BY TIM JOHNSON
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The secretive chief of Colombia's brutal right-wing
paramilitary army let his face be shown in a rare television interview in which he
offered an upbeat assessment of peace talks, admitted relying on money from the
drug trade and acknowledged a personal distaste for killing people.
Carlos Castaño, head of the United Self-Defense Forces
of Colombia, offered high
praise for President Andres Pastrana in an unusual 90-minute interview with
Caracol Television aired late Wednesday.
``It seems to me that we are closer to peace than when President
office [in August 1998],'' Castaño said. He said the Colombian leader had staked
his presidency on bringing leftist guerrillas to the peace table, and that progress
may lead to a national ceasefire by early 2001.
In an unusual admission, Castaño said that he can't stomach
pulling the trigger
on his leftist enemies, although he has ordered ``many'' executions.
``I can accept that a guerrilla dressed as a civilian is executed.
But I'm not
capable of doing it myself,'' he said. ``Maybe this is cowardice on my part. But
the truth is I can't bear to look at this scene.''
Looking trim and fidgeting restlessly, Castaño let his
face be shown on television
for the first time since going underground five years ago. In past interviews, only
the back of his head has been shown. Instead of combat fatigues, Castaño wore
a dress shirt and tie. The interview took place on what appeared to be the terrace
of a rural hacienda.
Castaño said he commanded an outlaw force that has swelled
combatants, a figure far larger than independent estimates of 5,000 to 7,000
He admitted receiving payments from drug traffickers who own rural
Moreover, some 3,200 of his combatants have overrun an area near Catatumbo in
northeastern Colombia with between 50,000 and 75,000 acres of coca crops, he
said, and protection of the crops entirely finances the fighters.
Ironically, protecting coca crops also sustains the rival Revolutionary
Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist insurgency that Castaño despises.
``We are not drug traffickers,'' Castaño said. ``But to
ignore that drug trafficking
and the Colombian conflict feed off each other would be fallacious.''
Castaño recounted how FARC gunmen kidnapped his father
more than two
decades ago, then executed him after a ransom was paid. Three brothers and a
sister also have been killed by rebels, he added.
While the self-defense forces under Castaño have provided
a counterweight to the
FARC and a second leftist insurgency, they are accused of murdering thousands
of unarmed civilians. Known by their Spanish initials as the AUC, the right-wing
forces are implicated in most of the 399 massacres that left 1,845 unarmed
civilians dead in Colombia last year.
``Paramilitary forces were responsible for an increasing number
of massacres and
other politically motivated killings [in 1999],'' said an annual State Department
human rights report on Colombia issued last Friday.
In the interview, Castaño said the executed civilians were
active collaborators of
leftist guerrillas, or actual rebels out of uniform.
``Guerrillas are military objectives of ours, whether they are
dressed as civilians or
in uniform. I know this violates international humanitarian law. But the guerrillas
violate humanitarian law all the time. This is an irregular war. It has degraded,''
Castaño said. ``This is a really vile war.''
Leaders of the self-defense forces will eventually have to join
peace talks that are
already under way between the government and the FARC, and talks that may
soon begin with a second insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN),
``Without us, many sectors of Colombian society that feel represented
self-defense forces would be excluded [from the talks],'' he said.
``It is inevitable that we all end up at the same table, the ELN,
the FARC, the
government and the self-defense forces, all reaching out to each other,'' he said.
``I don't see any other possibility.''
Asked whether he feared facing an international trial for crimes
Castaño said no.
``No one in Colombia is exempt -- none of the actors in this war
-- from appearing
before a tribunal like that. I, personally, am willing to take the initiative if my
historic enemies in the FARC and ELN go hand in hand with me,'' he said.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald