A Marriage of Drugs and Politics
Carlos Castaño’s criminal career spans almost twenty years. It encapsulates the involvement by important sectors of the Colombian army in a Dirty War that originated with President Betancur’s 1982 peace overtures to the guerrillas, and has since frustrated the efforts of four other Colombian governments to find a negotiated solution to the guerilla insurgency.
Castaño’s story begins in the most geographically strategic and resource-rich region of Colombia, known as the Magdalena Medio. He was 16 years old when, in 1982, he and his older brother Fidel, now allegedly dead, joined an army-sponsored "self-defense" group, "MAS" — "Muerte a Secuestradores," (Death to Kidnappers). Motivated to avenge the killing of their father by the FARC, the Castaño brothers received their military training from the Bombona Battalion of the army’s 14th Brigade, based in Puerto Berrio in the Magdalena Medio. Carlos enlisted as a civilian "army guide" and informant, attached to 14th Brigade forces.
The "MAS" provided the model for all the regional "Self Defense groups" that proliferated around the country in the ’80s and ’90s, and that were transformed into a national force, united under Castaño’s command, in l997, when he organized the AUC. Set up by a consortium of wealthy Magdalena Medio political and business leaders and cattle ranchers to protect themselves and their property from the guerillas, "MAS" took its name and inspiration from a Medellín death squad, formed a year earlier by drug baron Pablo Escobar, and "self defense" had little to do with its activities. After receiving their training, "MAS" members were quickly incorporated into army operations and set out to "cleanse" the Magdalena Medio region of suspected "subversives," a code word that applied to anyone critical of the army or their far right supporters, or who sought to promote then President Betancur’s peace overtures to the guerrillas.
Through the ’80s, Pablo Escobar and his associates bought vast tracts of land in the Magdalena Medio. Establishing a pattern that has not altered, drug money flowed to the "MAS," the death squads flourished, and by 1986, some 1,000 Magdalena Medio peasants had been killed and tens of thousands forcibly displaced to clear the land for the traffickers. Civic and community leaders, trade unionists, Indian leaders, opposition politicians, priests, human rights defenders, and journalists, also became victims of the irregular, regional war.
In 1987, with support from army officers, the traffickers imported foreign mercenaries from Israel and Britain to run a death squad school in the Magdalena Medio to impart the skills of the Israeli Special Forces and the British S.A.S. to the Colombian death squads. Retired Israeli army colonel, Yair Klein (last heard of in June 2000, when he was sprung from jail in Sierra Leone) transformed the peasant militias of the MAS into a professional killing machine. Reputedly, Carlos Castaño was Klein’s star pupil. By then, he and his older brother Fidel were paramilitary leaders in their own right. They had their own 150-man paramilitary army, "Los Tangueros," and ruled a fiefdom in the northern state of Córdoba from which they trafficked drugs, conducted a war in the banana fields of coastal Uraba that put one small guerilla faction, (the EPL) out of business, and perfected the art of parlaying services — protection, intelligence, and high-ticket assassinations — to create alliances, first with Pablo Escobar, then with the Cali Cartel.
According to official investigators, the Castaño brothers left their finger prints all over the raging political and drug violence of those years. Among the crimes committed on Escobar’s behalf, Carlos Castaño has been charged with the bombing an Avianca plane that blew up in Colombian skies with 111 passengers on board. The Castaño brothers also provided the guns and the expertise for most of the killings that eliminated the left-wing Unión Patriótica Party, that had emerged from President Betancur’s peace talks with the FARC in 1984. They are also charged with the assassination of two left-wing presidential candidates in the 1990 elections. Fidel Castaño built a network, based around drugs, right-wing politics, and army connections, with some of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country. That network has survived to protect younger brother Carlos until today.
In 1993, after falling out with Escobar, the Castaño brothers switched allegiances. With funding from the rival Cali Cartel, they formed a 50-man death squad, "Los Pepes" (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Before long, Los Pepes had become indispensable allies of official efforts led by the CIA’s Delta Search Force, in collaboration with the Colombian narcotics police and the DEA, to track and kill the fugitive Escobar.
By the mid-nineties, after the mysterious disappearance of Fidel, Carlos Castaño was back on the northern coast at the head of a new paramilitary force, the "Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Uraba" (the ACCU). Sponsored by wealthy landowners, and supported by the army’s 17th Brigade, the ACCU fought a savage Dirty War to drive the FARC from Uraba, and consolidated Castaño’s control over an expanding personal fiefdom in Córdoba and northern Antioquia.
In 1997, Castaño brought Colombia’s dozen or so regional paramilitaries under his military and political leadership to form the AUC. At the AUC’s National Congress, held in Antioquia in August 1999 and attended by civilian and military advisors, the blueprint was drawn up for the formation of a new, national socialist political and military movement, and the decision was adopted to campaign by all possible means for political recognition of the AUC.