Americas

Anarchy in Colombia

An Interview with Colombian Paramilitary Leader Carlos Castaño

Carlos Castano, head of Colombia's AUC paramilitary group
Carlos Castaño, leader of Colombia's feared AUC paramilitary group, in a photo dated Feb. 20, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

In the last week of June 2002, reports began appearing in the Venezuelan press that a guerrilla group calling itself the Autodefensas Unidas por Venezuela (AUV) had begun operating in the country. The reports “stirred a hornets nest”—as Bogotá’s centrist El Tiempo put it in a June 30 report—in Caracas because of the similarity of the group’s name to that of the Autodefensas Unidas por Colombia (AUC), a brutal, right-wing paramilitary group that openly uses drug money to fund its operations and that has been accused of a series of grisly massacres against Colombia’s civilian population.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez discounted the possibility that the group was linked to the AUC, proponing instead that the group was really the Frente Bolivariano de Liberación an offshoot of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (“Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,” or FARC), a brutal, leftist guerrilla movement that controls large parts of rural Colombia.

El Tiempo sought out Carlos Castaño—the political director of the AUC—and asked him directly whether the AUC was connected with the Venezuelan group.

El Tiempo: There is some dismay in Caracas over the “first appearance” of the AUV. Are they your men?

Castaño: No, they are joining us in solidarity.

Solidarity?

We have some people giving instruction on Venezuelan territory. We maintain communication. It is a process that is in its early stages.

This has been denied by Chávez…

If he does not close the door on the guerrilla movement, the self-defense movement will rise, because people will defend themselves if the state fails to defend them.

And you people, are you going to get involved?

We have respected your borders. We do not want to cause a binational conflict. We hope that Chávez will prevent the Colombian guerrillas from continuing to live in harmony with members of his public forces. In hot pursuit of members, we have gone as far as 14 kilometers into Venezuela and fought against members of the FARC.

AUC recruitment poster
Putting a better face on narcoterrorism: an AUC recruitment poster in Bogotá, Aug. 1, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

Is there instruction going on in Ecuador, Peru, and Panama too?

The borders are all different. In the area of Orito [oil field, in the Colombian state of Putumayo, near the Ecuadorean border], we occasionally enter Ecuadorean territory. There is corruption among government officials in that country. In Darién [a rainforest region on the Panamanian border], we have crossed and gone as far as the province of Yape [Panama], although the tolerance of the Panamanian National Guard for the FARC has diminished.

How many men does AUC have today?

Fifteen thousand, and you can count them whenever you want.

Have you supplied them with the illegal arsenals that came from Bulgaria on the boat “Otterloo?”

This is the greatest achievement by the AUC so far. Through Central America, five shipments, 13 thousand rifles.

With financing from the United States or some other country?

We hope so. We have even been able to buy the boat, and a normal boat costs 2 million dollars. We had to resort to the tax that we collect from the coca producers.

But you announced that the AUC would do without the mafia’s money and you even sentenced three paramilitary leaders…

We accept the money collected from the coca producers, but it is very difficult to set a limit of how far the drug traffic can finance a war. It tends to turn the fighters into mercenaries [for the drug trade]. This is what happened with the police and it has even happened in the FARC. Once people have been corrupted by the drug trade, nobody can control them. We are looking for the least contemptible way to fund the organization.

Your communiqué indicates that there is some division with respect to the drug trade.

There’s no division. This is not going to blow up into a thousand pieces. There is a reordering into three major blocks: one commanded by Ramón Isaza; another by comandante “Julián Bolívar,” from the Bloque Central Bolívar; and the other, the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá [“Farmers’ Self-Defense Force of Córdoba and Urabá”], which have 70 percent of the men. Their independence is greater, but, finally, we are in a negotiation process to facilitate a total demobilization for the government.

Where does the accusation that your brother, José Vicente, is an ally of the drug syndicate “Los Mellizos” come from?

He cannot be considered a drug trafficker. He has given his life to the anti-subversive cause, just as I have. He does not belong to the upper flank that has “drug trafficker” leanings in the self-defense movement. We have never done anything that has not been completely agreed on. I share all responsibility for any accusations made against him.

Giving up the drug trade is a strategic way to clean up your image?

Since Sept. 11, there has been a new world order. We are trying to become more civilized and not to continue with the methods we used to use. No massacres, no drug trafficking. Now we are facing off against the guerrillas in their hideouts.

But you’ve had some severe defeats in battles against the FARC, haven’t you?

Whenever we would face off against them outside their strongholds we would have 10 dead and they would have four. Now our fights with the FARC typically pit 300 of their men against 300 of ours. It is common for 40 or 50 to die on both sides. We fought four pitched battles in Ituango [193 km from Medellín]. We lost 86 fighters in two of these battles. But we took 62 rifles from the guerrillas.

There is an impression is that the FARC has whittled down the “paramilitaries.”

We had a military debacle in Campamento, Antioquía [near the Panama border]. It was because of an error: Our troops had spent 14 days on a mountain and they were detected. They were attacked; it was a major blow. Now, in the hill country of San Lucas [a gold-rich mountainous area in central Colombia], we are continuously taking control. We are in Puerto López and Cañaveral [northern Colombia] and we moving into Antioquía. In the south of the country, we are creating two new fronts and are planning to open two more. The fierce battle is going to hit in the south.

What will happen with the ELN [Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army), the leftist guerrilla group that has traditionally controlled the San Lucas region of central Colombia]?

They will negotiate, disappear, or be absorbed into the FARC. If there are signs of peace, the government should offer them a way out.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration captured [Carlos] Bolas, a member of the FARC. [Surinam authorities arrested Bolas for traveling under a false Peruvian passport and handed him over to the DEA for trial in Washington on June 18, 2002—WPR] After years of war, what is your assessment?

The capture of Carlos Bolas has not been fully appreciated. He was the FARC’s most important man in the drug traffic. He was on a first-name basis with the big shots in Manaos, Recife, and Surinam. “Acacio” [In February 2001, Colombian soldiers captured Tomas Molina Caracas, better known by his alias “El Negro Acacio” near the Brazilian border as part of “Operation Black Cat”—WPR] is small potatoes compared to him.

We have taken and have put out of action some high-ranking [FARC] men: Comandante “Tomás” who commanded Front 13; Comandate “Salomón,” the number two man of front 5 of the FARC; Sofronio Hernández, for example, who had managed to deliver to them 600 rifles in three shipments. We captured a front commander in the highlands of Cali. Major people are continuously being taken down.

How do you think the AUC is perceived by the United States?

I am at least relieved that now we are no longer being lumped into the same basket as the FARC and the ELN. At least now the world understands that the FARC are not the “good guys” in the movie and that there are a lot of things that differentiate us: We are respectful of foreign investment; we have not kidnapped any people from multinationals; we do not resort to terrorism as a regular weapon; we do not kidnap people for purposes of extortion; it is not our aim to destroy the state.

Would you turn yourself in to the United States?

If I have to go to answer for something that either I, or my organization, have done—and if the FARC is engaged in a serious process of negotiation—I will go that far. But I will never go if it is to face drug-trafficking charges.

Where is the AUC heading?

We are moving toward peace. But with this irrational guerrilla movement, we fear the worst. There is a sensible, intelligent wing, which depends on the force the drug traffickers have, commanded by [Jorge Castellanos, alias] “Romaña,” [Jorge Briceño, alias “Mono] Jojoy,” [German Briceño, alias] “Grannobles,” “Acacio,” and Fabián Ramírez. Somebody is going to have to soften them up.

I fear that before there is peace, there is going to be an intensification of the conflict.

Why threaten [Rep. Gustavo] Petro? [Petro is a representative in Colombia’s national assembly for Bogotá, and a former leader of Movimiento del 19 de Abril, or M-19, another leftist guerrilla organization. On March 3, 2002, Madrid’s EFE news agency reported that Petro had gone into hiding after having received death threats from the AUC—WPR.]

The last time I spoke with Petro, we spoke frankly. We talked about M-19 and we ended with a commitment of mutual respect. Now he is coming out with unpatriotic and incoherent statements. There is no recording in which I threaten him. I ask him to retract his statement, or to reconsider, in good faith, whether he was attacked….

Dozens of mayors are standing at the crossroads. On one side, there is a [FARC] ultimatum that they should resign under threat of being killed. On the other side, you people are warning them not to give into the FARC…

Last Tuesday [June 18] that order was withdrawn. We guarantee that we will respect them.

This is a contradictory and desperate threat from the FARC. They applauded popular elections and now they are preventing their exercise….

You were leading an effort to turn drug traffickers in to the U.S. authorities. Did this fail?

I attended a summit in January. There were 60 drug traffickers, 20 of them business owners. It was agreed that they were going to turn themselves in. A document was drawn up and sent to the [U.S.] State Department.

Then what?

Some bosses said that first the problem of drug trafficking in the AUC had to be settled and that is where we are now. Others took the plan as a way of escaping justice. This annoyed the United States and they captured [Colombian drug lord] Victor Patiño. But, now there is a rapprochement. There are seven who made their decision.

Do you have contacts with [Álvaro Uribe's] government?

Not even remotely. How? When? What sort of contacts? What is going to be the method used with us? I don’t know; we are willing.

What do you think about putting the state of siege [i.e. re-deploying Colombian troops around rebel-held territories] back in place?

It is a good measure, from both an operational and psychological standpoint, which makes the army feel that it has backing. It helped to put the brakes on M-19, the EPL [Ejército Popular de Liberación, or People’s Liberation Army, another leftist guerrilla organization], and the FARC.

There is talk of “paramilitary” pressure in the elections of steering committees in the Lower House…

That is all we needed. Also it is not true that 30 percent of the Congress is on our side. That is not what Commander [Salvatore] Mancuso said.

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