Published — December 15, 1997 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

“I am the moderated wing of the self-defenses” — Carlos Castaño


COLOMBIA — In an improvised hut of soil floor and zinc roof, encrusted in the tragic blend of beauty and forgetfulness of the Colombian fields, the suffocation caused by 40 degrees of temperature concentrates at the same time that the anger of a peasant-looking, enigmatic, and unpredictable man boils. In keeping pace with unceasing puffs of smoke which rarefy the mosquito-infested environment, this young man speeds up the rhythm of his marked regional accent and suddenly, sends flashes of anger with his glance. But, seconds later, he admits having made mistakes and reveals the intensity of his conflicts.

It is Carlos Castaño, the commander-in chief of the self-defense leagues of Colombia, who has been fighting for the better half of his life — about 17 years — against the guerrillas. This year, due to what he calls the “final onslaught,” he has intensified the attacks or slaughters, causing a nation-wide wave of horror.

This same man, the next to last of 12 children of an Antioquian patriarch assassinated by the guerrilla, has lost three of his brothers in combat fighting against the FARC. Castaño, who wears a crew cut, over-exposed skin, four bullet scars and grenade shrapnel fragments inside his body, hits the table with his fist when talking about Mapiripan, the massacre that horrified the world by mid-year: In it, there were decapitated, muzzled, tortured, and bodies dismembered alive. After the incursion, Mapiripan was a ghost town, and its few inhabitants were still trembling with horror.

After four hours of conversation, Castaño — who ordered that incursion, the same as many others — confesses being “a sensitive man, overwhelmed by an infinity of conflicts, who has been forced to follow paths he never intended to.” But he discloses that until a negotiation is achieved, he will not stop his terrible struggle against everything which reeks of guerrilla.

Q: You said that you do not regret the deaths in Mapiripan, why so much contempt for them?

A: They were among the most dangerous and despicable: Those who blend within the civil population to perform intelligence tasks, ambush the public force (police, army), and send ships to smuggle cocaine; of those who say, this one or that one must be killed. When one of those people dies I feel that I have saved a lot of other people. I would never regret that.

Q: In the end, how many dead were there?

A: Thirteen during the incursion. Three days of combat left more than 40 FARC casualties. We had 12.

Q: Mapiripan’s judge asserts that there were 26 victims during the incursion.

A: Moreover, there were not even 13. Must be 11. Two of the missing persons are here.

Q: According to Mapiripan residents, you muzzled the people, took them to the slaughter-house, tortured them and dismembered them alive.

A: What they say, about us using a chain-saw and that we are decapitators, is a story made up by the guerrillas. We have not used cruel practices. When someone must be killed, he is shot.

Q: I was in Mapiripan after the incursion, and children and old people there told of hearing hair-raising screams at the slaughter-house: due to tortures.

A: I want to believe that there were none; to believe in the commanders and supervisors’ reports. I do not have any information of tortures having taken place.

Q: Do you deny having dismembered Mapiripan inhabitants? The Judge there, sent official briefs on how fragments of corpses were thrown into the river…

A: That must be the script the guerrilla sent him. The judge’s version is false. But I do not discard (the possibility) that they may have thrown a corpse into the river.

Q: There was a decapitated one there… If the official investigations confirm there were excesses…

A: They would be drastically punished. More than a commander, I am a sort of an inspector. I am the moderated wing of the self-defenses.

Q: Are you the moderated wing?

A: Yes. I regret to say this, but within the self-defenses there are also Mono Jojoy-type war-friendly lines.

Q: Who are they?

A: Some of the high command. I do not give names. I sometimes have to ascertain a position of total disagreement.

Q: For instance?

A: I arrived one day after the incursion to El Aro and found a 15-year-old dead youngster who might have been pardoned. I have said that minors are not executed. I do not want to elude my responsibility as part of a command structure in which I have made decisions which ultimately lead to people’s deaths. In an organization such as the FARC, Mr. Alfonso Cano is responsible for all the aggression attempts and kidnappings.

Q: And do you admit your responsibility on all the excesses?

A: As if I were the superman. As if I had the gift of ubiquity. God willing that I have it within my power, to control the self-defenses. It troubles me that the accelerated growth of the movement may be the cause of some excesses.

Q: If a peasant, driven by fear, gives food to the guerrillas or to the “paras,” he gets killed for being an aide.

A: Some go from being forced aides to selling stolen cattle, become spies. Then, those countrymen are not countrymen, and cease being civilians. They die, when involved in military affairs.

Q: How can you be sure that at Mapiripan, innocent people were not attacked?

A: Since the previous year we had people working in farms, boats, and power pumps. I do not arrive in a parachute but rather with a previous study in which deserter guerrillas participate. Through the coke growers “cocaleros” we had already induced them to stray from this cause…

Q: And was it necessary to assassinate them?

A: This is an irregular war and I have to use the same methods they do. Otherwise, I die.

Q: There is an uproar regarding the case of two airplanes that left Uraba headed for San Jose del Guaviare two days before the Mapiripan massacre. You have conceded that you transferred 70 men from Uraba to Mapiripan. Did you send them in those airplanes?

A: No. They left two months earlier, in buses and trucks. The weapons got to them clandestinely.

Q: Even general Fernando Tapias, said that those flights from Uraba to the massacre area had seemed very suspicious to him. That is why he ordered an investigation.

A: We do not have airplanes. (You) would have to ask the narcotraffickers and those there [sic], who tolerate that number of planes that move [sic] clandestinely…

Q: Those airplanes are singled out as proof of the links between the military and the “paras” since they arrived at a military-controlled airport.

A: The complicity is not true. We work in coordination with the Army. It is normal for the Army to fight with priority [sic] those who attack the State, kidnap, do [sic] terrorism, place land mines. Afterwards, they will go on with us. Neither the Army, nor the Police, have forces to fight the self-defenses and the guerrilla at once.

Q: The NGO’s state that in the case of the Mapiripan airplane and the El Aro case, the military and “paras” have been seen acting together. At El Aro, they even saw helicopters…

A: Because of the uniforms, my troops get confused with the Army’s. At the El Aro we went in with seven fronts. But the Army was not at El Aro. They (the media) spoke of a green helicopter. We sent in a white one to recover dead bodies. The guerrillas misinform.

Q: Another possible sign of said links, is that the Mapiripan Judge called Joaquin Paris Batallion command eight times, and unsuccessfully requested help: they arrived six days later.

A: Very often the Army is told that the guerrillas have taken over a county and the troops do not arrive. There is a guerrilla road blockage and even though they (the military) are only two kilometers away, they do not go because they know they will be ambushed. Fear has isolated the Army from [sic] the villages.

Q: After the incursions and combats in the “Llanos” (plains region), what does the future hold for this zone?

A: We hope to control the Caguan river and to arrive at Curillo and El Doncello (villages) in order to go down towards Cartagena de Chaira. The idea is to go into Arauca and Casanare (states).

Q: To what do you attribute the fact that, among your lines there are — as it is said — hundreds of guerrilla groups’ deserters?

A: I make guerrillas’ life boring. With the surrender of the EPL, 342 of its passed on to our troop lines. We now have 380 FARC ex-soldiers and many commanders, such as the one of the José Maria Córdoba Block special forces. They know that it is better to be (here) than (there).

Q: Why?

A: When somebody belongs to a group for 10 years and his situation does not improve, he looks for something else. Here, there is better food and less forced marches. With us, the farm owners who have too much land must donate one hundred acres (each). Each troop gets a lot. Also, they (guerrillas) desert because they see they are losing the war.

Q: Are you sure that you already won the war to the guerrillas?

A: No. But the guerrillas movement started a retrocession process. It will no longer be able to re-strengthen itself.

Q: It is said that you advance but that, at the same time, they do too.

A: That is what Alfonso Cano says. I say the opposite.

Q: Are you sponsoring the production of coke in any region?

A: I acknowledge that there are coke growers who are financing me in Villavicencio. How else [sic], if that is the economy?

Q: Do you want to obtain dividends from the 30,000 acres planted with coke in the south of the country?

A: Some coke growers used to finance the FARC. That is why I met with growers from Guaviare and Caqueta (states). That was four months before we entered Mapiripan, in a place called La Cooperativa. There [at La Cooperativa] the economy revolves around coke. Without disclaiming the honest inhabitants, there are narcos (narcotraffickers), paid assassins, prostitutes. It is a many-sided floating population, the perfect complement for the guerrilla.

Q: With how many (coke growers) did you meet?

A: With 40 or 45 five top hierarchs of the coke plantations. I told them that if they gave me half of what they paid to the guerrillas I would come through for them. “We are going to end the guerrillas, the time has come for you to help me!” I said to them. I explained to them that I do not consider them as a military target for having aided the guerrillas, but that I will not defend their plantations either: If the authorities come, it is their responsibility.

Q: Some coke growers have been allied with the guerrillas. Did they react peacefully?

A: We had to kill three or four before that meeting because they were not circumstantial allies but a complement of the guerrillas. They smuggled coke and paid them with rifles, ammunition and weapons. A plot is fought with another. The reactions were very varied. But in the end, they accepted. I have to fight the enemy on the financial side, and finance my own organization.

Q: How much money do the coke growers contribute monthly with?

A: Ninety million pesos.

Q: The coke growers used to pay per-gram tax to the guerrillas. Did they switch sides just like that?

A: They contributed 500 million pesos a month to the guerrillas… many of them started to elude responsibility, until one of them told the truth: there is someone from the FARC on each plantation. In each laboratory they (FARC) have two or three representatives who count the coke kilograms. I do not have anything to discuss with those “narcos” from the South. They are our military target for being narco-guerrillas.

Q: Then, you differentiate between the coke growers and those who process and deal with coke?

A: The narcotraffickers process and export (coke). The growers are peasants.

Q: The Defense Minister (Secretary of Defense) said that the “paras” sponsored coke-growing in the Middle Magdalena region.

A: I am not aware of that. Each front assumes its own actions. We carried out a census in Paramillo and found four hundred acres of poppy and coke. Once we expelled FARC’s 18th Front, I made a list of names and plantation extensions and sent it to President Samper. We organized a meeting with his approval and sent the information to the Ministry of Environmental affairs so it would implement the PLANTE (a program for substituting unlawful plantations with legal crops).

Q: But the Police insist that you guard laboratories in three regions.

A: A commander in Cundinamarca (state) was found to have a laboratory. He was dismissed from the AUC (self-defense leagues movement)… there may be people who pose as us. But there are no laboratories of ours. I do not know why there are laboratories in regions were there are neither guerrillas nor self— defenses, or why coke-loaded aircrafts take off from many registered airports. The Police would have to be asked about it. Drug trafficking has been responsible for the country’s most serious problems… it penetrated the self-defenses from Puerto Boyaca and corrupted them; it penetrated all the public levels and has corrupted them. That is not the right approach: I would reduce my financing rather than growing at the expense of drug trafficking.

Q: You said that you condemn drug trafficking but you take money from coke growers.

A: That is its (coke growers) economy and I take it away from the guerrillas. The Government let this (drug trafficking) grow and intended to solve it with lukewarm methods. A region’s forty year-long oblivion can only be mended by means of a true State strong-hold.

Q: How did you start moving around that [sic] FARC zone?

A: I had friends there. I invited some land owners. I started sending my own workers. This work takes years. When I entered Mapiripan, I had been working the region insistently for sixteen months.

Q: You kill the parents in front of their children. In doing so, are you not fostering a vicious cycle of hatred with no end?

A: I have more than fourteen orphaned children in some communities. I turned three of Jacobo Durango’s, the FARC’s 5th Front commander, nephews of ages five, seven, and nine, over to the Red Cross. Their father was dead… but I have not found an answer to that question… Sometimes I think that we might be generating more hatred… It is possible that when my father was killed this was already happening as well, and that I am only one more down that road. I have thought (about it) and its worrying.

Q: How can we get out of this absurd circle of violence?

A: The path that I see is that the people from the guerrilla groups must reflect, that they say when will we all sit down to make peace together, so we can end this once and for all. Who can enjoy seeing his men fall and burying them daily? The more time goes by, the guerrillas will sit at the negotiating table in more unfavorable conditions. Time is running against them.

Q: It is insistently said that a peace process will be difficult because there are landholders and powerful men within the self-defenses.

A: That is outdated. The self-defenses have grown by nature. The country awaited the guerrilla movement as an alternative for a long time, but it lumpenizó itself and left a void. Then, it (the country) seeks other (alternatives). Currently, we are it.

Q: You claim that you are not against the State, but you strip it of its legitimization and weaken it even more, by aiming to control subversion which is a State function.

A: Who is guilty then? The Government. If it were complying with its constitutional duty of guaranteeing security, we would not have to do anything. The State was weakened. And if it does not defend us, we have no other alternative but to defend ourselves.

Q: You have become armed unlawfully. And you do not just defend yourselves, but you attack too.

A: If the Army complies with what it has to do, then we do not do it. I acknowledge that, as far as international public opinion is concerned, we are harming the State, since the Government is accused of perpetrating human rights violations. But we are autonomous and we have with many people’s support.

Q: They also hate you. There are more than one million of displaced refugees. Many do not forgive you for having thrown them out their houses through blood and fire.

A: But a much larger percentage loves me, acknowledges me, and thanks me for everything I have done.

Q: Do you not feel any rejection?

A: I feel as a human being who has done good for many people, but who also has affected, inevitably.

Q: How many people do you believe support you?

A: It is hard to say. There are many. Some of them do it because out of empathy, others out of gratitude, convenience, need, or because of the existing void due to the fact that no one defends them. Look, I would be willing [sic] that in an election an additional voting card would be (provided) to ask to the people if they want the self-defenses to negotiate before the guerrillas do. If there is a massive vote which disqualifies us, I would listen to that call. I would take that challenge. Let this type of questions be asked: Should the self-defenses negotiate with the Government before the guerrillas? Must they disappear if the guerrillas exist? If the majority said “yes,” I would leave immediately. I know that the answer would be “no.” Those who least justify our presence say: those jerks are a necessary evil!

Q: Is it true that you are receiving requests to set up self-defense leagues in neighboring countries?

A: I got a letter from Venezuelan cattle raisers and small entrepreneurs, from the states of Zulia and Barinas. There are 140 signatures and they have a budget to create a self-defense front. This is the first time that I receive a request from another country.

Q: And what did you respond?

A: A man is there on commission. They sent word that they are ready to begin. I responded that they must make a survey with Venezuelan armed forces to find out how that [sic] would be, how it [sic] would impact. As we are already in the mountainous country of Perija, it only takes a small step to be in Venezuela. Those “paras” from La Guajira also take a small step to go from Maicao (Colombia) to Maracaibo (Venezuela). But I would not send Colombian troops. I would lend them [sic] four or five instructors to set up a Venezuelan self-defense league.

Q:What do you regret?

A: What I have not done yet. I agreed to this interview because I wanted to ease the minds of those who consider us to be a problem for the State. I want the Government to know that I am not the type that, upon feeling attacked reacts in an incoherent way. On the contrary: I will always keep my good judgment. I want the cattle raisers and agricultural associations to know that I will not let them down, that I will continue, that we will try to amend certain mistakes. I don’t want the country to worry about the self-defenses movement.

Q: Who is the real Carlos Castaño?

A: A sensitive human being overwhelmed by many conflicts, overwhelmed by an infinity of conflicts, who has been forced to follow paths he never intended to but who, upon looking back was beyond the point of no return. So he stayed on that path trying to save his own life and help others.

Q: Did you ever want to leave that path?

A: Many times. But it was no longer possible: the army was already pursuing me because the Government ordered it to be done when it ruled the self-defenses to be illegal. And I had already harmed the guerrilla movement very much and it was not going to forgive me, ever…

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