November 19, 2000

King of the Jungle

     Trained as a drug-gang enforcer, Carlos Castaño is decimating Colombia's rebels with his bloody in-your-face tactics.
     Time's Tim McGirk visits him mid-battle

     By Tim McGirk

     "No, it's not like the days of Che Guevara, where you sat around a campfire in the jungle playing the guitar," says Carlos Castaño, laughing. He is probably
     the most feared and elusive man in Colombia. "Even in the jungle, I have the Internet and mobile phones. Why, the other night I watched a Kevin
     Costner movie, Message in a Bottle, on satellite TV." Since 1996 Castaño has seized control of hundreds of small private armies recruited by Colombia's
     druglords, industrialists and owners of the big cattle ranches and emerald mines. These vigilantes were little better than death squads. Castaño consolidated
     these armies into his United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which today is pursuing its self-appointed mission: to exterminate the country's leftist
     rebels who have pinned the government down in a 36-year war. Castaño has learned to hit the rebels where it hurts: he goes after their drug profits.Castaño
     and his paramilitaries are basically a pro-government outfit, but they operate outside normal channels. And at times they are staunchly antigovernment
     particularly when Colombia's leaders try to pursue peace instead of war. Castaño also has ties to the region's drug dealers. But though he profits from their
     work, he is quick to say he hopes for a Colombia free of a narco economy.Castaño, 35, has seen a lot of Colombian jungle. It has been five years since he
     last set foot in a town, seven years since he took his wife and two kids to visit his favorite country, the U.S., where they toured Disney World, with the full
     knowledge of U.S. officials. In 1993 Castaño and his late brother Fidel reportedly did antidrug authorities the great favor of helping police hunt down Pablo
     Escobar, leader of the powerful Medellín cartel.

     Since then, Castaño, who wears camouflage fatigues and moves with the predatory restlessness of a jungle cat, has been stalking the two chief rebel
     groups: the 16,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller but no less virulent National Liberation Army (ELN), which has
     5,000 fighters. His AUC members, who look as though they were outfitted from the back pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine, number 8,000. They operate
     in 25% of Colombian territory, mainly in the north, along the Venezuelan border and in the central Magdalena River valley. But in the past month, AUC forces
     pushed deep into the southern Putumayo zone, challenging the FARC's dominance over 150,000 acres of coca plantations which produce more than half
     the U.S.'s annual intake of cocaine from Colombia.The AUC is proving more lethal against the guerrillas than the Colombian army for one simple reason:
     Castaño's men don't fret too much over human rights. "We copy the methods of our enemy," says Castaño grimly. A government ombudsman says the AUC
     has massacred more than 794 people this year, mostly small farmers. Castaño insists that nearly all were guerrilla spies.

     Obsessed with secrecy, Castaño has given only a handful of press interviews and refused until recently to have his face photographed. Catching up to him
     involved two plane flights, a muddy drive through banana plantations and finally a speedboat ride through a thunderstorm across the Gulf of Uruba to the
     Darién Gap, the mountainous rain forest separating Colombia from Panama. Castaño was waiting on the beach, surrounded by 30 hulking paramilitaries
     hidden among giant ceiba trees.

     A conversation with him was like an encounter with Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This man who is responsible for so much of Colombia's
     barbarity possesses a glittering, dangerous lucidity. After seeing Castaño on TV last August, wearing a casual white sweater instead of his usual combat
     gear and talking with great charm and simple logic, many Colombians began to think that in a twisted way his war makes sense. "The art of the guerrillas is
     to hide themselves among the civilians. That may give them immunity against the army and police but not against us," Castaño says chillingly. After all, say
     some Colombians, nothing else seems to have worked, not even the government's two years of peace talks with the FARC.

     Why was Castaño near the Panama border? Because, he explained, his men had been tracking FARC guerrillas moving out of secret bases deep inside the
     Panamanian jungle. Last Saturday night a contingent of 300 FARC rebels attacked a Colombian army outpost in the Darién rain forest. Mortars screeched
     through the mist, and the dark jungle engulfing the army camp was suddenly lit by hundreds of blazing rebel guns. The Colombian army sergeant in charge
     and his 60 men faced annihilation. In the confusion and crashing grenade explosions, it took the FARC attackers a while to realize that they were suddenly
     being shot at from an unexpected corner of the jungle: Castaño's men had entered the fray. "What else could we do? The sergeant needed our help," says

     Rebels accuse the AUC of being a sinister arm of the Colombian military, but Castaño denies any formal link. However, he does admit to having furtive
     contacts with the lower echelons of the army and police. But he says these ties are forged by having a common enemy, the guerrillas. "Once the superior
     officers come into battle, we clear off because they shoot at us," he says. So far this year, the army says it has killed more than 70 of Castaño's milita and
     captured more than 210.

     Castaño's crusade against the rebels began as a white-hot act of revenge: in 1979 a FARC gang kidnapped his father, a dairy farmer in Córdoba province.
     The members demanded $50,000, and when the Castaño family could raise only $20,000, they executed him. "We knew these guerrillas. We'd let them
     sleep in our house. We sympathized with their social ideals," Castaño recalls. Later, his kid sister was killed in a botched kidnapping by the FARC. Eight
     more of his siblings were later killed, either by drug hit men or rebels, he says.

     Castaño is a backer of Plan Colombia in which the U.S. is funding a $1.3 billion drug-eradication program even though most of the AUC's funds come
     from shaking down drug traffickers. "I prefer taking cash from the narcos than from honest people," says Castaño, who explains that his group, like the
     rebels, collects a "tax" on coca paste and on the drug's transportation in AUC-controlled areas. Castaño has given orders not to shoot at the government
     crop-spraying aircraft when they swoop over coca fields in his areas.And though Castaño once worked for the drug dealers as an enforcer, he says he's
     eager to see the end of Colombia's drug economy. "I know it's strange for me to say, but narcotics is a worse problem than the guerrillas. When guerrillas
     fought for social ideals, we all liked them, but when they got involved with the narcos, they lost their bearings, their popularity. They hit the middle class, the
     small farmers, and that's why we rose up."

     Castaño's revenge has been brutal. In 1990 the military and police raided a Castaño family ranch and dug up 24 decomposed corpses, some showing signs
     of torture. Fear of AUC vengeance is one reason at least 1 million peasants fled their homes during the past decade. "This is an irregular war, and the enemy
     is a military target, whether in uniform or in civilian clothes," says Castaño. "When this is over, let them judge me before an international tribunal but I
     want the guerrilla leaders and the Colombian army there beside me in the dock." He insists that his forces never enter a village shooting at random. They are
     usually led by a defector or captive who singles out the collaborators. "Do innocent people get killed in this war? Yes, they do, but they're a minority," claims
     Castaño.Lately, Castaño has been turning to high-profile kidnappings to get his point across. In October his men nabbed seven national lawmakers to
     underscore his opposition to a proposed prisoner exchange between the government and the FARC. The hostages were freed after the Interior Minister met
     with Castaño, but the meeting had a damaging effect: last Tuesday the FARC used it as an excuse to break off peace talks.

     In the Darién Gap, Castaño is growing restless. He eyes his wristwatch. It's late afternoon, and he and his bodyguards are eager to resume their hunt for the
     retreating FARC back in the jungle. "We'll catch them by dawn," he says confidently. Given his popularity among Colombians, will Castaño one day run for
     political office? Disgusted, he shakes his head. "With my past? With the things I've done? Never. It's a sign of how bad the situation is in Colombia that
     people would even think of me like that." He adds, "No, I'm just a temporary antidote." Given his methods, the question is whether the antidote is as bad as
     the poison.