Carlos Castaño

Colombian paramilitary leader
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The Independent Online

Carlos Castaño Gil, paramilitary leader: born Amalfi, Colombia 15 May 1965; twice married (one son, two daughters); died El Tomate, Colombia 16 April 2004.

When Colombian officials confirmed that the DNA samples taken last Friday from a charred skeleton in a shallow jungle grave belonged to the paramilitary chieftain Carlos Castaño, one of Latin America's most baffling mysteries was laid to rest.

The founder of the AUC - the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia - a brutal right-wing militia responsible for thousands of deaths, was not feigning death and living in Israel, as rumours had suggested, but had been the victim of a hitman allegedly hired by his elder brother, Vicente. A paramilitary assassin nicknamed Monoleche ("Milky White") pointed out Carlos Castaño's burial spot in a northern jungle and, since then, the Colombian public has been gripped by the epic tale of a coked-up Cain and Abel out to avenge Colombian landowners menaced by rebel Marxists in a 40-year civil war.

Analysts suggest that the brothers fell out over Carlos's botched peace negotiations with President Alvaro Uribe, which were abandoned in 2004. Vicente was worried that his baby brother would, if extradited to the United States, betray the lucrative cocaine and heroin empire which provided the war-chest for the paramilitary fighters that Carlos was promising to disarm.

Recounting the family history gives an insight into the vicious undercurrents of life in rural Colombia. Five of Carlos Castaño's 11 siblings were killed by guerrillas, following the abduction and death of their dairy-farmer father, Jesus Castaño, in 1981. Farmers were vulnerable to extortion by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, Colombia's largest guerrilla group.

In 1981, 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.

Fifteen years later, Carlos Castaño abducted the brother of Alfonso Cano, a Farc operative, and requested the same ransom "to remind them that they kidnapped and killed my father". Cano's brother was returned unharmed, despite no money's changing hands.

The Castaño brothers turned to the Colombian military to avenge their father's murder. As Castaño told The Washington Post:

We invoked justice, we trusted justice, but when it did not respond, we felt we could take justice into our own hands. And I'm not ashamed to say it was for vengeance.

Soon after, the Castaño brothers founded Los Tangueros, the most notorious death squad in northern Colombia, which arranged more than 150 executions during the late 1980s and early 1990s and protected the interests of Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel, run by Pablo Escobar. But in 1994 Fidel Castaño vanished near the Panamanian border 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 privately funded army in Colombia. This was down to Carlos Castaño's leadership style. He assembled an army that fought leftists with impunity, and sometimes with the assistance of the Colombian army. At its height, some 31,000 paramilitaries operated under Castaño.

In his best-selling memoir Mi Confesión ("My Confession", 2001), Castaño boasted of his role in the vigilante murders of two presidential candidates, including the charismatic leftist Carlos Pizarro, as well as several pesky journalists and a television celebrity. He shrugged off charges of having exported 17 tons of cocaine into Europe and the United States since 1997.

On 10 September 2001, the US State Department formally blacklisted the AUC as a terrorist organisation and its head, Castaño, as a terrorist of global reach.

By April 2004, despite his attempts to make peace with Colombia's right-wing president, Castaño had been sentenced in absentia to more than 100 years in prison for his roles in massacres and mayhem. After a firefight killed half a dozen bodyguards at his rancho in northern Colombia, the body of el jefe was dismembered and burnt.

Jan McGirk