Colombia: paramilitary patriarch killed on brother’s orders

Carlos Castaño, patriarch of Colombia’s far-right paramilitary movement, is confirmed dead at the age of 39. Mario Iguaran, Colombia’s chief prosecutor, said a skeleton unearthed from a shallow grave was that of Castaño, the long-missing leader of the feared Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The government “has the full identification that this is Castaño,” Iguaran said, pointing to a 99.99% match between Castaño’s DNA and that of the skeleton.

The remains were found Sept. 1 on farmland in the corregimiento (hamlet) of Guasimal, near the village of Valencia in the Alto Sinú region of Cordoba department. Authorities were led to the grave by a demobilized paramilitary, Jesús Ignacio Roldán, alias “Monoleche.” He had confessed to killing Castaño in April 2004. (AP, Sept. 6; El Tiempo, Bogota, Sept. 5)

Witnesses have come forward to confirm that on April 14, 2004, “Monoleche” (“Whitey”) led a hit squad of 20 gunmen from the AUC’s Bananero Bloc in eight trucks to assassinate the warlord on the orders of Castaño’s own brother, José Vicente Castaño. “I saw ‘Whitey’ shoot him [Castaño] twice,” one witness told RCN radio, adding that Roldán later carried Carlos’ body to José Vicente.

“The two trucks in front started firing,” the witness, who was a bodyguard for José Vicente Castaño, told RCN. “Then the two in back… ‘Whitey’ then came to the front and yelled, ‘Mr. Carlos Castaño, turn yourself in. Your guards have already done so.'” The witness said Castaño fought off his attackers until he had no more ammunition left.

Carlos, who had been indicted by the United States in 2002 on drug trafficking charges, had reportedly indicated he was ready to turn himself in to US authorities and inform them about the vast drug trafficking activities of his paramilitary colleagues, including those of his older brother José Vicente.

The development adds another complication to the negotiated peace settlement with the AUC, which has already officially demobilized over 31,000 fighters and hundreds of commanders. By law, the commanders and their troops are required to admit to their crimes in order to win the benefits of an amnesty that gives them significantly reduced sentences and protects them from being extradited to the US.

Days before Carlos Castaño’s remains were identified, the government gave the top AUC leaders, including José Vicente Castaño, an ultimatum to turn themselves in while investigations into their activities proceed or lose these benefits. Twenty-one paramilitary leaders have done so thus far, including Roldán. They are being housed in a government facility in northern Colombia.

But José Vicente Castaño remains at large, and authorities have suspended an order to capture him because he has been given special protection as one of the AUC’s designated negotiators. “Either he turns himself in or he loses his benefits” of the amnesty law, Minister of Justice Carlos Holguín told the press.

Like his brother Carlos, José Vicente Castaño faces charges of drug trafficking in the US. (El Tiempo, Aug. 26; Miami Herald, Aug. 25)

Cordobda, where Castaño met his death, is also where his paramilitary movement was born. Five of Carlos Castaño’s 11 siblings were killed by guerillas, following the abduction-killing of their dairy-farmer father, Jesus Castaño, in 1981. Guerillas of the FARC snatched Castaño senior and demanded a $7,500 ransom, which was raised by the eldest brother, Fidel, by mortgaging the farm. Yet, the father’s corpse was found chained to a tree even after the cash was paid. Soon after, the Castaño brothers founded Los Tangueros, the most infamous death squad in northern Colombia, responsible for over 150 executions during the late ’80s and early ’90s and served as enforcers for the Medellin cartel. In 1994 Fidel Castaño vanished near the Panamanian border, allegedly while smuggling guns. His body has never been found.

The early death squads evolved into the Peasant Self-Defence Force of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), the largest private army in Colombia. As the model was replicated in other regions, Castaño formed the AUC to coordinate the movement. At its height, some 31,000 paramilitary troops operated under Castaño.

In his best-selling 2001 memoir Mi Confesión, Castaño boasted of his role in the assassination of two presidential candidates, including the charismatic leftist Carlos Pizarro, as well as several journalists.

On Sept. 10, 2001, the US State Department formally branded the AUC as a terrorist organisation and Castaño as a global terrorist. (obituary, The Independent, Sept. 6)

But the AUC continued to operate with impunity. On Sept. 7, a funeral was held for 13 local inhabitants of San Onofre, in Sucre department, whose remains were identified in a mass grave containing 88 sets of human remains. Prosecutor General Mario Iguarán was present at the ceremony, and said a paramilitary network under a regional boss known as “El Oso” (“The Bear”) had carried out the killings, some as recently as 2005. Iguarán said 2,5000 disappearances are under investigation. (El Tiempo, Sept. 7)

And paramilitary terror continues, apparently with official complicity. Three independent foresnic experts contracted by the Colombian Commission of Jurists determined earlier this year that Jaime Gómez, a political advisor to opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, was assassinated, and did not suffer an accidental death as the government claims. Gómez disappeared while exercising in Bogota’s National Park March 21, and a police search failed to find him. His remains were found by the dog of another park user on April 23. The Institute of Legal Medicine found he was killed by blows to the head, but declined to specify if they resulted from an accident or an attack. (ANNCOL, May 14)

See our last post on Colombia.