Confessions of a Killer

Mi confesión:Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos

by Mauricio Aranguren Molina
Bogotá: Oveja Negra, 343 pp.,29,900 pesos; 10,900 pesos (paper)
Carlos Castaño
Carlos Castaño; drawing by David Levine


A remarkable book has been published in Colombia, the country of perplexing and endless fratricidal violence. First available in local bookstores nationwide for the 2001–2002 Christmas season and now in its eleventh printing, it is the “as told to” autobiography of Carlos Castaño, the man responsible for organizing, executing, or inspiring a good part of the twenty thousand or so politically motivated murders that have taken place in Colombia over the last ten years.

In 1994, following the death of his older brother Fidel, Carlos Castaño took over a small regional death squad. The older Castaño had founded the death squad in 1981 to avenge the kidnapping and alleged murder of their father, Jesús Castaño, by guerrillas of the FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The Castaño family patriarch owned a prosperous ranch with about six hundred head of cattle in the hill country of Antioquia, a sort of Wild West where mining, violence, cattle ranching, gambling, and heavy drinking are inter-connected activities to this day. The family had friendly relations with the local FARC militants, who were often farmers or miners themselves; a couple of the Castaño boys even considered themselves leftist sympathizers and read publications like China Reconstructs admiringly.

Nevertheless, when the guerrillas decided to ambush Castaño Sr. at his ranch one night in 1979, they kicked him and called him a “sonofabitch oligarch,” according to the ranch hands who witnessed the abduction. Carlos Castaño writes that the kidnappers initially demanded 50 million pesos in ransom money from Fidel. When Fidel, who ran the local bar in the town of Segovia and was a notably skillful cardsharp and smuggler, among other things, came up with the sum, the guerrillas demanded 50 million more. Then the father either died or was killed in captivity.

Although all dates and numbers involving the Castaño brothers are approximate, it seems that Fidel was thirty-one years old and Carlos fourteen when this traumatic event took place. By the time Fidel died in a guerrilla ambush, the organization he created to avenge his father’s death had grown to some several hundred men. It was based primarily in the contiguous agricultural regions of Córdoba and Urabá but also in the Castaños’ native departamento of Antioquia, where drugs are a notoriously big business (its capital is Medellín). From the beginning, the death squad found support among some parts of the military and the forces of public order. Credible rumor has it that in Córdoba Fidel Castaño was so popular among the troops that he used to land his helicopter on the roof of the local police garrisons. Notorious from its inception, the organization is always referred to in the press and even by its supporters as los paramilitares, or paras, but Carlos does not use the term in his book. He prefers autodefensas (self-defenders), as in Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, or ACCU, which became the…

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