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

“I will vote for Serpa” — Carlos Castaño


COLOMBIA — The evening falls and the creek which will be a mandatory step in the trek towards the next “guerrilla haven” on the list of the feared Carlos Castaño, grows. This makes him impatient. The troops clean their M-16 and the AK-47 guns, get their cartridge holders, grenade-launchers, knives and mortars ready. With skillfulness they, most of them dark-skinned men between 25 and 20 years old, pack their provisions in their bags, strap their CB radios, and put on the black armband with white letters which read ACU: (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) United Self-Defenses of Colombia. Silent, they stand on line formation on the plain terrain in front of the hut where we are talking to Castaño. In the meantime, inside, the self-defenses leader uses an increasingly political language. “Corruption weakens the Government and strengthens outlawed forces like us and like the guerrillas who even refuse to talk to President Samper,” he says again, while a hill of cigarette butts grows and the coffee that “the boy” — as he is still referred to by some of his acquaintances — drinks in gushes, is drained over and over again.

Manuel, the North Block commander who has carefully listened to the interview, rises up from his seat more frequently every time. He signals Castaño and says they must go because the creek is growing. One of Castaño’s body-guards, who is never more than fifteen feet away from him (Castaño), prepares his commander’s R-15 rifle. Questions and answers — this time centered around candidates and proposals — are asked in increasing hurry. Castaño bumps his words with his regional rhythm. That is how the last hour of the interview goes, until he rises from his chair and says he cannot stay any longer. Sharply, he remarks being exhausted after four hours of interview.

It is enough. We are leaving, he decides. He then heads towards the river.

Q: There is talk of the “paras” politicization.

A: It depends on the politicization term. There is obviously a political logic within the self-defenses. If we were an armed group with no political power, where would we be? Politics is the complement of the armed organization in our movement. Logically. The movement has never been detached from politics.

Q: How big is its influence?

A: In the good sense of the term, yes, we do have influence. We are permanently aware of the course of the political scene, constantly paying attention to the (presidential) candidates. We support some of them. Without politics no territory can be consolidated nor (is it possible) to close the door for the guerrillas.

Q: Would you like to launch yourself into politics?

A: No. I dream of living in peace with my children. But there are intellectuals, anthropologists, and sociologists within the movement who would be interested (in doing so).

Q: Would you support others who want to launch themselves?

A: I would not request a special circumscription for the AUC, or to have allotted seats (in congress). I would give (total) freedom to whomever would like to launch a campaign on behalf of the self-defenses.

Q: Have you outlined your political platform?

A: Yes. We have political, economical, and social proposals. Certainly someone will want to develop them. A team shall want to do it.

Q:Who would lead it?

A: Many people will want to. After the negotiation (is completed) there will be more than one surprise. This is really a many-sided organization supported by good-natured people, by many intellectuals and economists.

Q: Who are they?

A: It is not timely to say so, because we are undergoing a crisis and “Satanizing” period.

Q: Have you thought of a candidate who might represent you?

A: Yes… I believe… No, it is not like we are thinking of a candidate.

Q: How would be the team that would work on that project be grouped?

A: I have not thought this through. I cannot saddle the beasts before bringing them.

Q: Would you support a candidate before a negotiation (took place) or afterwards?

A: It is not like we will launch candidates but rather, that from the postulants we will see who is more closely identified with the movement’s ideology and we back him up.

Q: Have you done this in all your zones of influence?

A: In my zone we have 160 controlled communal action committees whose members would vote for the candidate indicated by us. It would be reckless of us not to guide them or tell them who is the least corrupt, the one who is useful.

Q: Have you estimated the electoral potential of the self— defenses?

A: Yes. We have tried to estimate it. But it is not like we have an ambition for power. Obviously, within every organization there are individuals with political instincts.

Q: Is the creation of a new political party, among the plans of the ACU?

A: To transform ourselves — as the EPL (Ejercito Popular de Liberación) People’s Liberation Army did — into “Hope, Peace and Freedom,” no. If somebody manages to attain sympathy and creates a (political) party, have him launch it.

Q: But your people would support him…

A: It is possible that a man close to the self-defenses would for Governor in Córdoba (state), I would say that I don’t like that man. The idea of creating a movement as such, does not exist. Of course, if anyone wants to do it… I believe that a large block is going to join the Conservative party and another, the Liberal one.

Q: But the foundations are there, for the creation of an entire movement.

A: Of course! And that is a historic responsibility towards the Country. It can’t be, that someone would desert a cause if he can represent a community.

Q: If they [sic] insisted a lot, would you accept to do it personally?

A: Never. I have no instinct. The truth is that I have not had time to live.. Neither for my children, my family. I want to study. I could not study.

Q: What would you like to study?

A: Sociology. I like studying the behavior, the races. Obviously I would have to get my high school equivalency first. When this ends, I want to devote myself to my family. This (conflict/activity) fully absorbs you.

Q: When do you expect to enroll?

A: In 1999. In the meantime I will be in charge of the organization. I do not want to deceive the people who believe that I will represent them in a negotiation. Until then. I want a negotiation to which the “Coordinadora Guerrillera” (Guerrillas Coordination Leaders Summit) attends in full. What is worrying, is that dissidents remains because, were they are left, there will be self-defenses. This can happen in Arauca (state) where the self-defenses do not have a strong-hold and the guerrillas are receiving nice profits.

Q: How would a meeting between you and “Tirofijo” be? What would you say to him?

A: I do not know. I have never spoken with him. But I do not feel hatred for my enemy.

Q: Why has it been so difficult to achieve a first meeting?

A: They believed they had all but won the war. But since now there is a military tie between the self-defenses and the guerrillas, “Come, we must talk.”

Q: How do you imagine an encounter with your enemies would be?

A: I do not despise the troops a lot, but some of their commanders, yes. They send their men to make war, but they do not go themselves.

Q: What would you propose as a starting point for the peace talks?

A: That we seek civilized way out of this conflict. We have been making this war for many years and it is not possible to reincarnate (resurrect) the dead. José Noé Ríos wanted us to start with a cease-fire. We will not do it. We are not going to wait for the guerrillas to become stronger while we start backing up. Nor do we accept a different treatment to the one being given to the guerrillas. I do not know if this is what they call political status. But in order to avoid more casualties, the Government would have to set up a territory where we all move.

Q: How many casualties have the self-defenses had?

A: Last year we had 187 widows. But many among the dead were single. We have to look towards the future. When the guerrilla movement complies with Protocol II (of the Geneva Convention), which forbids extortion, kidnapping, violent attempts, the war is over. If they warred against the State I would not be anti— subversive. But they fought the war against civilians, against the people. I feel (like I am) leading a group of rebels who fight against degraded rebels.

Q: Which of the many peace proposals that you have been consulted about has had a greater impact on you?

A: I do not know… Dr. José Noé Ríos and Daniel García-Peña work on a negotiation scheme which fulfills the spaces. But Dr. Juan Manuel Santos showed me an excellent proposal in which the guerrillas agreed to free all the kidnapped people, to cease the attempts against the productive infrastructure and to stop kidnapping anymore. In exchange, we would cease fire. And, under those conditions, delighted! Who would not agree if we would achieve freedom for 800 hundred people?

Q: Were they going to free 800 kidnapped people?

A: The guerrillas committed to that! I viewed it as logical. Since the guerrillas do not talk to Samper, the Vice President could have led a liberation as such. Then with the Vice President (acting) as President, we would have advanced in the negotiation, saved time and prevented lots of deaths from now on until August 7.

Q: Then, do you believe in Santos?

A: Yes. But, regardless of who the President who assumes power is, negotiation will begin during the next Governmental period.

Q: You have said that it would be a risk if Serpa assumes power.

A: Serpa would know to how lead a negotiation. He is aware of the subversive and anti-subversive problems. We fear he might offer the guerrilla movement too much. It should be granted a lot, but not to the point of practically delivering the country to it. Pastrana would be an excellent guide of a negotiation.

Q: And General Bedoya?

A: He would be very strong, militarily, and he would attack. But he cannot close the doors to negotiation either. Any sensible person knows that only through a negotiation, is this going to ever be solved. The issue is not the President but instead, that the conflict has reached a stage in which its solution must be sought.

Q: What do you think of Valdivieso?

A: I do not know. Dr. Valdivieso is very transparent, tough. But I am not sure if he would know how to guide the country well. Is he really ready to be President yet?

Q: With whom would a negotiation be more viable?

A: It would be easier with Serpa, but with Pastrana it would be easier to handle and more convenient for the country.

Q: Why with Pastrana?

A: He would act with more freedom and independence, without the weight of the current Government. He would be a great President.

Q: Do you believe more in him than in Serpa?

A: It is very difficult for me. If I were to answer objectively, I would say Pastrana. And in a somewhat subjective manner, I would say Serpa.

Q: Why Serpa?

A: With him the negotiation would be faster. He knows how to lead it better, he knows how to take it more to the point.

Q: But it would have Samper’s shadow upon it, would it not?

A: It is hard to admit, but yes. Anyway, I want to believe that he is transparent.

Q: Who would you vote for, today?

A: For Serpa. But the self-defenses from the Llanos (plains) are “Bedoyist” to death… In the north of the country they root for Pastrana.

Q: How do you feel about the peace proposal presented by Fedegan’s 5 (Cattle Owners Federation) President?

A: It’s good. But it might have something of political chitchat in its midst. A deeper outline which cures the illness’ cause must be stated. It is not about each, giving something away. Creating a fund seems very good to me. But a good package must be devised, to be placed on the negotiation table when the guerrillas present their policy. More things have to be available: land, training, service infrastructure and a land reform that works, are needed. The (business) groups and associations are perfectly aware of how they can put an end to the conflict.

Q: There is talk about your connection with the Convivir (Civilian Protection and Surveillance Associations).

A: The Convivirs do not have any links with us. The thing is that we have many cattle raising, land owning, plant growing friends. It is important that they (Convivir) exist. If they end them, they (Convivir) will remain potentially active in order to form new self-defense groups.

Q: You say that it is time to negotiate. But the fact that the guerrillas managed to sabotage elections in certain counties has been singled out as proof that it still holds some power.

A: Is it necessary to have a lot of power to stop an election from happening in a faraway town where there are no public order-keeping forces. It is the dirtiest act that the guerrillas could have committed. It is like saying that Pablo Escobar had the military power when he put bombs. Those are the things you do when you are stumbling, they are rasping breaths of the dead. That is how the guerrilas are.

Q:You announced an incursion into Puerto Lleras (Meta).What will happen then?

A:I will consolidate the territories. I will not leave alone the masses unprotected, I will create base groups.

Q:How do you believe history will remember you like?

A: As a man who gave his life to his Country, who sacrificed himself and made use of lawful defense and who forgot about living so he could bury himself in this. Obviously my methods may be condemned. But the thing is, I am irregular. They (people) cannot think that there are organizations which have an altruist motivation like ours. History is not going to remember me the way they are making me out to be nowadays…

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