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Sibling Linked to Colombia Militia Leader's Death

The confessed killer of Carlos Castano says the victim's brother ordered the 2004 slaying, fearing he was going to inform on the right-wing army.

September 04, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — The riddle of the disappearance of Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castano may have been solved with a biblical twist: The self-confessed killer says Castano's slaying was ordered by his brother Vicente.

What are thought to be Castano's bones were brought to Bogota, the capital, Saturday for DNA testing to substantiate claims by an ex-bodyguard that he shot Castano to death in April 2004. The guard claims to have acted on orders of Vicente Castano, also a right-wing paramilitary leader, who remains at large and is wanted for questioning by Colombian authorities.

Jesus Ignacio Roldan, Vicente Castano's former bodyguard, told authorities his boss ordered the hit because he and other paramilitary leaders were worried that Carlos was about to give incriminating information to U.S. authorities on the militias' drug-trafficking activities.

Roldan led authorities last week to a shallow grave near Carlos Castano's ranch in Valencia, in the northwestern state of Cordoba. Preliminary forensic findings indicate that the remains buried there are probably those of the missing militia leader, according to various news reports.

Judicial Police Chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo told Radio Caracol: "There's no reason to think it's not Carlos Castano."

Castano helped turn a collection of disorganized local killers and enforcers into a national paramilitary entity called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. He got early financial support from farmers and ranchers victimized by leftist guerrillas' kidnappings and killings, but later benefited from drug trafficking, a necessary source of funding for "counterinsurgency" operations, Naranjo said. In 2002, the U.S. asked Colombia to arrest and extradite Castano on drug-trafficking charges.

"He was the first to have a vision of the paramilitaries with a centralized command and hierarchy," said Mauricio Romero, a political science professor at the University of the Rosary in Bogota and an expert on the paramilitaries. "With his leadership capacities, he made them a political entity."

The discovery comes at a time of high tension between the government of President Alvaro Uribe and paramilitary leaders, many of whom are being held in a detention facility in La Ceja, near Medellin. They gave themselves up under terms of a demobilization accord that has seen 30,000 militia members lay down their arms over the last three years.

The paramilitary leaders now await trial on a variety of charges, including mass murder and drug trafficking. The 2005 Law of Peace and Justice offered them light sentences and exemption from extradition to the U.S. in exchange for full cooperation and for urging their troops to demobilize. But the paramilitary leaders fear that Uribe may backtrack and are demanding another law to make those favorable terms more explicit.

Roldan's confession that he killed Castano is not unmotivated. Like paramilitary leaders, Roldan faces a deadline for full disclosure of crimes he committed if he is to receive the preferential treatment as stipulated in the law. Conviction on any crime to which he fails to confess could trigger normal justice and possible extradition later.

Verification that the remains are Castano's could take weeks. It would mean the end of a mystery that has puzzled this nation for two years, since Castano disappeared near his Valencia ranch.

Roldan said he buried Castano along with five of his bodyguards after a shootout. Castano was known to fear an attempt on his life before disappearing.

Castano and another brother, Fidel, who disappeared in 1994, founded a local militia in the early 1980s after their rancher father was kidnapped and killed by leftist guerrillas. After Carlos Castano disappeared, rumors swirled that he was a protected witness in the United States, or in Israel, where he underwent weapons and defense training.

With his disappearance, Castano became a figure of intense public interest, charismatic to some and demonic to others. He had published an as-told-to book titled "My Confession" in which he laid out the bloody origins of the paramilitary movement, and its violent modus operandi.

Castano also detailed his association with the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and how he later helped Colombian and U.S. forces track down and kill Escobar in 1993. Castano also admitted to ordering several massacres and individual killings, including the 1990 assassination of leftist rebel leader and aspiring politician Carlos Pizarro.

Romero said Castano established good relations with the Colombian army and national police, which permitted a loose cooperation agreement and the rapid expansion of paramilitaries in many parts of Colombia between 1998 and 2002. But Castano also tried to distance himself from drug trafficking, which may be what got him killed, Romero said.

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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