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September 06, 2006

Carlos Castaño's skull
Posted by Adam Isacson

In the late 1990s, when I first started working on U.S. policy toward Colombia, Carlos Castaño was the most feared man in the country. He had just grouped the country's various far-right-wing "self-defense" or paramilitary groups into an umbrella organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. He was the lord of all warlords.

Castaño's men were on the rampage throughout Colombia, taking guerrilla-held territory with a brutal scorched-earth campaign that every year left thousands of civilians dead, hundreds tortured, and tens of thousands forced from their homes. By the late 1990s, according to human-rights groups, Castaño's men had come to be responsible for three-quarters of all civilian deaths in Colombia's armed conflict. Fed with drug money, their numbers were swelling, from about 4,000 in 1998 to perhaps 12,000 in 2002. The country's labor leaders, journalists, human-rights activists and opposition politicians lived in constant fear of Carlos Castaño and his organization; many were killed and many more were forced into exile.

Yet even as late as 2000, little was publicly known about Castaño himself. He was a young man, born in 1965, from a family that owned land in rural areas not far from Medellín. Leftist guerrillas killed his father, and he and his brothers formed a "self-defense" group in the 1980s to fight them - or at least to fight civilians living in guerrilla-controlled areas. This effort grew rapidly, helped along by the support - sometimes active, sometimes tacit - of wealthy Colombians and the state security forces. But even as late as 2000, most Colombians didn't even know what Carlos Castaño looked like; the press could only show a small, black-and-white image from his national ID card.

That soon changed. Starting in 2000, at about the same time that the U.S. government began multiplying its aid to Colombia, Carlos Castaño launched a P.R. effort to try to soften the paramilitaries' bloodthirsty reputation. He gave many television and radio interviews defending the AUC's anti-guerrilla mission and warning his enemies (camera crews could always find Castaño, even if the authorities claimed that they could not). Soon all Colombians came to recognize the warlord's gruff voice. The AUC set up a website to which Castaño frequently posted messages. In 2002, he published an autobiography that became an instant bestseller, not even counting the thousands of pirated copies that vendors sold on the streets of Colombia's cities.

It is hard, though, to be the lord of all warlords for very long. Carlos Castaño's decline within his organization was dizzyingly rapid. Some say that the paramilitary leader was caught off-guard when the U.S. government decided to add the AUC to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (on September 10, 2001!) and to request his extradition on narcotics-trafficking charges. (Picture Michael Douglas in Falling Down: "I'm the badguy?") Others say that Castaño "grew soft" after getting married in 2001, and especially after his daughter was born with a rare genetic disorder. It appears clear that Castaño was also bothered by the increasing influence within the organization of drug figures more interested in protecting themselves and their trafficking routes than in fighting guerrillas.

By 2003, Castaño had given up command of the AUC and was becoming increasingly isolated in the organization. He made public statements condeming the group's drug-trafficking activities. Other leaders with longer histories in the drug trade - "Don Berna" in Medellín, "Jorge 40" in the northeast, "Macaco" in the Magdalena River valley - filled the power vacuum he left behind.

Castaño was rumored to be discussing with U.S. authorities his possible surrender and entry, along with his wife and daughter, into the U.S. witness-protection program. (These contacts were indeed taking place, according to recent revelations in Colombia's press.) After a bout of partying with a few AUC comrades in early 2004, a very drunk Castaño even speculated openly about turning himself in and confessing all he knew about the paramilitaries' drug shipments to the United States.

More than almost anything else, the other warlords fear spending the rest of their lives in a U.S. jail cell. As suspicions mounted that he might turn state's evidence, it became clear that Castaño's days were numbered. The new AUC leaders - his former lieutenants - came to a consensus that Carlos Castaño had to be killed. His brother Vicente, one of the group's most powerful behind-the-scenes figures, gave the green light.

On April 16, 2004, Carlos Castaño was at one of his ranches, surfing the Internet by himself, guarded by a few bodyguards. A group of his own men suddenly attacked. Castaño tried unsuccessfully to escape, but no body was found. He was missing but presumed dead.

Missing, that is, until last week. One of Castaño's former henchmen, alias "Monoleche," recently told authorities that he helped kill his boss and he knew where the body was. He led them to a shallow grave in the department of Córdoba, in northwestern Colombia. The bones - including a skull showing evidence that one bullet passed through it - were displayed to reporters last weekend, and the grisly image appeared in all of Colombia's media. (See it here, or alarmingly superimposed on a picture of Castaño's face here.)

Carlos Castaño, before and after.

On Monday, Colombia's attorney-general announced that preliminary DNA tests - comparing with DNA taken from one of Castaño's illegitimate children - indicated a 99.99% probability that the bones and skull are indeed what is left of Carlos Castaño. A manhunt is on for Vicente Castaño for his role in planning his brother's death.

This story sounds a bit like something from the Sopranos - but also like something Shakespeare might have written. Julius Caesar is another tale about a leader killed by his own men. Hamlet hinges on a case of fratricide. And of course it also features a skull.

And what a bizarre, unsettling image that skull is. With flesh on it, that face was one of Colombia's most recognizable - and most feared - only three or four years ago. All too recently, the brain formerly inside that punctured cranium was planning horrific massacres and ordering hitmen to liquidate enemies.

Today Castaño could have been joining his colleagues in the latter stages of negotiating their disarmament with Colombia's government. He could be a 41-year-old mass murderer about pay a sentence of five to eight years in a special jail, after which he would have become a free man in no danger of extradition to the United States. But instead, Carlos Castaño is now just a fetid pile of bones in a Bogotá forensics lab.

If Castaño's skull is a jarring sight to me, a Washington-based analyst who never met him or lived in fear of him, I can't imagine what must have gone through the minds of Castaño's many victims when they saw this grim image in their newspapers last weekend.

What must have gone through the minds of the residents of Mapiripán, a small town in southern Colombia where, in 1997, Castaño's men stayed for several days, slaughering dozens of people, while the security forces refused to respond? Or the survivors of the AUC massacre in Chengue where, as the Washington Post's Scott Wilson hauntingly reported at the time, the paramilitaries chose not to waste bullets, instead using stones and a sledgehammer to dispatch their victims? Or the survivors of mass killings at the hands of Castaño's men in Alto Naya, La Gabarra, El Aro, and dozens more during the past ten years?

What must have gone through the minds of the many relatives, friends and co-workers of Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, employees of the Jesuit human-rights and social-reform group CINEP, who were killed in their apartment in 1997 when AUC gunmen burst into their home? Or the many fans of Jaime Garzón, one of Colombia's best-loved television personalities, who ran afoul of Castaño in 1999 because of his efforts to free kidnap victims through quiet freelance negotiations? Or the friends and family of Jairo Rojas, a congressman murdered in his car by a motorcycle-riding hitman on a Bogotá street in 2001 because of his behind-the-scenes efforts to promote peace talks with the FARC?

I have no idea what Castaño's many victims felt when they got one last look at Castaño's face last weekend. But my guess is that most didn't feel much - "good riddance," perhaps, but little else.

And why should they? Carlos Castaño was never brought to justice. Carlos Castaño never had to face his victims, or apologize to them. In fact, he died without ever expressing remorse of any kind. And to add insult to injury, Castaño's colleagues in the AUC leadership right now are congregating at a former recreation center south of Medellín, where they will confess to past crimes in exchange for light jail sentences. A new government decree regulating their demobilization will reduce sentences further, make it difficult to recover lands they stole from their victims, make it unlikely that most victims will ever get adequate reparations, and even make it impossible to know much of the truth about what actually happened. (See Human Rights Watch's critique of this decree, which was released today.)

Many of Castaño's former associates have consolidated de facto control over vast territories, dominating organized crime and narcotrafficking, ensuring that "their" political leaders hold local power, and playing a growing economic role. They have little reason to fear extradition to the United States. In fact, in their new mafia-plus-death-squad incarnation, the paramilitaries' leadership today may be stronger than they were in Castaño's day.

Since it changes nothing, confirming Carlos Castaño's death doesn't provide closure for anyone. Because paramilitarism is alive and well in Colombia, that picture of his skull - unnerving as it is - has no real meaning. It's just the latest of many gruesome images from Colombia's long conflict.


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On the Democracy Arsenal website, I've posted an essay about that gruesome image of the paramilitary leader's remains, and what it means for Colombia. (Answer: "not much.")I have no idea what Castaño's many victims felt when they got one last... [Read More]

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Clearly the turmoil and violence in Colombia did not end with the death of Carlos Castrano. The drug trade supports nearly all the opposition groups there, left and right, and brings in more profits than almost any legal industry there. The drug trade florishes in Colombia because so much of the population lives below the poverty line. It would cost only $19 billion to end starvation and malnutrition not only in Colombia, but globally. Compare that to the $420 billion U.S. defense budget in 2006. Ending poverty would not only have a huge impact in countries like Colombia and cut down on the illegal drug trade, but it would make the U.S. more safe and provide new markets and trading partners.

Well, I'm in general agreement...even if, as usual, I can find little (or not so little) tidbits to disagree about. Castaño's death in itself doesn't change the big picture, but in a way it did bring some amount of symbolic closure, even if not the best kind.

Btw, as for Castaño's ability to be found by the media yet not by authorities, it's equally true that camera crews and journalists also tend to find FARC's Raúl Reyes with a certain regularity.

Perhaps not equal to Castaño's at his short-lived height, that can be debated, but certainly enough for people like me to quietly wonder about Reyes being interviewed or taped quite a few times, without authorities managing to find him either.

Good God, is that Nelson Mandela on the home page of the AUC website? I feel like I need to take a shower after seeing that.

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