- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

BOGOTA, Colombia — The probable death of paramilitary warlord Carlos Castano at the hands of former friends who are heavily involved in drug trafficking is threatening the fragile peace process between paramilitaries and the government.

The founder and ideologue of the right-wing death squads known as the AUC, Mr. Castano disappeared April 16 at a ranch in northwestern Antioquia state. Two of his bodyguards said fellow paramilitaries had tried to kill him, but it was not clear whether they succeeded.

Recent press accounts, believed to be accurate by the government, suggest that Mr. Castano was kidnapped and strangled two days later, apparently by his ex-allies, AUC military chief Salvatore Mancuso and Inspector General Diego Fernando Murillo, known as “Don Berna.” Mr. Castano’s brother, AUC chief Vicente Castano, also was thought to be involved. All three are wanted by the United States on charges of trafficking cocaine.

Mr. Mancuso and Mr. Murillo have denied there was an attempt on Mr. Castano’s life.

Analysts and paramilitary leaders believe Mr. Castano’s likely death will strain the nine-month peace process between about 20,000 AUC troops and the government. But a government spokesman said that Mr. Castano was losing influence within the group and that his exit could make the talks easier.

Mr. Castano, who became an outspoken opponent of the influence of drugs on the AUC, was seen as willing to accept government terms for demobilization such as jail terms and extradition to the United States. AUC leaders such as Mr. Mancuso and Mr. Murillo, who are heavily involved in drug trafficking, are now in charge and appear poised to reject some of the terms, especially extradition.

Signaling a toughening of his stance, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe issued a harsh warning on the peace process days after Mr. Castano’s disappearance.

In the April 27 statement, Mr. Uribe threatened to destroy the paramilitaries through military means if they did not accept certain terms, such as concentration in specific geographic zones, where a cease-fire can be monitored.

He also stressed that extradition on charges of drug trafficking was “not negotiable.”

Defense analyst Alfredo Rangel said negotiations would become more difficult as “hard-liners” begin wielding more power in AUC after Mr. Castano’s disappearance.

“It seems to me that the government can’t negotiate with people who don’t accept its positions,” Mr. Rangel said.

But a government spokesman said Mr. Castano’s likely death will make it easier to reach agreement with the remaining paramilitary leaders.

“At the negotiating table there were two groups, Castano and the rest. Now, there remains the rest. At least they’re in agreement,” a presidential spokesman said. “But the conditions of the government are going to be very demanding.”

The spokesman said Mr. Castano’s influence “isn’t what it was a year ago.” He noted that the warlord had not attended recent peace meetings and was omitted from an AUC negotiating team named at the end of March.

Carlos Castano and his late brother, Fidel, founded the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) after their father was kidnapped by leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1981. The AUC originally was funded by ranchers who lacked state protection from the FARC, but it ultimately derived as much as 40 percent of its profits from drugs.

Starting in 2001, Mr. Castano began to vehemently denounce the influence of drug traffickers within the AUC, provoking the ire of many of his comrades and isolating him from the group he founded.

Rodrigo Franco, a dissident AUC leader who was close to Mr. Castano, said he thinks his friend is dead.

Calling the AUC a “great cartel of armed narco-traffickers,” Mr. Franco wrote in an e-mail message: “Carlos said repeatedly that narco-traffickers only meet to send a shipment of cocaine or to betray a friend. In this case, his prophecy was fulfilled.”

Fingering Mr. Mancuso, Mr. Murillo and Vicente Castano as the most likely suspects, Mr. Franco said, “Carlos had become a threat to their interests.”

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