When their father was killed by Marxist guerrillas, Fidel, Carlos and Vicente Castaño swore revenge. Nearly 30 years and 140,000 victims later, their legacy of violence lives on. Jeremy McDermott, who has followed the brothers’ trail of terror across Colombia for more than a decade, reveals the secrets of the country’s most feared criminal family
I have been queuing outside Itagui prison on the outskirts of Medellín every other Saturday. Housed inside the maximum-security prison in Colombia’s Antioquia province are some of the world’s most prolific mass murderers and drug lords.
Each weekend I come here to try to see a man who blends both of those criminal ‘qualities’. Hebert Veloza was the right-hand man and chief assassin to Vicente Castaño, one of three brothers who built up Colombia’s illegal paramilitary army, the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), that in 2006 demobilised more than 30,000 fighters.
Investigations into the bloodbath that the AUC unleashed across Colombia is still under investigation, but the list of victims exceeds 140,000. Hebert Veloza has admitted to personally carrying out 1,000 of them.
Despite the best efforts of the prison service to block access, I managed to get on Veloza’s list of friends allowed to visit him.
Veloza, 41, is a little man with spindly legs, intense eyes and a hooked nose – hence the nickname, which he hates, of ‘Chickenface’.
The alias he prefers is ‘Hernan Hernandez’ or ‘HH’. You would not look twice at HH if you passed him in the street. His victims seldom noticed him coming either. But HH is one of the few people still alive prepared to talk about the Castaños.
For 11 years, I have been reporting on the AUC, following a trail of murders and massacres that has stretched across the country. HH is the key to unlocking the story never before fully told: the story not only of the AUC, but of Colombia’s most brutal criminal family, the Castaños.
There was little remarkable about the Castaños in 1980. Jesus Castaño had 12 children, eight boys and four girls, employing the usual peasant tradition of breeding enough cheap labour to work the land.
Jesus ran a tight ship and was very strict with his children, who rose before dawn to milk the cows. They had to pay for their own schooling by selling cheese and milk in the town of Amalfi in the northern province of Antioquia, where they lived.
On September 18, 1981, Jesus Castaño was kidnapped by Marxist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and a ransom of 50 million pesos was demanded.
The Farc, born in 1964 when liberal guerillas from the previous chapter of the Colombian civil war embraced Communism, at this stage used kidnap for ransom and extortion as its primary sources of income.
The net worth of the whole Castaño clan was 10 million pesos and Fidel, the eldest son, then 32, was able through charm and intimidation to scratch together six million. (The Farc later admitted that the ransom figure was a miscalculation, and one for which they were to pay dearly.)
According to Carlos Castaño, in an interview he gave to a writer, German Castro Caycedo, in 1996, Fidel told the guerrilla who came to collect the ransom, ‘Believe me, I collected all the money possible and I have no way of getting any more.’
When the rebel pointed out that he was 44 million pesos short, Fidel’s soon-to-become notorious temper got the better of him. ‘If I could get more money,’ he said, ‘it would be only to fight you.’
Jesus Castaño was tied to a tree, savagely beaten and left to die. His children vowed revenge.
‘What came from this was hatred,’ Carlos said, ‘a hatred that could not be banished. We decided to fight the guerrillas. But we did not realise the magnitude of the enemy and what we had embarked the entire family on. [Until then] I had never fired a shot.’
Fidel and Carlos, then just 16, presented themselves to the local army unit, who were engaged in a constant battle against the Farc. For a year they helped lead the military through guerrilla areas. Then in 1982 sources told them that a Farc guerrilla, Conrado Ramirez, was in the nearby town of Segovia. Fidel alerted the authorities, but Ramirez was released for lack of evidence. As Ramirez left his hotel the next day, Fidel killed him.
Soon afterwards, the Castaños set up their first vigilante group, named after Fidel’s farm: ‘Las Tangas’. The killers became known as ‘Los Tangeros’. Fidel, always in the front line of the fighting, never hesitating to kill, was given the nickname ‘Rambo’ by his troops.
His crusade against the Farc blazed its way through the province of Cordoba in north-west Colombia, where he was backed by local ranchers, businessmen and elements of the army, all fearful of the Marxist guerrillas who extorted and kidnapped with impunity. He also became involved in anything that could turn a buck: gold-mining, land prospecting, even the purchase of art, for which he had a good eye.
His business acumen was helped by his skill with a gun and his willingness to use it. It was perhaps inevitable that Fidel would become involved in what by the mid-1980s was the most lucrative business in Latin America: cocaine.
The world centre of the cocaine trade at the time was Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. The pioneer in that trade was Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. A chubby former small-time criminal – as a teenager Escobar would steal tombstones and sell them to Panamanian smugglers – he built up the Medellín Cartel to the extent that, by 1990, it was the most powerful crime syndicate in the world. However, in the late 1980s, the cartel was having problems getting a sufficient supply of coca base to process into cocaine. At this stage, Colombia was only a minor grower of the coca bush, far behind Peru and Bolivia.
Somehow, Fidel was drawn into Escobar’s orbit, and was soon dispatched to Bolivia to sort out supply for the Medellín Cartel, enhancing Fidel’s reputation further and turning Escobar into one of the richest men in the world.
By now a key member of the cartel, Fidel was also building up a small fortune and a fiefdom in the northern province of Cordoba, buying up the best land and killing any guerrillas foolish enough to stumble into his path.
His brother Carlos was also running around Medellín, a city he loved, partying and occasionally carrying out killings for Fidel and the Medellín Cartel. Another brother, Vicente, was sent to Los Angeles by Fidel, where he handled the distribution end of the Castaños’ drug business.
As Escobar’s fame grew, so did pressure from the United States to do something about him. By 1989 the cartel controlled four-fifths of the world’s cocaine, with an estimated annual revenue of $30 billion. Forbes magazine listed Escobar as the world’s seventh-richest man. In 1990 the US demanded that Colombia sign a bilateral extradition treaty. It became the top political issue in Colombia; Escobar challenged the state to a war over his extradition, with his motto: ‘Better a tomb in Colombia than a prison cell in the US.’ He blew up airliners, killed dozens of judges, bribed government officials and offered bounties on the heads of every policeman killed.
His campaign of terror and bribery worked, and in 1991 extradition was prohibited by a constitutional assembly. The government then negotiated with Escobar and, in an extraordinary compromise, allowed him to build his own prison on the outskirts of Medellín, a facility that became known as the Cathedral, where he was to spend the next five years on the condition that he avoided extradition. Its splendour put five-star hotels to shame.
In June 1991 Escobar moved into the Cathedral with a number of his key lieutenants. With many members of the organisation still on the outside, Escobar continued to run his empire from his golden cage. He was, however, unhappy that some in his cartel were doing business without paying him his share.
Escobar summoned three prominent members of the cartel, Fernando Galeano, Gerardo Moncada and Fidel Castaño, to the Cathedral. Fidel didn’t go, either because he saw the writing on the wall or because he was busy on his estates in Cordoba. It proved to be a good decision: Escobar accused Galeano and Moncada of hiding money from him and, as he often did with subordinates who crossed him, murdered them both personally. He then sent his assassins, the ‘sicarios’, to wipe out their organisations.
The government had turned a blind eye to Escobar’s drug activities, but were not prepared to tolerate the murders of Galeano and Moncada while he was supposedly serving a jail sentence, and plans were made to transfer him to a more traditional prison. When Escobar found out, in July 1992, he simply walked out of the Cathedral. The soldiers guarding the perimeter were on his payroll, too.
An elite task force, the Search Block, was set up by the government to hunt for Escobar, aided by America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and US Special Forces. Also on his tail was Fidel who, on hearing of the Cathedral murders, vowed to destroy Escobar. Using money from Escobar’s rivals, the Cali Cartel, Fidel set up an organisation called the Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Working with the security forces and, it is rumoured, the DEA, Fidel set about proving he could be even more brutal than Escobar. For every bomb Escobar set off, Fidel set off two, targeting Escobar’s properties. One car bomb narrowly missed killing Escobar’s children, partly deafening the drugs lord’s daughter, Manuela. Fidel also went after Escobar’s supporters, lawyers and anyone who might help him. Slowly Escobar’s support base disappeared.
Carlos Castaño claimed to have had a major role in bringing down Escobar. As well as conducting some of the killings, he has admitted to running the Pepes intelligence network. ‘I set up an office in Medellín where all the people against Escobar delivered information. I would ensure it reached the Search Block,’ he said in the 1996 interview.
The Pepes campaign was brutally effective. When Pablo Escobar was finally killed, by a police sniper on a rooftop in Medellín in December 1993, he had just one bodyguard left alongside him.
With Escobar dead, the PEPES dissolved and Fidel and Carlos went back to Cordoba – and their war against the Farc rebels who had killed their father, and other left-wing insurgent groups, such as the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and National Liberation Army (ELN).
Fidel had stopped his drug-running activities – he had more than enough money to fund his crusade against the guerrillas. But Vicente, still in the US, had no intention of cutting his ties to the drugs trade. He invested all he had in a big load of cocaine, no doubt obtained through his brother’s cartel contacts, but, disastrously for Vicente, it was lost en route to the US. Vicente was forced to return, penniless, to Colombia. According to HH, this was a defining moment for Vicente, who had always lived in the shadow of his brothers.
Vicente suffered from a pronounced stutter and had none of the charisma of Fidel and Carlos, both of whom were natural leaders and warriors.
‘Vicente was always obsessed with money,’ HH told me, ‘even when he had more than anyone could ever spend.’
But his fortunes were about to change. On January 6, 1994, Fidel was shot through the heart in a clash with Farc guerrillas. He had charged a 10-strong rebel patrol with just four of his own men. According to Carlos, who later buried him, he was dead before he hit the ground.
Carlos was the natural heir to the ‘Tangeros’. In his book, My Confession, written for him by the journalist Mauricio Aranguren Molina, he said, ‘With Fidel, expansion was slow. I preferred to attack here, move, then attack in a different place.’
Carlos invaded the Farc stronghold of Uraba, a rich banana-growing area near the border with Panama. He had seen Fidel murder his way across Cordoba with the backing of local politicians and businessmen, tired of extortion and kidnapping. The cries for help coming from Uraba were even louder.
Carlos saw himself not just as the leader of a crusade, but its ideologue. He wanted to build a political and military movement, but he needed someone to assume control of finances and logistics, someone with an eye for detail. He turned to Vicente, and in 1994 set up the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia of Cordoba and Uraba, the ‘Accu’ in its Spanish initials, a right-wing vigilante force. Vicente solved his liquidity problems by taking over most of Fidel’s land and businesses.
In Vicente’s only interview, granted to the Colombia news magazine Semana in June 2005, he insisted that he was the mastermind behind the paramilitaries – the brains – while his little brother Carlos was just the mouth, something no other source supports.
‘When Fidel disappeared,’ Vicente said, ‘Carlos continued with Fidel’s group and began to form self-defence forces. But after a year, he did not know how to continue. He called me in a state of total desperation and asked me to take the reins.’
HH confirmed to me that the Accu was built up by three men: Carlos, Vicente and Carlos Garcia – alias ‘Rodrigo’ or ’00’ – a former army officer and Fidel’s right-hand man. He said that each was the leader in their chosen field: Carlos political, Vicente finances and Rodrigo military. Over the years I spoke many times to Rodrigo, who said that Vicente played a key role in the paramilitaries, but insisted that Carlos was always the leader.
(Three days after our last interview, in May 2004, Rodrigo was murdered by a rival, with help from Vicente.) The Accu used the tactics that Fidel had developed, which were perfected by Carlos: attacking the Farc’s support base by killing all those believed to have rebel sympathies. The more horrific the killings, the better: no virus spreads faster or infects more quickly than fear.
‘In one of the first operations under Fidel, the guerrillas killed four of us,’ Carlos said. ‘That day, we saw that we were not going to be able to fight them in the mountains as they were better fighters than us. So we began killing all those that came to the town. We began to kill those who brought food, medicine, alcohol and prostitutes to the camps.’
The key strategy, to ‘clear’ territory of the rebels’ presence, was to terrify the population into denying the Farc even a glass of water, killing those with even suspected links. It was the classic counterinsurgent concept of draining the water to kill the fish. As the Accu moved into Uraba, the corpses began to appear in the streets of towns throughout the region. The killings had begun.
By the end of 1996, the Accu had done the impossible: driven the rebels out of Uraba. Invitations were pouring in from Farc-held areas across the country for the Castaños to mobilise their paramilitary army. The idea of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) was born – a new nationwide federation of right-wing vigilante groups dedicated to fighting the rebels. In 1997 it became a reality, with Carlos as its head.
Wave after wave of new recruits were trained by Rodrigo in the Accu’s central camp, the ‘Sacred Heart’, in northern Antioquia, and dispatched to set up new AUC units across the country. Vicente was in charge of selecting their destinations and logistical support. While Carlos saw the AUC as the way to end the guerrilla scourge in Colombia, and even dreamt of a political career, Vicente saw it as the vehicle to immense wealth. He began selling AUC franchises to drugs traffickers across Colombia. They paid millions to become members, as well as a $50 tax on every kilo of cocaine they moved. The AUC became a Who’s Who of drugs trafficking. Vicente needed a point man, someone fearless and reliable who would travel the country setting up cells and ‘claiming’ territory for the AUC. He chose Hebert Veloza: HH.
I met Carlos Castaño on January 13, 2002, after months of negotiations, sending messages through middlemen across the country: priests, businessmen and known paramilitary sympathisers. The Farc still had a 16,000sq mile safe haven and was at the height of its power, with 16,000 members, supported by international groups such as the Provisional IRA. It was running drugs to Mexico’s cartels and Brazilian drug lords and its income was estimated to be as high as $1 billion a year. Carlos felt he still had his work cut out for him.
In a rendezvous worthy of Le Carré, I was picked up from an upscale shopping centre in Medellín by a man carrying a rolled-up issue of the local paper, El Colombiano. Hours later, I was dropped off on a track in the mountains and guided to the training camp of the Sacred Heart.
Shaven-headed recruits, carrying wooden rifles, were being ordered to pick up every single leaf on the ground, a challenging exercise as we were in the middle of a dense wood. Night fell and then from the distance came the sound of hooves on the dirt track and out of the darkness rode Carlos Castaño, a rifle strapped to his saddle.
He greeted me like an old friend, coffee was served and he began to speak, hardly waiting for the questions. For two hours he talked, on topics ranging from Colombia to Israel, psychology to political doctrine. For a man with a basic education, Carlos Castaño was remarkably well-read. His most earnest wish was to go to university and study political science. While his mind raced, his fingers drummed on the table-top and his feet tapped. He could not sit still. I asked whether he would agree that, since he started his crusade in revenge for the death of his innocent father, he had arguably created a thousand guerrilla Castaños with his endless killings of civilians, often conducted in front of the victims’ families.
‘Look,’ he said, using his jungle hat to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
‘I know that war begets war, violence begets violence, but I have only ever acted in self-defence. We do not kill civilians. The guerrillas take off their uniforms when the fight is going against them. They hide among the civil population. A huge percentage of our troops are guerrilla deserters. They tell us who their former comrades were. We know who we are killing.’
The massacre of El Salado, in the province of Bolivar by the Caribbean Coast was just one of hundreds ordered by Carlos. It was Thursday February 17, 2000, and 300 heavily armed and uniformed AUC swept into town. They had five Farc deserters with them to act as guides and point out members of the population who had rebel sympathies. A small group of guerrillas in the hills tried to counterattack but were easily beaten back by the AUC’s machine guns.
The first to die was Luis Pablo Redondo, the village teacher, one of the most respected men in the community. The paramilitaries accused him of being a rebel sympathiser. The villagers were forced to look on as he was beaten savagely, his ears cut off. He was stabbed, slowly and deliberately, dozens of times between his ribs, no wound fatal. He was then suffocated with a black plastic bag. One girl, aged five at the time, now 13, has not spoken a word since that day. Another, Nayibis Contreras, a pretty 16-year-old, was dragged by her hair through the dirt streets to the central plaza where in the evenings the locals would come to sit and chat. She was strung up on the only tree in the square, in front of the Catholic church, before being gutted by a bayonet; her crime was to have been the girlfriend of a known guerrilla.
In the first few hours, 19 peasants were killed, their throats cut.
The prettier girls were raped. ‘While some were killing, others played pipes, drums and violins,’ said one AUC leader, Uber Enrique Bánquez, alias ‘Juancho Dique’, when he testified before the courts. Some of the more recent paramilitary recruits, he said, begged him for the chance to kill someone, before the victims ran out.
By the time darkness fell, 38 people had been killed in El Salado, and another 28 in the countryside nearby. Once the AUC were gone the security forces, elements of which had been complicit in the massacre, arrived on the scene, in time to see the community burying its dead.
The relationship between Carlos and Vicente was becoming increasingly strained, with Carlos rapidly losing control of his divided organisation which, thanks to Vicente, had been taken over by drugs traffickers. In May 2001 Carlos resigned his leadership. By 2002 the AUC had spread across the country into at least 20 of Colombia’s 27 provinces, its presence strongest where the coca was most densely sown. Vicente was sending troops to control three key aspects of the drugs trade: the crops, the movement corridors within the country and the departure points for exportation. Again, his trusted lieutenant to oversee this strategy was HH, although HH claims he did not then understand what Vicente was doing.
‘I was always Vicente’s man, I always acted on his orders,’ HH told me. ‘But I made some grave mistakes, ordered by him. I helped him kill his brother.’
At the end of 2003, Alvaro Uribe became president of Colombia. Uribe hated the Farc, who had killed his father, an alleged drugs trafficker, during a botched kidnapping attempt; and he has long been associated with the AUC, although no direct connection has even been proved. The AUC thought that he was the man with whom they could negotiate and that it was time to cut a deal, Carlos in particular.
The drugs traffickers in the organisation thought that they could negotiate immunity from extradition to the US and retire to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. A unilateral ceasefire was ordered and negotiations with the government began.
Now aged 38, Carlos wanted out. He was in touch with US agencies, allegedly exploring the possibilities of turning himself in. He wanted to disappear with his wife, Kenia, and look after his daughter, Rosa Maria, who had been born with an incurable disease and needed special treatment.
The AUC commanders, the vast majority of them wanted in the US to face drugs-trafficking charges, were afraid of what Carlos could tell US agencies and wanted him silenced. Vicente was told he would have to kill his brother. If he did not, the AUC would kill him anyway – and Vicente would be buried in the same shallow grave.
On April 16, 2004, the head of Vicente’s security, Jesús Ignacio Roldán, alias ‘Monoleche’, gathered 30 trusted men together, many supplied by HH, who knew of the plan. They drove to Antioquia, where Carlos lived. He was in a local restaurant, where he often connected to the internet. Carlos’s bodyguards thought nothing when Monoleche pulled up. As he approached, he opened up with automatic fire. Carlos fought back from within the restaurant until he ran out of bullets.
Finally, he was overpowered and brought face to face with Monoleche.
‘Who ordered this?’ Carlos asked.
‘El Profe,’ Monoleche replied, using the alias for Vicente. Before Carlos could make a comment, Monoleche fired 12 9mm rounds into his body. Monoleche, also currently held in Itagui prison, would later confess to the killing.
By November 2006, the peace negotiations with the AUC had reached a critical juncture. Thirty thousand paramilitaries had demobilised, but commanders were often seen shopping in the most exclusive malls, eating in the best restaurants. The families of their victims and NGOs complained bitterly, and President Uribe ordered the AUC high command to turn themselves in. Vicente had always refused to even consider spending a single day in prison. He withdrew from the peace process, and HH, as always, followed him.
Vicente began to plan how to punish the government for what he saw as a betrayal. His plan was to kidnap the families of senior politicians, even foreign diplomats.
According to intelligence sources, Vicente sent HH to canvass support and gather a war chest for the operations: each AUC commander was asked to donate $250,000. But only two paramilitary commanders signed up to Vicente’s scheme. HH himself was not keen, and told Vicente as much. Vicente replied angrily that anyone who was not with him was against him.
On March 11, 2007, four men arrived at one of Vicente’s estates near the town of Nechi, in Antioquia. After overpowering Vicente’s guards, they murdered the last of the Castaño criminal dynasty. Vicente’s body was chopped up with machetes and put inside old tyres, which were then burnt. The ashes were thrown into the River Nechi. The orders were to leave no trace, the way Vicente tried to conduct his life. Many believe that the killing was orchestrated by HH, who knew Vicente’s movements and would have had the contacts to effect an inside job, but he continues to deny it.
Today, the AUC no longer exists. Without the Castaños there was no AUC. Most of the AUC high command are in prison. In May this year, 15 were extradited to the US. HH has not yet been sentenced, and has an extradition warrant pending. New paramilitary groups have sprung up, dedicated wholly to the drugs trade and, in many cases, allied to the left-wing guerrillas they were once sworn to destroy.
The country’s civil conflict is entering its 45th year and has so far driven four million Colombians from their homes and left hundreds of thousands more dead. The Farc, meanwhile, has been much humbled by President Uribe’s US-backed government. Its top leaders have been killed, desertion is rife and the rebels have been forced back into their mountain and jungle strongholds. Many analysts believe that the Castaños and their brutal war against the Farc paved the war for the government to beat back the rebels.
But the story is not necessarily over. There are some who believe that Vicente is not dead; that, in a stroke of genius, he faked his murder and is now living in Panama. In April this year, Vicente’s first wife had her car stolen in Medellín. A source in Colombia’s underworld told me that she made a call and, within five hours, the vehicle was returned. ‘That kind of power does not come from the dead,’ said the source.
The police file on José Vicente Castaño remains open and his capture remains a top priority. The authorities do admit, however, that the trail has gone cold. As cold as the grave.