Meeting the Most Dangerous Man in Colombia

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Carlos Castaņo Gil had plenty of enemies. You expect that of a death squad commander in Colombia who killed hundreds of peasants, leftist polticians and suspected Marxist sympathizers. But in the end it was his own older brother Vicente, "El Professor," who supposedly hired the assassins who killed Carlos. He was shot two years ago in an ambush, at the age of 39. But it wasn't until Sept. 1 that Castaņo's skeleton was dug out of a shallow grave in the jungle and identified by DNA testing. You wouldn't exactly call it a dignified burial for Castaņo, once the most feared man in Colombia. It was a faster death than Castaņo probably deserved; many of his victims were killed by chainsaw.

Castaņo was a swift, violent man, built like a scrappy welterweight fighter, and you'd be a fool to take him straight on. I met him once, in 2000, and it was the strangest assignment I've ever done. Not dangerous, as I had expected, but strange.

His goons had left a message for me at my hotel, through an intermediary. When the commander of a death squad says he wants to see you, and he knows the number of your hotel room, it's an offer you can't refuse. Castaņo boasted of killing a few journalists; he said he didn't like their style.

Castaņo's reign of terror originally began as act of vengeance. His dairyman father was kidnapped in 1981 by Marxist rebels and held for a $7,000 ransom. The sum was paid, but the rebels killed him anyway. After that, Castaņo swore revenge and eventually raised a 30,000- man army of mercenaries funded by big landowners and cocaine traffickers. Then he and his brothers strong-armed their way into the drug trade, exporting a total of about 17 tons of coke and heroin to the U.S. and Europe.

Castano's message to me was curt: get on a plane to a town across the gulf from Panama, and someone will meet you. Sure enough, a photographer and I landed on an airstrip cut in a cane field, and a very muscular Colombian escorted us to his four-wheel drive vehicle. There was another passenger: a glamorous woman whose arms were so laden with gold and emerald jewelry she could barely lift them. She was silent the entire journey, pensively tracing raindrops on the car window with her red lacquered fingernails.

Our vehicle churned along a muddy track that ran through sugarcane fields and dead-ended on a beach. It was pouring, and lightning stabbed out of thunderclouds. The silent woman, the bodyguard, the photographer and I took shelter in an empty beach shack. I tried to figure out who the woman was. Castaņo's mistress? The girlfriend of a jailed drug lord who needed Castaņo's help? I never found out. Just then, a procession of musicians and dancers appeared out of the rain, as if from the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. On closer examination the women dancers were all young men in dresses. They explained, a little sheepishly, that it was the birthday of a local patron saint, and this saint wanted all the boys to dress in drag. Who was I to argue with a cross-dressing saint?

The thunderheads on the horizon opened like a curtain, and a speedboat came rocketing towards us. Castaņo had sent the boat. Thoughtfully, he'd also provided rain slickers for us. We bounded across the choppy water, into the seam of black clouds. The journey lasted an hour, with lightning spearing around us. Finally, we sighted land. I don't know if it was Panama or Colombia; it was all jungle. But the launch pulled up at a dock and a farmhouse materialized in the mist. I could make out the silhouettes of towering mercenaries who looked like they had been outfitted from the back pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. On the dock, they embraced us, not out of friendship, I suspect, but to check if photographer Richard Emblyn and I were concealing pistols.

One of Castaņo's men led us past the kitchen, where the farmer and his family were commandeered to cook for the surprise guests. They looked scared; even in Colombia it isn't every day that a death squad shows up for dinner. Castaņo was upstairs in a spare room with a desk and a few chairs. The mystery woman was just leaving the room. She was smiling, slyly grateful. Castaņo shook our hands, forcefully. He was short, a foot smaller than his bodyguards, but they obeyed him as if he were a minor god as he snapped out orders.

There was no doubt he was a dangerous man, a murderer. He admitted it. But there was a glittering, reptilian brilliance to his madness. A line from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness kept running through my head. "Exterminate the brutes." He was Mr. Kurtz gone insane in the jungle. He was anxious to start the interview. His scouts had run down a band of leftist guerrillas, and Castaņo wanted to go and personally exterminate them. He had a blood debt to avenge.

There was a complication: Castaņo wanted to do the interview right then, and we didn't. It was a big deal getting to Castaņo, and TIME's then World editor, Joshua Ramo, was flying down from New York to join us. His flight had been delayed. No matter, says Castaņo: "There's a pasture on the other side of the hill, he can land there in a small plane." We called Ramo in Cartagena. Ramo was an expert pilot, a stunt flier and he enthusiastically agreed to meet us in a cow pasture at 7 a.m. We spent the night in a lodge half an hour's walk down the coast.

At 7 a.m., there was no aircraft, no TIME editor, in sight. Nor at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. Castaņo couldn't wait any longer. The ambush on the leftist rebels hadn't gone exactly as planned, and he was in a hurry to evacuate his men. He would see us later that afternoon, at another secret camp. Emblyn and I hiked to a nearby village that had a public telephone. Eventually, we got the cell number of Ramo's Colombian pilot. It turns out that while in flight over the Caribbean, the single-prop had conked out. Ramo and the pilot together got it re-started as it plummeted toward the water (shark-infested, of course!) and managed to make an emergency landing in a different cow pasture — about 50 miles away, in rebel territory. There was no way Ramo would make it to the Castaņo interview, although on the crackly phone line I could hear him and the pilot tinkering with the aircraft's sick engine.

Castaņo's men found us in the village and ordered us back to the speedboat. We were dropped at a shining white beach. Castaņo was waiting for us under a giant tree, his armed guards fanned out across the fields in a wide circle. He explained that in the night raid against the leftist ELN (National Liberation Army) rebels, his men had suffered casualties. He thought Colombia needed a strongman, the iron rule of law. His country had been at war against the Marxists for over 40 years, and someone had to finish them off, without being squeamish. In other words, exterminate the brutes. For many Colombians, tired of the kidnappings and violence, it was a seductive message. "We only do the things they do," he explained, referring to the equally barbaric tactics of the guerrillas. Occasionally he was wistful; he said he dreamed of taking his kids to Disneyworld. Years later, I heard that Castaņo had changed, that he wanted to disarm his mercenary brigades and maybe enter politics. But like Kurtz, he'd gone too far into the heart of darkness. And his older brother Vicente was already there, waiting for him.