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The victims of “social cleansing”


By Gonzalo Guillén

HISPANO POST, March 7, 2016

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

He was close to 60 years old when he arrived at the town on the scheduled bus line and with a leather suitcase that he dragged to the parish house where he would be living. At first sight he didn’t look like just any priest because, among other peculiarities, he had two Bibles.

Robed down to his heels in a black cassock that was buttoned up from top to bottom and faded by time and wear, Gonzalo Javier Palacio Palacio arrived to serve as an aide to the main priest in the Las Mercedes parish in the town of Yarumal in the Colombian Province of Antioquia. The new priest immediately became well-known, because he inquired into every last detail about every single one of the sins that the faithful came to confess and ask for forgiveness in the secret place of the Sacrament of Confession.

“Another thing I remember about him is that he had two Bibles: one, just an ordinary Bible for masses and the other one that he took with him everywhere, that had an opening between the pages to hide a Smith & Wesson revolver, 32 caliber, with six shots and a butt that was black,” recounted an old campesino who had gone frequently to seek the priest’s blessing.

When he said mass he waved the Bible and thundered: “In this Gospel we see clearly that Christ gave his Apostles the power to forgive sins. Nowhere does it say that Christians have to seek forgiveness directly from God. No, you must always ask forgiveness from us, his Apostles”, the old campesino remembered.

He recalls that, unlike any other priest, he examined every confession carefully to find out the smallest details. You could say that with his questions he conducted an autopsy of every sin, going so far as to find out if there was any sign of some secret crime. “It wasn’t enough for him to know if you had told a lie, if you had had a wicked thought, if you took the holy name of God in vain or if you had desire for someone else’s wife. No, he inquired as to who were the parents of that person’s wife, where that person had gone to school, what his name was, where he lived and exactly what that person did.”

Another peculiarity of Fr. Palacio Palacio was that, unlike his exhaustive interrogations, “he imposed very easy penances You could make your confession, for example, that you had had a fight with a neighbor or that you stole a car. Then he would question you, that’s for sure, up to the very last detail about the neighbor or the car and in the end, he would just give you a blessing and, if more than that, he would make you say a simple Our Father as a penance.”.

In spite of the series of exhaustive questions to which he subjected the faithful, they preferred going to him for confession because of the simplicity of his penances.

But the predilection for this little Father started to diminish because he started a pernicious habit of asking certain of the church members for photos of people they had mentioned in their confessions and left them in doubt of God’s forgiveness until the penitent carried out the heavenly order imparted through him.

Later on, the Apostle of Christ started to awaken concerns and consternation among people in the town who discovered that many of the people that the priest had asked about in great detail in the confessional had been murdered later by gunmen, by the National Police, or by the Army.

There came a time when nobody would go to the confessional of His Reverence, Fr. Palacio Palacio and he, astonished by this sudden loss of faith, went out into the streets and bars of the town, inquiring among the church members why they had decided to avoid him.

“Your Reverence, a neighbor woman told me that you have very bad breath and that’s why right now people would rather make their confession to the parish priest or else go to Santa Rosa,” the old campesino recalls lying when he was accosted by the priest one morning.

A long and lengthening period of murders of people about whom Palacio Palacio had inquired in confessions spread terror in the region and in the midst of the terror, the members of the National Police detachment in Yarumal started to tie the dead bodies to the front bumpers of their Nissan Patrol cars to put them on exhibit while they drove slowly around the village.

It was 1990. The civilians didn’t have to make much effort to find out that a group of ranchers and merchants in the village, working with the National Police and the Army, were committing selective murders, called “social cleansing”, principally directed by a cattleman, Santiago Uribe Vélez, the brother of the controversial regional politician, Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Both of them are sons of a deceased merchant who was formerly a partner of Pablo Escobar and an alleged seller of cocaine, Alberto Uribe Sierra. The influence of his son Alvaro had rescued him from an extradition petition issued by the government of the United States.

Before starting the terrifying strategy of exhibiting the dead bodies of the victims of “The 12 Apostles,” judicial files had recorded that Santiago Uribe Vélez had ordered the patrol car the detachment used for that to be upgraded by painting it with the regimental colors, black and white, that at that time distinguished the vehicles used by the National Police.

The victims of this “social cleansing” were usually drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, leftists, strangers, nonconforming farm workers who filed legal complaints against their employers, Protestants, debtors behind on their payments, thieves, atheists, people suspected of hanging out with guerrilla types and, in general, everything that seemed contrary to decency, to public morals, and to healthy Christian customs.

Under the reign of terror, Yarumal was changed, from the way people were used to remembering it, to an exemplary haven of order, peace and democratic security.

But the careful investigations that were made in the town to ascertain what was really going on led to a conclusion that the criminal organization that was causing so many “benefits of social hygiene” was being managed by a council of 11 people, plus the Messenger of Christ in Yarumal, His Reverence Gonzalo Javier Palacio Palacio. For that reason, they were called “The 12 Apostles”.

The clues that, cautiously and silently, the residents talked about clandestinely and debated in low voices, showed that the murderers who were ravaging the countryside were trained by police and soldiers in an area of the gigantic La Carolina ranch, which belongs to the Uribe Vélez brothers, located between the municipalities of Yarumal and Santa Rosa de Osos, in the northern part of Antioquia Province. The ranch was mainly dedicated to raising fighting bulls.

Last week, after a delay of 25 years, Santiago Uribe Vélez was arrested for the creation of this criminal gang, whose evil deeds add up to nearly 300 murders. It was an unexpected legal action that has definitely interfered with the efficient power of sabotage that Alvaro Uribe Vélez, President of Colombia between 2002 and 2010, has held over this case.

The ex-president himself is mixed up in the investigation stage of the criminal proceeding. It consists of nearly 13,000 pages, of which I have authentic copies, kept in a safe place in New York City. Identified by No. 8051 in the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Rights Unit of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, the investigation contains a large number of complaints, forensic reports, statements by confidential witnesses, independent investigations, informers’ statements, confessions by drug traffickers, opinions by international agencies, organization charts, reports by experts, official accusations by different agencies and links to other criminal proceedings in which, in the same manner, there are direct accusations against Santiago and Alvaro Uribe Vélez for a number of crimes against humanity attributed to “The 12 Apostles”, the root and foundation of what years later would be the great army of drug trafficking cartels that, with more than 20,000 professional killers distributed in regional paramilitary blocs, became known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. (AUC is the Spanish acronym.)

“Truth be told, there has never been a lack of evidence to condemn Alvaro Uribe, but rather a lack of balls,” said the Bogotá criminal lawyer Diana Muñoz in her Twitter account.

One of the most covered-up massacres by “The 12 Apostles” was the killing of the López family in the rural area La Solita, in the municipality of Campamento, next to Yarumal, where six campesinos were murdered, including two girls aged 8 and 11, Yoli and Milena. An 8-year-old boy, Darwin, was allowed to remain alive so that he could tell how the massacre was committed and so terrify the people with his account. This young boy saved a baby in arms when bullets were flying everywhere, but he received only minor injuries from the explosion of a fragmentation grenade thrown by the killers.

The Bárbula Batallion of the 4th Brigade of the Colombian Army took part in the massacre and the dead, including the two girls, were presented as combatants for the FARC.

The López family knew that the Army and “The 12 Apostles” had decided to kill them and for a few months they spent the nights sleeping out in the open, hidden in the hills. Later they left their small farm and hid in Medellín and Anorí, but they went back secretly to resolve some matters that were pending. When everything was in order, they were getting ready to start on a long journey early in the morning, safe and sound.

However, starting with a couple of unsuspecting confessions by church members that Fr. Palacio Palacio received in the confessional at the parish of Las Mercedes in Yarumal, he put two and two together, deducing that the López family had returned to La Solita. He blessed the penitents and passed the information on to the killers and they massacred the family when they had just finished drinking a pot of strong black coffee and were getting ready to leave for the mountains in a hike that would take several days and they wanted to start before dawn.

Twenty years later, María Eugenia López, who lost her family in the massacre, found out that Fr. Palacio Palacio heard masses at the parish in the San Joaquín neighborhood in Medellín where the Catholic Church was hiding him from justice. She decided to look for him. When she entered the church, she recognized the voice of the apostle resounding against the walls of the holy place. She waited until the mass was over and then she confronted him.

“You killed my family,” María Eugenia charged.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” answered the priest, bewildered.

“You killed my family in La Solita, with the Army and ‘The 12 Apostles’,” María Eugenia shouted again, looking him in the eye.

“If you want to know about that, you should ask the Attorney General’s Office. I am innocent,” the priest murmured, breathing rapidly. He is nearly 80 years old.

“You were captured on December 22, 1995 and they found the revolver that you hid inside a Bible and later they let you go, but you are a murderer,” insisted María Eugenia with courage she had never experienced before in her life.

“And I’m not supposed to carry a gun?” answered the now elderly priest. With his pulse trembling, he reached into a pocket in his cassock and pulled out a razor. He opened out the sharp and burnished blade. “Because I carry this razor that means I’m going to kill you?” he asked , making an unsuccessful slash at María Eugenia’s throat. She sidestepped it. “That revolver was a gift from General Gustavo Pardo Ariza!” (He is the one that was fired for having protected Pablo Escobar so that he could escape from prison in 1991.)

“I will never forgive you and I will never forget what you did to me. I just want to know the truth and to have you brought to justice,” exclaimed María Eugenia to the Apostle of Christ who had just finished officiating at a mass and missing his razor attack.

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