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 nucleus of the coalition organization put together by Carlos Castaño some three years after he took over from Fidel.

This new, nationwide group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, is currently said to be around ten thousand strong, extremely well equipped and well trained, and highly motivated. Both the AUC and the organization it was born to extinguish, the FARC, are amply financed by profits from the drug trade, which is entrenched in territories where the two enemy groups hold sway. In less than ten years, by means of terror, the AUC has effectively wrested control from the FARC in many parts of the country where the guerrillas used to be strong. Castaño’s organization has proved immeasurably more efficient at this task than the Colombian army, under whose indifferent eye the FARC grew at a steady rate for decades.

The kidnapping and death of Jesús Castaño is the leitmotif threading together the account provided now by his son of his own remarkable life. Unlike his sworn enemy Manuel Marulanda, the elderly, laconic founder and surviving leader of the forty-year-old FARC, Carlos Castaño is anything but inscrutable. Not yet forty, voluble, volatile, self-obsessed, self-important, self- questioning, and remarkably shrewd, Castaño has turned into the author, and hero, of what is already one of Colombia’s all-time best sellers. Because so many copies of the book are pirate editions, particularly those hawked on street corners, there is no way of knowing whether Castaño has outsold the living national monument, Gabriel García Márquez, or Deepak Chopra; if he hasn’t done so yet, it may be only a question of time. Castaño’s omnipresence on the Colombian political scene is unquestionable, and he is not likely to go away soon. Also, he is popular.

There is virtually no aspect of his book, as object or text, that is not fascinating. I have in my hands a copy of the first edition, which is a hardcover, a rarity in Latin America, where the market for books is small. It’s an expensive edition, too, with a four-color, high-quality photo of the author on the dust jacket. And what a photo! A strong-jawed, determined man stares forthrightly out from the cover. He is wearing a camouflage uniform and a ranger hat; the national colors appear on the armband stitched on his sleeve. Standing against the backdrop of a breathtaking waterfall, his figure is framed by the enclosing jungle. When I showed the book to a young acquaintance of mine whose eyes sparkle whenever he hears the word “guerrilla,” he became immediately star-struck. He took the news hard that the glamorous figure in the picture was actually the man who has made it his business in life to kill as many guerrillas as possible before he gets killed himself.


The canniest aspect of the book’s presentation may be the title: Mi confesión. Whether Castaño or his writer, Mauricio Aranguren Molina, came up with it, it is a seductive and accurate description of the contents, for although Castaño tells a sordid story, in many chapters he appears to do so straightforwardly. He recounts his first murder in gruesome detail, and gives a step-by-step account of how in 1990 he set up the assassination of Colombia’s leading left-wing presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in a “true patriotic action.” People generally write a confessional book when they are undergoing some sort of spiritual torment. It can be a way of coming to terms with oneself and the world, often in the face of approaching death, and one is tempted to feel sorry for Castaño that his present effort is so characteristically determined, and ultimately so unsuccessful.

How does a man who has with his own hands carried out the execution of possibly hundreds of what he calls “individual” or “multiple” “military objectives” console himself when his conscience keeps him awake at night, as it seems to do rather often? “You can’t fool your conscience, which is the mirror of the soul,” he says. “The exam I submit myself to isn’t easy. But I still find relief when I conclude that the fault isn’t mine; the blame belongs to those who kidnapped Dad.” How does he see the principal differences between himself and his older, more impulsive, more pleasure-loving and adventurous brother? “I don’t carry a grudge.”

The book is full of similar assertions. He likes to sing, but prefers to recite poetry, particularly the idealistic left-wing verses of Mario Benedetti. He refers to “my intellectuals,” who provide him with advice and reading lists. He objects to reporters and human rights investigators who accuse his troops of hacking their victims to death or dismembering them with a chainsaw: his men have always respected the fundamental human right to die in a dignified manner, with a bullet. Whether “there are some bodies which are cut in two or are mutilated in their extremities as a result of a volley of machine gun fire” is another matter.

Of his brother, Fidel, he says, “The war allowed him to do the two things he wanted most: attack the guerrillas and become a rich man.” A fierce admirer of Israel, where he received military training, he says, “Golda Meir and my mother are for me, without any doubt, the women who represent the maximum in excellence of their sex.” He takes issue with the cliché-ridden writing of tabloid journalists: “five minutes were enough to do away with the criminal” is what they always say, he complains, but “no, no, no! It took whole days of work and synchronization” to carry out a crime—in this case, the airport murder of a drug king who got on Castaño’s bad side.

And yet one resists the impulse to laugh or shrug in disgust and toss the book aside, because along with the self-aggrandizing and twisted moral vision comes a good chunk of the secret history of Colombia, in which men like Castaño have always played a part, meeting in elegant hideaways with the country’s most prominent businessmen and politicians, putting together deals or even hit lists with them; trading information and weapons with a guerrilla group and then turning on its leaders, or on one’s former allies; engaging in drinking bouts with high-ranking military officials; working out the details of a joint operation in which left-wing activists or impoverished peasant supporters of the guerrillas will be eliminated, with information provided by the army and acted on by the paramilitaries, or vice versa.

In this shadow history, readers of Castaño’s book learn that the M-19 guerrilla group, now disbanded, had friendly relations with the legendary cocaine exporter Pablo Escobar. In 1985 they mounted an assault on the Palacio de Justicia, or Justice Ministry, in which over one hundred people burned to death, including twenty-eight guerrilla commandos and twelve Supreme Court judges. The assault would prove their undoing; in its wake the organization was morally shattered (following a general amnesty in 1989, some of the survivors are active in parliamentary politics). The attack was financed by Escobar, with some weapons provided by Fidel Castaño. Or so says Carlos, who claims to have been present at the meeting where the assault was decided on.


Castaño also says that in the early days of the death squad, the brothers gained experience and prestige when they were called upon by a “Group of Six,” half a dozen eminent and prosperous Colombians who discreetly provided the killers with a list of useful targets. Carlos describes back-room meetings in which a series of important politicians invited him to participate in a coup against then president Ernesto Samper, whom Castaño claims to despise on account of “his decision to accept money from the drug trade to finance his campaign.”

Whether or not the younger Castaño brother was in fact present at these meetings, or even if they never took place, Carlos has an uncommonly good ear for dialogue. His actual credibility is of course the central question. Castaño fails to mention a large number of civilian massacres with which the family name or his organization has been linked. He denies participation in those he does mention, although in many cases survivors and eyewitnesses have implicated him, his brother, or his associates. However, when he describes incidents that I have any knowledge of, his information seems sound—if partial, or misleadingly interpreted. For example, Castaño accuses the young woman who was mayor of Segovia in 1989 of being a guerrilla collaborator, and of preventing him from transporting the family cattle across state lines and selling it without prior vaccination. I heard this story in the frightening town of Segovia from the mayor herself, when she was in the middle of the dispute with Castaño. Rita Tobón was a young and very beautiful woman. If she was not a guerrilla, she was certainly a sympathizer: she had run for office and been elected on the ticket of the FARC’s official legal front, the Unión Patriótica.

Sitting in a greasy restaurant, flanked by armed bodyguards, picking at her barbecued chicken and understandably jumpy, she told me that Castaño would move his livestock out of Segovia over her dead body. Like many others I talked to then, she blamed the Castaños for one of the largest mass killings in Colombia’s recent history, in which forty-five men, women, and children had been mowed down the previous year by a carful of masked men. (One of her bodyguards said that he was the survivor of an earlier Castaño-sponsored mass killing, presumably carried out as revenge against the entire territory in which the family patriarch had once been held in captivity.) Castaño denies any part in either of these atrocities in his book, but his curiously frank portrait of his older brother’s early career as a small-time hoodlum coincides with what I learned about him in Segovia back then.

He also recalls in some detail the evening when his car overturned and he fractured his arm. He was in the company of a young woman who is the sister of an important FARC regional leader. She was at the time Castaño’s kidnap victim but, as Castaño willingly admits, the two were having an affair. When I first heard this story from someone well acquainted with the inner workings of the autodefensas, it was more elaborate. All the details of the car accident were the same, with one important difference: in a sort of mutual Stockholm syndrome Castaño had, according to my source, fallen hopelessly in love with his kidnap victim, and the two had decided to run away together. The car accident, which could conceivably have been engineered by subordinates who got wind of Castaño’s plan, my source said, convinced the leader to return to his true destiny.

Significantly, a number of the leading characters of recent Colombian history mentioned by name in Mi confesión have not yet challenged the author’s version of events. For example, Castaño describes how Gabriel García Márquez recruited the former Spanish prime minister Felipe González to help the former outgoing president, Andrés Pastrana, put together a peace plan that had Carlos Castaño’s approval. (The plan fell apart when the FARC rejected it.) García Márquez has denied neither the general story nor its particulars, as he took pains to do when a dreadful poem attributed to him circulated on the Web last year.

Similarly, Pablo Escobar’s backing for the assault on the Palace of Justice has been convincingly reported before, notably by the Colombian journalist Ramón Jimeno. (Whether the raging fire in which so many perished was started by the army or the guerrillas has long been debated. No one will ever know the answer, but both Jimeno and Castaño argue that Escobar took an interest in the attack on the Supreme Court because its organizers in the M-19 promised to destroy the records of drug lords wanted for extradition in the United States.)* One of the more fascinating sections of the book describes in detail what has long been known: that Escobar died when Carlos Castaño finally had enough of his one-time business associate and devoted his full attention to the manhunt for Colombia’s leading criminal. An ad hoc group he created, Los Pepes (short for Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar), led the chase, while Castaño himself, he states, regularly informed the police high command on what he could find out about Escobar’s whereabouts.


In July, the US Congress acted to ease restrictions on the use of nearly $1.7 billion in drug-combat funds for Colombia, in order to make them available for anti-guerrilla and anti-military operations. Additional small amounts have also been approved to “protect US investment,” like the pipeline transporting oil to its export point in the Caribbean, which guerrillas have enjoyed blowing up for years. Mostly, the recent legislation means that seventy brand-new helicopters can now be used to transport armed personnel to take part in combat and in surveillance operations. From Carlos Castaño’s point of view, however, the most important recent change in policy is the decision of the Justice and State Departments to file requests for extradition to the US of both guerrillas and paramilitary leaders involved in drug trafficking. The first requests from Washington name a prominent FARC regional leader as well as one of Castaño’s associates in the AUC. So far, nothing has been said about the extradition of Castaño himself, but one assumes this is not for lack of interest.

Castaño’s book is thus, among other things, an ambitious attempt to fend off extradition by portraying himself as a politically motivated, morally concerned, patriotic freedom fighter who can also expound thoughtfully on the realities of the anti-insurgency struggle in Colombia. Yes, he says repeatedly, he and his organization financed their operations with money from coca grown and sold to traffickers in territory under the autodefensas’ control. But look, there’s a war on, and he’s the only one who’s really been fighting it.

Castaño has recently been engaged in a showdown with his regional commanders over issues of principle and leadership. During the last few months, he has been using the AUC’s fancy Web site to reveal the tensions and disagreements among the different regional organizations. Having resigned last year from the national leadership in favor of a collegial high command, he used his remaining power to push for an official AUC commitment to human rights. He set up a complaints section on the national Web site, and forswore civilian murders and “nonpolitical” kidnappings, i.e., for ransom.

At first, there were those who thought that Carlos Castaño was polishing his image because he was considering running for president, but the realities of the new anti-terrorist policy of the Bush administration have squelched whatever political ambitions the AUC leader may have had one year ago. Now he merely seems to be repositioning himself. In mid-July, Castaño and his military commander in chief, Salvatore Mancuso, announced that their local autodefensa was separating from the national umbrella organization Castaño created in 1997, the AUC. The split has since been mended but one of its causes, he declared repeatedly, was that “a few” of the AUC regional forces were “feudalized” by the drug trade (one detects here the hand of Castaño’s intellectuals). He now understands, he says, that this was very wrong. Just as it was wrong for the police forces on both sides of the Venezuelan border to take part in an AUC-sponsored kidnapping of a rich Venezuelan businessman. With such comments, Castaño is plainly trying to confer some legitimacy on himself and his organization. He wants to negotiate with the government, just as the FARC did until last year. He wants the United Nations to have a part in those negotiations. He wants combatant status.

But above all, he wants to dictate the terms in which he will go down in Colombian history books. For a B-movie avenger like Carlos Castaño, the only fate worse than death would be serving out a life sentence in a dungeon somewhere in the United States, or not getting to die like a hero, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. He made his case in a rambling editorial on the AUC Web site:

Today, more than ever, [the autodefensas‘] continued existence is vital. Our achievements in political and military matters against the guerrillas cannot be denied; they will negotiate with the government sooner rather than later, fundamentally as a result of the pressure…[of our] irregular organization….

[The national autodefensas] were a stage in the search for our essence, the discovery of our destiny…. Today we know that the time has come to strengthen, not disband them…. We are still searching for our essence, but today, thank God, we know that neither the drug trade nor terrorism will be a part of this meeting with our destiny.

There are, of course, several problems with such magnificent intentions. One is that, absent a drug income, the $3 million a month Castaño claims is necessary to finance his organization will be hard to come by. Another is that many of his colleagues could fail to be moved by his new moral purity. Castaño may yet find death as he helped death to find Pablo Escobar—through betrayal by all but his most intimate associates.


In May, Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected to the presidency by one of the largest margins in Colombian history. Uribe is only the eighth consecutive freely elected Colombian president since a singular agreement to rotate power between the Liberal and Conservative parties came to an end in 1974. This agreement was the formula devised by the political elite to stop the twenty-year cycle of near civil war known as La Violencia, which lasted between, roughly, 1945 and 1965.

The last twenty-five years of unrestricted electoral political life has coincided with the steepest rise in ideologically motivated violence since the 1950s, at the height of La Violencia. In 2001 alone, two thousand Colombians died fighting or, as with most of them, were murdered in politically dictated events. Uribe’s predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, left office in near disgrace: his three-year effort to bring peace to the country led only to the bizarre interregnum in which the FARC guerrillas enjoyed free rein in a no-fire, no-flyover zone twice the size of El Salvador. In February Pastrana suspended the no-fire zone and ordered the army to resume military operations against the FARC. Since then guerrilla territorial control has for all practical purposes remained what it was before and during the Pastrana years.

Given the Colombian government’s extreme weakness, a first question is whether the new president can rein in the FARC, the now fragmented and chaotic paramilitary organizations, and the rogue sectors of the military by force or persuasion, no matter how much aid from the United States he might receive. There is little hope that Uribe will be able to negotiate successfully with the FARC, which managed to sabotage Pastrana’s three-year negotiating effort. But if the new president decides to open another front in the war and take on the AUC, can he persuade the army and former police forces to point their weapons in its direction?

Uribe is a maverick Liberal Party politician with avowed conservative leanings and an obsession with autoridad. Having understood the depth of Colombians’ disgust with traditional politics, he resigned from the party last year and became the country’s first independent candidate to be elected president. Throughout his election campaign Uribe faced insistent charges that he himself has favored or even sponsored Castaño’s autodefensas, although no evidence has come up to support these accusations. During his campaign he stated his commitment to fighting “los violentos on both sides.” One of his first acts in the presidency was to request the good offices of the United Nations in seeking dialogue with the guerrillas. But in his first days in office he has also made some risky decisions that could well end up fueling, if not the autodefensas directly, a type of vigilantism that may prove even harder to control.

Uribe’s inauguration on August 7 was marked by the FARC’s inept and bloody attempt to sabotage it. Guerrilla commandos launched poorly aimed explosives in the direction of the Palacio de Nariño, or government house. One volley damaged the grounds of the Palacio, including the building itself. Others hit wide of the mark and landed in a pathetic slum five or six blocks west. All in all, twenty men, women, and children were killed, mostly among the street people from the slum. This was a repeat of the brutal event at an impoverished backwater village last May, in which guerrilla troops, in hot pursuit of the autodefensas, lobbed explosives at a church in which the local population had taken refuge, with a death toll of 119, including 47 children. These attacks only increased support for Uribe’s initiative, announced the day after his swearing-in, to create a nationwide network of one million informers who are supposed to feed the army and security forces with information about los violentos, to use Uribe’s catch-all term. Some informers are supposed to receive weapons for self-defense, and the prospect of arming civilian populations in regions of Colombia already on the verge of civil war has generated alarm among human rights activists, as well as many former government officials involved in earlier attempts to bring peace to Colombia.

Uribe has said repeatedly that he chose to run for the unenviable office of the presidency out of strong feelings of patriotic duty, and it has to be said that if any country ever needed a savior, Colombia would seem to fit the bill. But the FARC and Carlos Castaño too feel compelled to do their patriotic duty by Colombia, as do certain sectors of the police and military forces who have often been accused in court or in human rights reports of collaborating with the AUC. Whether Colombians can survive such fervor is a real question. For the moment, it does not seem likely that Álvaro Uribe will be able to convince either the FARC leadership or the author of Colombia’s best-selling autobiography that patriotism requires the warriors to let the country find its way without them.

—September 11, 2002

This Issue

October 10, 2002