BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The man known as Colombia's "emerald czar" survived at least two assassination attempts and managed to avoid criminal conviction despite being prosecuted for allegedly forming far-right militias.
What finally claimed the life of Victor Carranza was lung cancer, with officials announcing the death of the mustachioed emerald magnate on Thursday at Bogota's top hospital, Fundacion Santa Fe, at age 77.
Carranza, one of Colombia's biggest landowners, built his fortune after discovering his first emerald mine as a boy in the late 1940s.
"I've been fortunate," he would say. "The emeralds call me."
In a 2010 interview with the newspaper El Espectador, Carranza said his father died when he was two years old. "We were left without protection, five siblings and my mother. We had a small farm and we were very poor. It fell to me to get things going."
A loquacious, gravel-voiced man of humble origins but deep political connections, Carranza fought three power struggles for control of the sector beginning in the 1960s.
The fighting left nearly 5,000 people dead while Carranza amassed a private army, say the authors of a 2012 biography, leftist Rep. Ivan Cepeda and Rev. Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest.
In the 1990s, Carranza began to extend his holdings outside the central state of Boyaca where the emerald industry is concentrated, buying properties in the eastern plains around Puerto Lopez.
It was there that he allegedly deepened support for the so-called paramilitary militias that are blamed for the lion's share of killings in Colombia's decades-old dirty war.
In 1998, Carranza was arrested and charged with kidnapping and forming illegal right-wing militias, which prosecutors have blamed for more than 50,000 killings over the past three decades.
Colombia's chief prosecutor at the time, Alfonso Gomez Mendez, told The Associated Press in an interview that he had no doubt Carranza was one of the paramilitaries' principal creators and backers.
Yet after three years in jail Carranza, whose lawyers included a former Supreme Court justice, was freed and the charges were dropped.
The following year, Alvaro Uribe was elected president and he made peace with the paramilitaries.
Several top paramilitary warlords who surrendered in exchange for reduced sentences identified Carranza as one of them.
One, Ivan Roberto Duque, said Carranza shouldn't have been called the "emerald czar" but rather "the czar of paramilitarism."
Cepeda, one of Carranza's biographers, said Carranza was long able to avoid prosecution because he could rely on "the families that have been governing this country."
Carranza was born Oct. 8, 1935 in Guateque, a temperate mountain town about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Bogota.
He is survived by his wife, Blanca, and five children.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.