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

“This war can’t go on any longer” — Carlos Castaño


BOGOTA — In an exclusive interview with Cambio16, the commander of the self-defense leagues says that “the final onslaught” is underway. He maintains that peace negotiations are imminent and that the guerrilla groups will have to request the presence of the self-defense leagues at the negotiating table. Castaño also states that, if this is not the case, paramilitary forces will attack guerrilla members after their “reinsertion” into society.

While surrounded by mountains and streams and gripped by the overpowering mid-day heat, we observe an athletic man dressed in a Smoky Branch camouflage uniform leaving the 300-odd armed-to-the-teeth soldiers of his personal guard, with a quick step and an inscrutable glance. These troops remain in formation behind him, ready to go off in search of another of the “guerilla havens” that they have sworn to wipe out. “I am Carlos Castaño,” says the soldier, shaking my hand firmly and smiling mysteriously.

We certainly had to go through a lot to talk to this 33-year-old commander in chief of the United Self-Defense Leagues of Colombia, AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) — who is currently categorized as “a monster” due to the number of massacres attributed to him. First, we flew to the northern part of the country and then rode in three different cars, apparently without any fixed route, until we received a radio signal authorizing our approach. In fact, Colombia’s President Ernesto Samper has prohibited any and all contact with Castaño while simultaneously issuing a TV commercial offering the equivalent of a million US dollars as a reward for his capture.

This native of the Antioquia region of Colombia born in the town of Amalfi denies being a monster and rejects allegations as to his having committed massacres. “I have performed selective murders, which is very different,” he says. Castaño also admits to being in combat since the age of 16, when he swore vengeance against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), who had kidnapped and killed his father. Nevertheless, he now claims that his only goal is to get the guerrilla groups to sit down to negotiate peace.

Although Castaño is a heavy-set man who never finished secondary school, he is considered the “ideologue of the movement” and is a natural-born leader who took on the direction of the self-defense leagues in 1995, when his brother supposedly disappeared while crossing the Darien region of Panama. Nowadays, Carlos Castaño’s reputation has reached mythical proportions. His name first appeared in headlines in 1995 when he was tried for the bombing of an Avianca flight in 1989 in which 107 died. He was also tried as the possible mastermind of the assassination of leftist senator Manuel Cepeda-Vargas. Almost 20 massacres committed this year all over Colombia are currently attributed to Castaño. Nevertheless, rumor has it that he was also the author of a type of agrarian reform in areas such as Urubá in the Colombian Department or Province of Choco, where he turned over thousands of hectares of land to demobilized guerrilla fighters. Castaño also masterminded the kidnapping of the family members of guerrilla leaders “so that they would know what they had done to thousands of Colombians.”

“We used to get recognition for what we had done, but now, all of a sudden, we’ve become nefarious delinquents somehow. It kind of turns your head around.”

Carlos Castaño says that he did not choose this path knowingly, and he admits that he is living a life mired in by countless conflicts, recognizing that he has lived in armed conflict since he was just a boy. This reporter asked Castaño if he did not see himself in the faces of the orphans of his victims, if he did not think that those same children were swearing to themselves that they would exact revenge against the paramilitary leader for having killed their parents. Stammering a little, Castaño confessed that this was precisely the topic of the first serious disagreement he had with his brother Fidel. He said that they had just “annihilated” the brother of one of the commanders of the FARC’s XVIII Front when, upon entering the house, they found children aged three, four, five, 15 and 17. Fidel told his brother that they would have to kill the 15- and 17-year-olds because they were in a position to start doing just what Fidel and Carlos were. Nevertheless, Carlos Castaño realized that the same thing could be said of the five-, four— and three-year-olds. “I just couldn’t do it. Of course I saw myself in their faces. There is a great internal contradiction.”

Castaño has realized that if this vicious cycle of war continues, in 20 years’ time his own children will be killing off the children of the FARC’s intellectual director and ideologue, alias Alfonso Cano. That is why he wants to start peace talks as soon as possible.

CAMBIOI6: Colombia’s President Samper has said that you will be pursued up to the gates of hell. What do you think of this?

CARLOS CASTAÑO: It is the inevitable consequence of the final onslaught that we launched against the guerrillas and of international pressure. Yet it is I who am going to pursue the guerrillas up to the very place that the President says he will chase me.

QUESTION: What do you mean by the “final onslaught?”

ANSWER: To reach the rearguard of the guerrillas, their sacred sanctuaries, where they take refuge when they have a big crisis with the Armed Forces — their stronghold, the place from which the military has never been able to shake them, but where I have been able to clear them out.

Q: But if it’s the last onslaught…

A: No. This is systematic. It’s not going to end now. I talk of the final onslaught when the conflict reaches the point at which one of the two sides loses its territorial power. In one or two years, the guerrillas have lost control of many of the areas where they had been working for 10 or 15 years. That is a final blow.

Q: What did you feel when you heard that the Armed Forces, which you admire, are going to pursue you right up to the gates of hell?

A: Sadness. It’s ironic because we respect the State, we don’t fight them. We don’t kidnap nor do we do damage to property. I don’t defend the Government, nor the oligarchy, nor the bourgeoisie. I defend the people. So, when I heard that, it had a strong impact on me.

Q: Does the fact that there is a price of a million US dollars on your head day and night affect you in any way?

A: There is a psychological shock… We used to get recognition for what we had done, but now, all of a sudden, we’ve become nefarious delinquents somehow. It kind of turns your head around. Yet that’s the dynamics of conflict… My father used to say that it always gets darker before the dawn. In a conflict, if you don’t reach a point of chaos or a knot of sorts, there is no denouement. That’s where we are now… And we’re not lashing out blindly. Our projection is carefully calculated and we have evaluated the high historic costs. After putting it all on the scales and weighing it against a drawn-out war, we made our decision: we are going to charge. So, we’re giving it all we’ve got.

Q: Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel?

A: What I see is not just a small glimmer of light, but a great brightness that is beginning to light our path toward peace.

Q: And what is this great light?

A: Look, they’ve tried every possible tactic to promote negotiations: They’ve begged and implored the guerrilla forces, the conflict has been dragged out just to show how fruitless it is, and all types of pressure have been brought to bear on the situation. Today, all of that is coming together. Add in the fact that the guerrilla forces have been totally discredited and have lost their international support, because the people feel as if the guerrillas have abandoned them. The result is that those forces have stopped being a viable alternative, and a civil anti-subversive movement has risen up against them. This is a movement that is growing each day in terms of its military and political strength. Just an ounce of logic shows you that the end is near. The guerrillas know that the time for negotiation has arrived. They are sensible. They aren’t the monsters that they’ve tried to make themselves out to be.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Not even the infamous guerrilla known as Mono Jojoy is as bad as all that. Some of the guerrillas’ enemies who have felt impotent in the face of their aggression have made a point of trying to discredit the movement. But it’s just not true. Sure, there are some warriors as blood-thirsty and violent as Mono Jojoy, but there are also others who have a perfect vision of the country and who know exactly where they stand as well as when is the time for changing course, even if they are forced into it.

Q: Which guerrilla fighters might be key to any negotiation process?

A: Alfonso Cano, of the FARC. Father Pérez from the ELN (the National Liberation Army, Ejército de Liberación Nacionaq). Even the one they call Gabino (the military leader of the ELN), though he has always been very bellicose, has taken on an attitude that is more conciliatory.

Q: But “Gabino” has said that he is not interested in the peace process.

A: What he says publicly is one thing, and what he says within his organization is another altogether. While we are at war, all of the participants have to use language that is different from what we would prefer. This is especially true of the guerrillas. They will continue to reinforce their positions until the negotiations begin…. They are going to start with sharp remarks.

Q: In spite of all this, your proposals seem optimistic.

A: I am realistic. What we hear from the subversives, the peasants and the economic and civic leaders is that the time is right and that this war can’t go on any longer. I won’t deny the fact that there may be more violence in 1998, or that while the peace talks are going on there may be other incursions. Peace, as those in the guerrilla movements say, is woven from conflict. That is why it is a contradiction to promise the withdrawal of military presence from the two Departments (or Provinces). In exchange for what? I don’t understand Samper at all… How can he announce such a withdrawal to guerrilla groups whose response to him is one of derision? When before had a President ever gone to the guerrillas on his knees as this one has? What legacy will he pass on to the next President, a peace process in which the State has already given up? Samper should respect this country’s dignity, but what he does is offer [the guerrillas] more and more while they discredit him. It’s as if he wanted to be the protagonist of a dialogue at all costs.

Q: What complications does a withdrawal imply?

A: I don’t want to derail the negotiations that I have proposed as an imminent fact, but who will guarantee that the guerrillas won’t use the gains it has achieved from a weak government as a strategy for war? Moreover, where do they get off proposing a Constitutional Assembly as the starting point of peace negotiations? For Christ’s sake! That kind of initiative can only come as a result of a well-developed working agenda… I could understand a withdrawal of military forces only if the guerrillas were to commit to stop the terrorist attacks on the nation’s productive infrastructure, to free all of those they have kidnapped and to refrain from kidnapping anymore.

Q: Do you think the Government’s mistakes are due to a frantic search for something positive to show for itself?

A: The political crisis — its drama — this is what has led the Administration to commit its errors, be they malicious or not. This Government has not had the necessary peace or defense policies to be in a position to counteract the guerrillas. If it weren’t for the self— defense leagues, the guerrilla groups would have been so strong after these four years that they wouldn’t be thinking of a negotiated settlement now.

Q: You maintain that Presidential Peace Advisor José Noé Ríos claims to have spoken with you about topics different from the ones you actually did talk about. What exactly did Ríos change in his version of events?

“Logic indicates that the final negotiations are at hand. The guerrilla groups know that the time has come. They are sensible; they aren’t the monsters they are made out to be.”

A: Basically, he made some small stylistic changes that imply that when push comes to shove he can’t be trusted. He said, for example, that those of us from the self-defense leagues practically begged him to speak with us and that he came here basically not to ignore us altogether. Plus, he said some other things that weren’t true. We have never asked for political recognition, and that (allegation) bothers me. He tried to put me in the same boat as the narcotraffickers, who are always trying to get others to argue on their behalf. I am not like that at all. My exact words were, “(Recognition) is not something that you have to offer; it is something that has to be earned. Moreover, this country will recognize us.”

Q: But isn’t recognition indispensable for you to participate in the negotiations?

A: Look, they are going to have to include us. It’s inevitable. The guerrillas are going to have to ask us to sit down with them at the peace table.

Q: Why?

A: Because there are a lot of things they have to define clearly that depend on us. They are never going to be able to assume a voice in the public arena if they leave us fighting in the mountains. Let’s say, for example, that the self-defense leagues are marginalized and left out of a negotiation process with the guerrilla groups. And let’s say that the decision is made through that process to adopt a military solution against us. Well, in defense of our own lives, we would have no other alternative than to rise up in arms against the institutionalized subversive sector.

Q: Does that mean that if negotiations were held only with the guerrillas, you would attack “reinserted” members of those groups for fear that they might be preparing a counter offensive against you?

A: Yes. because if all of the guerrilla fighters are “reinserted” in society, they would become part of the establishment and, from that vantage point, they would continue to persecute us. Tell me what other course of action we could take different from continuing our armed struggle against them? There is none. Nevertheless, they are not going to include us in the negotiations out of fear, but because they realize that peace must be achieved through all of us.

Q: Has there been a recent exchange of messages between your group and the FARC?

A: A month ago, the President of the International Red Cross told me that the Secretariat of the FARC intended to speak with us. Now, my answer to that is, I have no problem talking to the guerrillas, provided it is in the presence of the Government and serious NGO’s. We have nothing to discuss in private.

Q: You say that the negotiations should include your group, yet Samper has prohibited even his peace advisors to talk to you.

A: He said that the only ones that could talk to me were human rights organizations and peace commissions.

Q: According to the press, not even they are authorized to contact you.

A: I don’t understand. José Noé Ríos asked for another interview with me. I was the one who sent word to him that I didn’t think it was necessary for us to speak again.

Q: So the Government has tried to contact you?

A: Of course! Three days ago, in fact. Yet, until the guerrilla forces take the first step towards peace, I cannot suspend my offensive.

Q: They are going to create a Search Patrol to capture the commanders of the “pares.” If they were able to catch the cartel…

A: Let’s wait and see what happens. How can you compare us to them! No! There’s no similarity at all!

Q: It is different to apprehend you. The cartel members lived in cities.

A: Yes. I’ve been searching for Marulanda, one of the FARC’s leaders, for 20 years. And he’s been after me just as long, but he hasn’t caught up with me yet. And they really are unpredictable and country folk, just like me… The Armed Forces shouldn’t hate me, nor should they try too hard to capture me… You see, I’ve still got to get the guerrillas to negotiate. And I’m on the right track. I’m about to succeed.

Q: What’s left to do?

A: It’s like when you want to get running water to your home. You go to the mountain, look for the spring and put in the pipes. The only thing left is for gravity to kick in. The stage is set right now.

Q: But if the Government continues to isolate you, what then?

A: That won’t prevent us from achieving peace. The time will come when they will have to call on us.

Q: Have you estimated how long… you think it will be before the negotiations begin?

A: By the end of 1998, no matter who the next president is. It’s going to be very positive. You see, there’s no other alternative for the guerrilla groups. With each passing day, their negotiating position gets worse.

Q: Yet rumor has it that the guerrillas are preparing an onslaught against those who collaborate with the “pares”…

A: The guerrillas are in no position to do what I do.

Q: How can you be so sure?

A: I have had to fight for five years just to reach their rearguard-the safe haven of the guerrilla movements, to towns that belong to the guerrillas. In those places, there are few that are on the sidelines of the conflict. I am working with more than 380 FARC deserters-with their own people! And we haven’t been shooting willy-nilly either. There have been no massacres. The self defense leagues are winning this war, and not by killing peasants, by eliminating identified guerrilla members.

Q: So you don’t consider yourself to be the monster who kills the country folk?

A: They’re trying to make me out as the devil or something. I’m no monster. What I will admit is that I kill guerrilla members out of combat. But they aren’t innocent peasants. These are guerrilla warriors in civilian clothes.

Q: But you have razed whole towns, such as El Aro.

A: That was a guerrilla camp, a supply center and logistic support nucleus for the guerrilla groups. They were holding kidnapping victims there only recently. My God!

Q: According to you, you have only ordered selected killings, not massacres.

A: Yes, coldly calculated deaths. The self-defense leagues have gotten more professional have regions now where the economy has been reactivated, where the war is past and the area has been repopulated. I don’t leave misery and death in my wake. You see, my front line goes in with rifles, but the rearguard brings the bulldozers.

“We can relate totally to the tenets that the guerrillas propose, but the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach. For example, they weren’t very tolerant during the recent election.”

Q: How many more incursions are you planning?

A: There will be one more charge into Puerto Lieras, which is the last one for that area. When I speak of this charge, I’m talking about an attack of one or two months. That’s where we are now. It will be strong, and we won’t retreat.

Q: If someone were to say to you, “Okay, you are in charge of achieving the peace process in Colombia,” what would you do?

A: One simple proposal: Let the guerrillas describe the country that they dream of; let the self-defense leagues do the same; let the Government follow suit. Then we will all look for the points of convergence so that the three forces can build this nation together.

Q: What is the country that you dream of?

A: One where there is freedom of expression and the free practice of participatory democracy; where minority parties have a chance; a country of respect, of national unity, where you can say whatever you think and no one kills you for it; a country where you can work, where the free right to private property is respected and goods are distributed in a more equitable fashion; a country where there is room for all of us, a place where we can get rid of the enormous corruption that exists currently.

Q: Do you think that the first step should be to fight corruption?

A: It is an inevitable step in the process of achieving peace. The one thing that lends an air of credibility to the guerrilla movements is the rampant corruption. Yet it will be of prime importance for the guerrillas to free those they have kidnapped and to respect the civilian populations. In this way, we would commit ourselves, perhaps, to the termination of our offensive strategies. Then we would be able to start to get to know each other…

Q: What role will the economic groups play in this process?

A: They will have to become agents of social justice. There are four or five financial empires that control 70 or 80 percent of this country’s capital, and they are the definitive actors in the peace process. They are going to have to reach into their pockets. The guerrilla groups argue that there are a few of the very very rich and many of the very very poor. There must be a more equitable redistribution of property. It is supremely important for the economic groups and unions to get involved because they are largely responsible for this war. As such, they will have to be agents of the construction of a new nation.

Q: Are there common elements in what you want and what the guerrillas want?

A: We agree that there must be agrarian reform, a reorganization of the petroleum policy and guarantees for minority political parties. In Colombia, we have not been able to break free from the two-party dictatorship. We can relate totally to the tenets that the guerrillas propose, but the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach. They call for tolerance, for example, but they weren’t exactly tolerant during the recent election.

Q: If you have so much in common, then the final negotiation will be more a matter of driving a few nails in here and there…

A: We are going to show them a proposal for agrarian reform. We have been putting it into practice informally, and it has worked. Many of the cattle ranchers and large land barons aren’t going to like it because they hate the idea of giving up even the smallest plot of land, but it is a fact that they are going to have to make concessions to the guerrillas. Many fear that they will be content with whatever scraps they are thrown from the table, but that is not the case. There is still an intellectual and revolutionary line of thought in the guerrilla movement. So, everyone is just going to have to accept this. If they don’t, there will be no peace.

Q: But if you insist on this, even those who have supported you may abandon you

A: That’s not my problem, it’s theirs. So much the better! That way we’ll be able to show everyone who is who.

Q: It is feared that with this onslaught, you will become even more radicalized…

A: Many people send us messages like, “Now the self-defense leagues are going to start to attack the police and all hell will break loose!” For God’s sake! No matter what course the Government might take, I have a historic commitment to live up to, and I want to be able to be satisfied one day and say, “Dad, I made it. I fulfilled my commitment to my country.” After all that I’ve been through, I am not going to cheat this country. Our organization will never be an obstacle to achieving peace.

Q: How can you explain your bloody acts to the international community?

A: I would tell them that the self-defense leagues are not responsible for the acts of barbarism. The fault lies with the very conflict itself. Yet I truly believe, in spite of what they say, the casualties have all been guilty parties and that we are preventing the innocent from being hurt.

Q: Are you sorry for the serious excesses you perpetrated in Mapiripan?

A: No. I am not at all sorry for Mapiripan because there wasn’t a single innocent among those who died. For crying out loud! The type of people who were killed there shouldn’t worry anyone.

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