From staff and wire reports.
BOGOTA, Colombia -- For the first time, Colombians have seen the face
of the man behind the country's feared right-wing paramilitary militias.
Clad in a shirt and tie rather than the customary olive drab military fatigues,
Carlos Castano sat down for a rare 90-minute televised interview that aired
As he revealed his face, Castano said his forces have committed atrocities
against civilians and have close ties to drug trafficking.
But he dismissed as "fiction" recent accusations in Washington of close
collaboration between his forces and the Colombian military.
"We have nothing to thank the armed forces for, neither the army or the
police," Castano told Colombia's Caracol television in the broadcast. "I
don't have any friends who are generals, and there's no state-run paramilitary
policy in Colombia. That's a lie."
The interview came as the U.S. Congress debates a proposed $1.6 billion
anti-narcotics package to Colombia that includes a massive increase in
Critics charge the aid would fuel human rights abuses, given alleged
operational ties between the military and Castano's United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia. Washington has pressured Colombia to crack down
on paramilitary groups.
Clean-shaven, with short-cropped black hair, intense dark eyes and a
gravelly voice, the 35-year-old Castano wore slacks and shiny loafers. He
talked about the Bible and at one point recited poetry.
In previous interviews, the militia chief has donned camouflage fatigues
cradled a weapon, always insisting on being filmed or photographed from
behind. Living in hiding, he faces arrest warrants for several assassinations --
though the government has been criticized for making little attempt to capture
Castano spoke with chilling frankness about actions that have drawn
condemnation from human rights organizations, the United Nations and the
Asked how he bankrolled the force of paramilitary gunmen he claims to
command, Castano said, "drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably
finance 70 percent." The rest comes largely from extortion, he said.
The forces -- estimated to range from 5,000 to 7,000 members nationwide
-- have killed leftists and suspected rebel sympathizers across Colombia for
more than a decade. Human rights groups have long blamed the
paramilitaries for most of the peasant massacres and other atrocities
committed in a conflict that has taken more than 35,000 lives in the past
Castano said executing unarmed villagers suspected of clandestine rebel
membership is a "despicable method," but a necessary one.
"Given the conditions of an irregular conflict, it is almost inevitable
people die and are counted as civilians, even if they were subversives," he
Castano said he has no qualms about ordering executions but is too
squeamish personally to carry them out. "Perhaps that's cowardice on my
part," he said.
Wants seat at peace table
The paramilitary groups were founded during the 1980s by wealthy
landowners and drug traffickers seeking protection from rebels. Castano got
involved as a teen-ager, he says, after rebels kidnapped and killed his father.
The bloodshed escalated in recent years, with both the guerrillas and the
rightist militias feeding off huge profits from protecting and taxing Colombia's
bustling cocaine trade. Rebel attacks on two towns this week left six people
dead, including four police officers.
Castano said he wants to be included in peace talks begun last year to
the conflict. President Andres Pastrana is negotiating only with the rebels,
who oppose giving the paramilitary groups a seat at the table.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.