and hammers. One 74-year-old survivor lamented afterward: "We don't
have a government in this country anymore. Carlos Castano is our president."
The government attributed 983 civilian deaths last year to the AUC,
a 32 percent increase from the previous year, carried out through selective
murders and more
than 500 multiple slayings.
Castano dismissed an account of the Chengue massacre published in The
Washington Post, calling the story "a terror novel." His Northern Bloc
"Santander," acknowledged that AUC forces killed the villagers -- but with gunshots, not with the rocks and hammers allegedly used. He said the FARC later staged
the scene to make it look that way.
Castano said all of those killed were guerrilla sympathizers, identified
by FARC deserters who participated as AUC members that day, and that only
supporters within Chengue's remaining population were allowed to speak to a reporter after the event.
"The day something like that happens with the [AUC] in Colombia, I will
disappear," Castano said. "First you have to understand that this is an
irregular conflict. You
have to understand that the guerrillas, not us, determined the conflict's characteristics."
'Ask Me Anything'
Castano's visitors -- he has given only a handful of in-person interviews
in the past five years -- started a recent trip to his camp from the airport
in the northern city of
Monteria. A nearby cattle ranch on the Sinu River -- complete with swimming pool, jukebox and glossy fashion magazines -- provided a waiting room, courtesy of a
wealthy supporter. Men along the route from the airport carried radios, linking farm to farm in a region described by Castano's officers as "liberated."
A small helicopter arrived at the ranch, keeping the rotor running while
the visitors piled in. It landed once on Cordoba's vast dry plain at a
small farm where, beneath
a grove of trees, a tanker truck was hidden. The pilot, trained years ago at a U.S. military base, filled the tank and flew on to the lair here at Nudo de Paramillo.
Castano is short and wiry with deep brown eyes, short hair and manic
energy. During an interview, he shouted his responses more than speaking
them, employing a
range of gestures from finger pointing to hands waving above his head. He began the interview by saying: "I do not get offended. Ask me anything and I will answer
During a two-hour talk, attended by seven of his eight regional commanders,
Castano presented his army as a misunderstood last resort for his country.
Colombia was besieged by guerrillas who have infiltrated everything from trade unions to international human rights groups, betrayed by a hapless government and a
one-sided peace process.
Castano also expressed the belief that Colombia is being threatened
from beyond its borders. Specifically, he said the election of President
Hugo Chavez in
neighboring Venezuela in 1998 changed the character of Colombia's war and may inspire a regional conflict. Chavez, a populist former army colonel, has been
accused by Colombian officials of harboring kidnappers and by his former allies of supporting the FARC financially and with safe passage in Venezuelan territory.
Chavez has denied all these charges. But Castano said FARC troops regularly
pass into Venezuelan territory protected from pursuing AUC forces by Venezuelan
military helicopters. He said 25,000 acres of coca have been planted on the Venezuelan side of the border to finance the FARC.
"Chavez's expansionist pretensions gave hope to the FARC. For them it
is once again a reality, the possibility of fragmenting Colombia and annexing
it to his
territory," Castano said. "The commander of the [AUC] Northern Bloc has sent me important [Venezuelan] cattle ranchers and landowners who are being exploited.
. . . We already have some Venezuelans receiving military instruction and the conditions to create some self-defense groups on the border are definitely there."
In fact, most of Castano's management problems now result from the AUC's
popularity. The pace of the AUC's growth, he said, has made it difficult
officers to train new commanders. Their rules of engagement, he said, include guidelines for determining what constitutes collaboration with the rebels, which can lead
to execution. Asked if lack of training may have resulted in recent massacres, including the one Jan. 17 in Chengue, he said: "It is possible that in some cases there
have been excesses due to the fast growth of the AUC. We do not pretend to be the Mothers of Charity."
E-Mail and Role Models
Fifteen years from now, Castano hopes to be studying sociology, perhaps
in his favorite foreign country: the United States. His wife, 14-year-old
9-year-old-son live in exile in Europe. He communicates with them daily by e-mail, but he acknowledged that they do not entirely understand a job that has earned
him four bullet wounds, international opprobrium and a tent in the jungle.
His main contact with the outside world comes from the Internet and
a satellite dish that can pull in the History Channel, which he watches
regularly. He has just
finished Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy." He lists Richard Nixon, Francois Mitterrand and Mother Teresa as role models.
But he misses Bogota, the capital, which he has not seen in a decade.
"I made myself in the jungle," he said. "Living here, I have forgotten
about living with my family.
I want to study, to be with my family, and return to my country so I can contribute something.
"We are preparing ourselves to win this militarily and to force the guerrillas into negotiating," Castano said.
A transcript of the interview with Carlos Castano is available at washingtonpost.com.