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.