Where is Colombia's most famous right-wing warlord?

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 28 2004 12:46 PM

Requiem for a Warlord

Is Carlos Castaño underground or under the ground?

Colombians were recently reminded that, with all its twists and turns, their four-decade civil war beats any reality TV show. Only Real World: The Afterlife could match a cast of characters that includes the late Pablo Escobar, the world's most famous drug trafficker, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, an aging guerrilla leader who wants to rule Colombia but proudly boasts of never having visited Bogotá, and Camilo Torres, a priest so tortured by the country's endemic poverty that he became a revolutionary, battling with a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other until his death in the 1960s.

In the latest plot twist, Colombians are wondering what happened to the country's most famous rightist warlord. Carlos Castaño hasn't been heard from since a firefight at his farm in northern Colombia on April 16. Opinions are split as to whether he's gone into deep hiding or has been buried deeper in the ground. The 39-year-old Castaño has been at the center of Colombia's conflict for the past two decades, working with Escobar (then turning on him) before founding the country's extreme right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known in Spanish as the AUC. Starting in the mid-'90s, the AUC embarked on a ferocious offensive against Marxist guerrillas and those suspected of aiding them. With Castaño at the helm, the AUC oversaw some of the most brutal massacres in the civil war. The charismatic warlord, known for reciting poetry during interviews, attracted some support from the leftist guerrillas' victims, but he also made numerous enemies with his dirty war. Recently, Castaño had sought to lead the 15,000-strong AUC to a peace agreement with the Colombian authorities. However, in recent months he had been isolated within his own organization by new warlords who were more motivated by the potential profits of drug-trafficking than ideology.

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Colombia's only national daily, El Tiempo, quoted a former AUC warlord asserting that Castaño had been murdered by the narco-trafficking wing of the paramilitary. "With the death of Carlos, the drug-traffickers won and Colombia lost, because Castaño … would have contributed to the negotiations … for the demobilization process," said Commander Double Zero. Double Zero blamed the murder on Castaño's brother José Vicente Castaño and another AUC boss known as Don Berna, both of whom are on the U.S. Treasury's list of major drug-traffickers, according to the story. Double Zero claimed the two feared Carlos Castaño would hand himself over to U.S. authorities and provide names and information on the country's drugs industry.

Rare is the country that can count a man like Castaño, who admitted to dozens of murders, as a moderate.

El Colombiano, a paper that serves Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, published an interview it conducted via e-mail with one of Castaño's supposed allies in the AUC, Salvatore Mancuso. Mancuso denied there was an attack on Castaño, referring instead to a confrontation between Castaño's bodyguards and the army. Later Mancuso contradicted himself, speculating that perhaps the attack was engineered by Castaño as a smokescreen, "a chance for him to escape from Colombia and talk with the Americans."

With Castaño out of the way, the peace process between the government and the AUC has crumbled. El Colombiano reported that the government is concerned about recent death threats to hard-line President Álvaro Uribe that appear to originate from the group. The paper speculated that they followed "Uribe's refusal to negotiate extradition for those AUC chiefs who are wanted by the United States on drug-trafficking charges."

What I did on my Colombian vacation: Three Irishmen, who originally claimed they were visiting Colombia's rebel-controlled jungles as part of an eco-tourist holiday when they were arrested in 2001, were finally cleared of training Colombia's largest Marxist rebel group earlier this week. (See this "International Papers" for more on the arrests.) However, the three were found guilty of entering the country using false passports

The Colombian government had charged the three with being members of the Irish Republican Army in-country to school FARC in the use of explosives, accusations denied by the three. Following their convictions on the charge of using false documents, James Monaghan, Martin McCauley, and Niall Connolly were given conditional parole for time spent in jail. The judge also ruled that the three should be deported from Colombia. They had been facing up to 22 years in jail.

El Tiempo reported that Colombia's public prosecutor said he was "surprised" by the verdict and would appeal the decision, a process that could delay the men's exit from the country.

The case was keenly observed in Northern Ireland, where hard-line Protestant politicians took the arrests as evidence that the IRA had not renounced terrorism even as it had committed itself to a peace process with the British government. Dublin's Irish Times said that "a guilty verdict would have been a further serious blow to Sinn Fein [the IRA's political wing] in the wake of the report on paramilitary activities from the Independent Monitoring Commission. The 'Colombia Three' affair was also one of the principal reasons given for the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly."