It was a blistering hot, sunny day in the small cattle town of Puerto Berrío when I realized that the right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño thought he would escape prosecution for terminating the FARC's political party, the Unión Patriótica. He believed he could escape because he was a popular man who had fought all the battles no one else would in Colombia. He believed it because he was powerful, commanding an army of close to ten thousand well-trained troops who regularly took on the guerrillas in their strongholds in order to wrench the country back into the hands of the government and the country's elite. Most of all, Carlos believed he would escape prosecution because he thought that punishing the FARC by killing off the UP was justified. Getting off free was his reward.
To see Carlos Castaño in Puerto Berrío that day, Scott Wilson, the Washington Post correspondent, and I went through an elaborate maze. First we flew over the central mountain range from Bogotá to Medellín. As instructed, we went straight to a chicken fingers place in the airport, where we rendezvoused with some of Carlos's assistants. One of them then led us downstairs and onto the Medellín airport tarmac, where we boarded a four-seat Cessna. Soon we were over the mountains, heading for Puerto Berrío.
It was a clear day, and the scenery below us was stunning. A patch of lakes surrounded by mountains reflected the sun. A resort town sat along the edge of one of the shorelines. Pieces of the mainland spread into the water; steep precipices and jagged rocks encircled it. There was a tall, smooth, oval-shaped boulder resembling pão de azucar, the famous rock steeped on the waterfront in Rio de Jainero. The area would have been a paradise like Rio, but there wasn't anyone left to enjoy it. Dirt roads led to abandoned vacation homes and barren docks. No one risked traveling too far from the big cities anymore. The war had swallowed Colombians' courage.