A Latin American Force


Dario Castrillon Hoyos is remembered vividly in the two Colombian cities where he grew from a young bishop into a high-profile member of the Latin American clergy.

But the recollections are strikingly different.

The bishop who offended Pereira’s coffee barons by returning their checks, saying he considered the money ill-earned, became an archbishop welcomed at Bucaramanga’s Commerce Club, where the city’s old families socialize.

The human rights advocate who clashed with police in a two-decade crusade to protect Pereira’s street children went on to modify his sermons in Bucaramanga after Colombian army supporters rebuffed him for criticizing their treatment of peasants.


In both cities, however, Castrillon has emerged as the foremost example of a priest who shows a preference for the poor without slipping into the doctrine of liberation theology, which the Vatican considers dangerously close to Marxism.

Grasping the distinction--and working to discredit priests who did not--has boosted his career under Pope John Paul II. Three years after receiving the red biretta that identifies him as a cardinal, Castrillon is considered one of the front-runners to become the next head of the Roman Catholic Church if John Paul dies or steps down in the next year or two.

Picking a leader from Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s 1 billion Catholics, is an attractive idea to some in the College of Cardinals, which elects the pope. And, after 22 years of John Paul, many would hesitate to choose a younger cardinal who might rule as long. Castrillon, 71, the oldest of four Latin American cardinals now serving in the Vatican, might be just what they’re looking for.

“If there is to be a pope from Latin America, he will be the one,” predicted Martin Poblete, a Chilean lay Catholic who works for the Archdiocese of New York and teaches history at Columbia University.

The gray-haired cardinal is well known to Catholic priests all over the world. As prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, Castrillon must approve any expenditure over $500,000 in any parish or monastery.

He is well equipped for the job. Besides speaking seven languages and being an enthusiast for the computer technology that keeps him in touch with far-flung clergy, Castrillon has a remarkable memory.


“He calls every two weeks and always asks about a long list of people,” said Jose Antonio Arenas, a Bucaramanga priest who is close to Castrillon.

At the top of the list is the family of Don Lucas Rojas. One Monday after an especially stressful Easter week, to escape the stresses of the city, Castrillon and Arenas drove to the hamlet of San Isidro, above Bucaramanga, and dropped in on the Rojas family.

As a dinner of chicken with rice cooked, Rojas showed his visitors a family novelty, the pedal organ that they cleaned every month but that no one knew how to play. Castrillon sat at the keyboard and played songs from his childhood, with everyone singing, until dinner was ready.

That is not to say that Castrillon’s contact with Colombia’s poor was limited to idyllic country afternoons. As bishop of Pereira from 1971 to 1992, he crusaded for the indigent, said Julio Garcia, rector of one of the three seminaries Castrillon founded in Colombia.

“He used to go out at 9 or 10 at night to the places they gathered to take them coffee, bread, clothes, medicine and sleeping bags,” prompting accusations from wealthy citizens that Castrillon was encouraging beggars, Garcia said.

When street children were found dead from bullet wounds a few hours after they had shared bread and sugar-water with him, Castrillon was furious, Garcia recalled.


The bishop called news conferences and organized protests. And from the pulpit, he demanded: “Where are the children? Where are the killers?”

Castrillon so alienated Pereira’s coffee-growing families that when he built a spiritual retreat, an orphanage and a shelter for the homeless, he asked supporters in Germany for the money instead of trying to raise funds locally.

In the early 1990s, Castrillon decided to move his rectory to one of Pereira’s poorest areas, Garcia said. But before he had the chance, he was elevated to archbishop and relocated to Bucaramanga, where he forged a far different relationship with the ruling class.

“He was well received in Bucaramanga,” Garcia said. “Pereira’s ruling class is not cultured. This is a city built on violence, with few old families. Here, the authorities were suspicious of him.”

Mediating Guerrilla Conflict

Castrillon arrived in Bucaramanga just days after a 9-year-old girl was killed in a confrontation between Marxist guerrillas and the Colombian army in the nearby village of Paujuil. One of the first delegations he received as archbishop was led by Graciliano Flores, a village councilman.

“We asked him to help us solve the conflict,” recalled Flores, a father of 12. Shortly after the meeting, Castrillon celebrated a Mass in Paujuil that was attended by representatives of the rebel National Liberation Army, or ELN.


Ana Maria Alarcon was the guerrilla chosen to carry the ELN’s offering of yucca and plantains to the altar. She was a devout Catholic and a deeply committed fighter whose sister had been killed in combat at age 15.

A week later, she quietly visited Arenas, whose parish included Paujuil. “I heard what the archbishop said,” she told him. “I know that I am not going to fix this country with violence. Help me get out.”

Castrillon and Arenas hid her in a convent in another part of Colombia. Now, she is married and has children, Arenas said.

Castrillon has also used the pulpit to denounce the Colombian army’s human rights violations. This prompted a local commander to invite the archbishop to a reception at which Armando Puyana, chairman of Urbanas construction company, was asked to speak.

“I rebuked the archbishop for unfairly criticizing the military,” Puyana recalled. “After that, we sat down at the same table.”

For the rest of Castrillon’s four years in Bucaramanga, Puyana was a frequent guest at intimate dinners where the archbishop prepared his legendary pastas. “We both like to speak frankly,” Puyana said.


In a 1999 interview at the Vatican, the cardinal spoke in general terms that appeared to refer to his own experience. “The church was very hard on the ruling class, on those with power. It forgot that riches can come also from hard, honest, patient work and savings, from the virtues of austerity.” Advocates of liberation theology, he added critically, “went to the extreme of saying that the only way to be a good Christian is to become a Marxist.”

Castrillon was harsh on those who went that far. In 1986, when he was president of the Latin American Episcopal Council, he led his peers in denouncing liberation theology and such prominent practitioners as Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.

“Boff will have to ask God to forgive him, and when God answers, then the pope and I will know whether to forgive him or not,” he said.

The only child of a lawyer and a teacher, Castrillon was born in Medellin, a city in the heart of a region known for hard work and austerity. It is an area that has produced a disproportionate share of presidents and industrialists, as well as artist Fernando Botero and drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Legends abound of Castrillon’s relationship with Escobar. One tale, neither proven nor refuted, said the bishop disguised himself as a milkman to confront the drug baron in his heavily fortified mansion and demand that he repent.

Castrillon did admit before other bishops at a 1984 meeting to having accepted donations from Escobar. The bishop said he took the money to prevent its use in illegal activities, gave it to charity and warned the donors that their gift “would not save their souls.”


Castrillon’s focus now is on the guerrillas’ slow-moving peace talks with the government and the problem of illegal drug production.

“Guerrillas telephone me, and I can talk very freely with them,” he told reporters in New York in October. Still, he pointed out, with a smile of understatement, “I have a new job--I haven’t much time for guerrillas in Colombia. But I am Colombian and I am working with the pope, whose first aim is to work for peace in the world.”

Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Rome and Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this story.