By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Joaquin Perez steps gingerly from an SUV onto a red dirt soccer pitch. A dozen shacks surround the field. Behind a makeshift goal a man and a woman putter about their small wooden home. Children kick around empty Pepsi bottles and plastic bags littering the grass of their front yard. The heat from the sun flattens the senses; everyone gravitates toward the shade of broad-leaved Caribbean pines.
This would be an everyday scene in most any Latin American village, except for the group of men in green fatigues with AK-47s slung over their shoulders who linger at the edge of the property. The rifles are a reminder that Perez is far from his Miami law practice and plush Coral Gables home. Although he defends some of the most notorious drug traffickers in the world, regularly visits detainees in Florida jails, and frequently travels to Colombia, this jungle war zone is no place for a citified lawyer, and he knows it. Perez turns nervously toward the house, as a diminutive, neatly barbered man wearing a freshly pressed camouflage uniform and matching hat extends his hand to the lawyer. "Hola, doctor," the man beckons in a raspy voice.
"¿Cómo está?" Perez answers, smiling meekly.
The two exchange a firm handshake. It is a formal yet gracious greeting. They are old pals from a war that has no end. The man in fatigues is Carlos Castaño, one of the most powerful individuals in a strife-torn country and one of the most sought-after fugitives in the hemisphere. Perez may have a small army of lawyers working for him in Miami, but Castaño has a realarmy. He's the head of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) or AUC, a loosely knit federation of illegal paramilitary groups that has been fighting left-wing rebels in this country for two decades.
The men meet at this ramshackle settlement in the jungles of northern Colombia to talk about Castaño's future. The prognosis is grim. Castaño's war against the leftist guerrillas, which began as an act of revenge, has become a ruthless campaign of extermination that threatens to undermine Colombia-U.S. relations. AUC leaders massacre civilians and traffic drugs. Castaño is wanted in Colombia for killing scores of people: some shot, some burned, others buried alive. There are dozens of outstanding warrants for Castaño's arrest, and he has been convicted in absentia for arranging the Bogotá airport murder of an opposition political leader.
Last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft indicted Castaño for allegedly exporting several tons of cocaine to the U.S. The indictment also said that Castaño and his cohorts ordered men to decapitate a rival in Colombia and threatened to do the same to a man in Miami-Dade. During the news conference Ashcroft called Castaño's paramilitary organization "criminals ... who poison our citizens and threaten our national security."
Following the indictment, the U.S. asked for Castaño's extradition. For Castaño, extradition is akin to a death sentence, a borderless decree stating that sooner or later he will have to face justice. And the scarred warrior has turned to Perez for help.
Just outside the wooden home at the foot of the soccer pitch, the two men visit at a white plastic table beneath a canopy of foliage. It's been several months since Perez's last visit to Castaño's stronghold in Colombia. Perez hands the paramilitary leader a big plastic bag from Burdines. Inside are gifts for Castaño's wife and ten-month-old daughter. Like Castaño, Perez has a newborn -- a nine-month-old pudgy barónwho has the serious countenance of his papa. The two men swap baby stories, and Castaño thanks the lawyer for the regalos. "You're a good friend," he tells Perez.
To get here, Perez took a commercial flight from Miami to Bogotá, where a three-person logistical support team waited: one Colombian lawyer and two of Perez's associates. The lawyer's handlers had rented an armored Toyota Land Cruiser strong enough to withstand a bomb blast, but no one was carrying a gun. ("I prefer a low profile," Perez says without irony.) The group traveled to a private airport just north of Bogotá, then climbed into a six-seat Piper Saratoga Perez had hired for the journey.
There, "04," a hulking paramilitary commander, and two Colombian policemen were waiting. "04" said the police had spotted an unidentified aircraft buzzing the area a few minutes earlier. After a quick chat, "04" thanked the policemen for their concern and ushered Perez into his SUV for the final leg of the trip.
Policemen, townspeople, and government authorities all know where Castaño is, but no one has turned him in. He has lived in their midst for years. Some credit him and his family for getting rid of the leftist guerrillas who'd terrorized and robbed the region. This tacit approval gave Perez comfort as he bounced over the bumpy roads and through dank settlements to see Castaño.
Perez's journey to the Colombian jungles began in Cienfuegos, Cuba, where sympathy for Castro's socialism ran strong in the streets and the family. His father was Spanish, his mother Cuban; Perez's grandfather worked in the Republican government of Spain before Francisco Franco overthrew it during the Spanish Civil War. Eventually the family relocated, first to Spain, then to Boston. Perez's parents worked in a medical equipment factory to support his studies at the University of Massachusetts and Boston College Law School. When Perez graduated, he got a job as a public defender in Rhode Island. "I was full of ideals. I was going to save the world," he says of those days.