The Miami Herald
May 7, 1999

Warlord ties to drug lab called likely

Herald Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Barely 10 days ago, Colombia's top paramilitary warlord
challenged authorities to prove allegations that he is a drug trafficker.

``All my life I have been a downright enemy of drug-related activities and of their
corruptive power,'' Carlos Castaño said in a statement.

Castaño, head of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, declared that if
authorities have any evidence against him, ``I request that they say so publicly.''

Police still aren't ready to accuse the fugitive militia chief of drug trafficking
directly, but Wednesday's seizure of a massive cocaine-processing complex in
the paramilitary-controlled Magdalena River Valley weakens the denials of
involvement in the drug trade.

National Police Chief Rosso Jose Serrano, in an interview with The Herald, said
that ``this zone of the Middle Magdalena is theirs.  . . . Intuition leads one to
believe that it belonged to them.''

The drug complex, near the hamlet of Matacocos, was capable of producing eight
tons of pure cocaine a month, he said.

Police are combing through seized documents with coded names and numbers
that may help crack ``the structure of the organization,'' he added.

Unlike most clandestine cocaine complexes, this one had no mine fields nearby,
no booby traps and no significant protection to prevent approach.

``I got the impression that it had been there for years,'' Serrano said. ``These
people must have been very confident.  . . . They felt safe because they left no

The Middle Magdalena Valley around the complex has long hosted drug lords and
paramilitary groups, often working together.

One of the Medellin Cartel's founders, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, created and
bank-rolled private armies in the area in the 1980s to protect his vast ranches and
discourage authorities from arresting him. Gunmen killed Rodriguez Gacha in

Carlos Castaño's older brother, Fidel, was a right-hand man to Pablo Escobar, the
Medellin Cartel chief and huge landowner in the region. Escobar was tracked
down by antinarcotics police and killed in 1993.

Papers found at the Matacocos complex included some with the name
``Carranza,'' leading some authorities to wonder about involvement by Victor
Carranza, Colombia's wealthy emerald czar. Carranza has been in jail for 15
months, accused of forming paramilitary groups that have sown terror in the
Middle Magdalena River Valley and in eastern Meta state.

At his peak, Carranza controlled half the nation's emerald industry.

Serrano said he believes all of the cocaine leaving the complex was bound for the
United States. Police discovered rubber packaging that smugglers use to seal
processed cocaine into waterproof bricks that can be dropped from airplanes to
speedboats near U.S. shores.

Police also found more than 1,000 adhesive stickers in the image of a U.S. $1
bill. The stickers apparently were the trademark of the trafficking group, he said.