By Terrence McCoy
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Perez then drifts down the hallway to start another negotiation.
Perez might never have met Carlos Castaño but for several laws passed nearly twenty years ago, as well as the strange progression of the paramilitary leader. In 1987 the U.S. government instituted stricter sentencing guidelines. Trafficking 1.5 kilos of cocaine, for instance, can mean twenty years in prison. And those convicted of drug-related offenses must serve 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole. Colombian authorities rejoined the drug war in 1997, when, after a seven-year hiatus, an extradition treaty between the U.S. and Colombia was reinstituted. Since then, there has been a steady flow of traffickers sent to the U.S. to face trial as they began flipping en masse. "So long as there was a safe haven," Perez says of the ease with which these narcos could avoid capture in Colombia, "they felt safe. But now nobody is safe."
The new laws and sudden influx of Colombian flips started Perez down the road to Castaño's enclave. In the late Nineties, several big-name narcos -- Arturo Piza, Julio Correa, and Nicolás Bergonzoli -- came to Miami and, with the help of Perez, struck deals with the FBI and the DEA: Piza and Correa got out on bond without restrictions; Bergonzoli got limited jail time; all three became informants. The narcos got to keep most of their money and were able to relocate and protect their families. Those who could not move their families received protection from Carlos Castaño. Without this protection, these informants and their families might have been killed. Perez might have lost this burgeoning business.
Castaño's reasons for protecting these snitches are complicated, but had their roots in the four-decades-old civil war in Colombia. He'd begun fighting leftist guerrillas as a teen in the early Eighties after his beloved father, Jesus Castaño, was kidnapped. The guerrillas sent two ransom notices and the family complied with their demands for cash. When he received a third note, Carlos's older brother Fidel replied: "Even if I had the money, I'd use it to fight you." Jesus's body was never found, and the war was on.
Carlos, Fidel, and a handful of brothers and cousins -- "the House of Castaño," as Carlos calls it -- became sentinels for the Colombian army, assuming the authority to deal with suspected guerrillas or collaborators. Castaño explains, "We would get on our civilian clothes, grab our rifles or whatever, and -- tan! tan! tan! -- we would kill them."
The Castaño cadre was relentless. The first to fall were Jesus's kidnappers, but the House of Castaño didn't stop there. One witness reported a week-long killing spree in a neighboring province by men "dressed in ponchos, white hats, and carrying new machetes, rifles, knives, pistols, and grenades." Dozens were killed, including women and children. "The first year after they kidnapped my father, all I wanted was revenge," Carlos says. "I wanted to destroy everything. At that time the border between justice and vengeance was very difficult to decipher, very vague.... We killed a lot of civilians."
Over time the House of Castaño joined with other vigilante groups roving the Colombian countryside. To finance their war, they turned to drug traffickers who were willing to use the private armies for their own ends. Eventually the two forces merged. In 1994 the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research produced a dossier titled "Profile of Fidel Castaño, Super Drug-Thug," in which it claimed that Fidel was notorious Medellín kingpin Pablo Escobar's primary muscle man.
After Escobar was killed in 1993, and Fidel mysteriously disappeared in 1994, Carlos tried to repaint this sordid image. He took the disparate paramilitary groups and formed the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. The AUC began holding meetings, making political pronouncements, and developing a code of conduct. Castaño gave TV interviews in which he appeared as the clean-shaven commander of the new and improved paramilitaries. The public bought it. For a time, local media polls showed Castaño with a higher approval rating than the Colombian president. Recruiting soared. The AUC went from 4000 to 15,000 soldiers in just four years. But the law continued to dog Castaño, who faced accusations of massacres, assassinations, extortion, plundering, and drug trafficking.
When traffickers such as Piza, Correa, and Bergonzoli began handing themselves over to the U.S. justice system, Castaño saw it as an opportunity. By protecting narcos who wanted to surrender, Castaño thought he could show the U.S. that he was on its side, that he was fighting drugs. "I have a lot of power because of my anti-guerrilla war and basically I prohibited anyone from killing their families," Castaño says of his role in this scheme. "I said that any person who wants to recognize the harm he's done to this society [by trafficking drugs] is in his right to do so, and no one can stop him."
Around this time, Bergonzoli introduced Perez to Castaño and the two set up a pipeline. Castaño protected them in Colombia; Perez defended them in Miami. The narcos they channeled gave invaluable information to the FBI and the DEA, which started new investigations against other high-level traffickers. These first flips also became a vanguard for what they thought would be a new U.S. policy: Turn in your cohorts and you get to keep your money and secure your family.