So there are no paramilitaries in Rodoxalí? That’s not what they say in San José de Apartadó

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By Yhoban Camilo Hernandez Cifuentes
November 8, 2016

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Colombian Army insists that there are no paramilitaries in this town in the District of San José de Apartadó. But the Peace Community and other leaders in the area guarantee that the AGC (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia) has the territory under its control.

Ever since 2009, the Public Defender’s Office and social organizations in the District of San José de Apartadó have been complaining about the incursion of paramilitaries in the town of Rodoxalí. But the most recent news in some of the media in Urabá (Antioquia Province) is that there are no paramilitaries there. That message was broadcast after the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade brought a helicopter with a group of journalists to the town, accompanied by the Mayor of Apartadó, Elíecer Arteaga; the Commander of the National Police in Urabá, Colonel Luis Eduardo Soler; the Regional Public Defender, William González; and a delegate from the Inspector General’s Provincial Office.

The visit was highlighted in a local newspaper called El Heraldo de Urabá. It described the trip to this town that has dirt streets and wooden houses with zinc roofs. The visit started with a theatrical scene: when the entourage descended from the helicopter and entered the town, an Army officer in command of the mission says: “We came to see where the paramilitaries are.” Faced with that inquiry, an inhabitant managed to say that in the matter of public order, there were no problems.

The visit, El Heraldo pointed out, was made because the commander of the 17th Brigade, “Colonel Antonio Dongónd wanted to count on the communications media to guarantee that nothing is going on in Rodoxalí, contrary to complaints from the Human Rights Committee of San José de Apartadó about the presence of illegal forces in connivance with the Armed Forces.”

Paradoxically, one of the campesinos quoted in the article assured that the former head of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), Cesar Daniel Anaya Martínez, alias “Tierra” (“Land”), now in prison, had been the one that had given them farms and helped them to get established there and built 48 houses for the people. El Espectador –The Luxuries Owned by alias “Tierra”, Criminal Boss of the “Clan Usuga”.

After reading all of that, and with the goal of finding out what people in the region are saying about this controversial visit, I went to San José to explore the possibility of traveling to Rodoxalí. But in the District, people recommended not going there. At the most, I could visit some other nearby towns, they said, but if I did, I would have to go along with someone from the Inspector General’s Office.

So what’s going on in Rodoxalí?

“We would rather not talk much about all this with the paras in Rodoxalí, because we realize that they have been using us to generate clashes between the Municipal Administration, the Armed Forces and us”. That’s the way an area leader started the conversation, asking that his name not be used.

“Up there in Rodoxali”, said the leader, “there was a paramilitary occupation in 2013. That generated a lot of conflict, but later on the paras and the guerrillas divided up the territory; the guerrillas stayed in the higher parts and the AGC in the lower”. So that “Rodoxalí, La Hoz, La Esperanza, Sabaletas and La Resbaloza are permanent areas for the paras,” he concluded.

Father Javier Giraldo, who accompanies the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, which has been resisting the conflict in its territory since the ‘90’s, has a personal impression of the visit.

“The Community has complained about the pressures caused by paramilitarism, so the Mayor’s Office, the 17th Brigade and the Public Defender told us they would go there for a verification. It was very formal and very brief. You could see that they were trying to hide what was going on. They went with journalists, they got out of the helicopter for a few moments and they asked the people if there were paramilitaries. Obviously, with the paras right there, who is going to say, yes there are?” said the priest.

In this case, added Father Giraldo, “the Regional Public Defender, who up to now had been close to the Community, when he goes in the same helicopter with the Police Commander, the pantomime is validated.”

With respect to the posture of Mayor Elíecer Arteaga, it should be noted that on several occasions he has denied the paramilitarism in San José, as he did on September 10 when Senator Roy Barreras published a tweet on the social network Twitter denouncing the presence of paramilitaries in the District. The local Mayor answered that those were “rumors”. El Espectador – “Son rumores”: Mayor of San José de Apartadó after complaints about the presence of paramilitaries.

But knowing the territory, the conflict and the effects that the Community has suffered, Father Javier Giraldo insists that in San José “there are centers of paramilitarism: in the towns of La Hoz, Rodoxalí and near Nuevo Oriente, which is a District of Turbo, there is a consolidated paramilitary presence; and in Arenas Altas and Arenas Bajas, there is a continual military and paramilitary presence, with coordinated activities”.

Of the alleged connivance between the Armed Forces and the paramilitaries in Urabá, the most visible case is the sentence of ex-general Rito Alejo del Río, ex-Commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade, for his connections with the AUC, denounced on a number of occasions. Data from the Colombian Inspector General indicate that in this region, since 2006 there have been 14 prosecutions against public officials for their alleged connections with paramilitarism. Two cases link the Mayors of Necoclí and Arboletes, and the other 12 were against soldiers and police, from lieutenants to captains and colonels. Of the latter, one fourth of the prosecutions charge violations of human rights of the residents of San José de Apartadó. (i) 17th Brigade still has connections with paramilitarism: Commander of the 58th Front of the FARC.

Father Giraldo also states that the AGC are taking advantage of the retreat of the FARC guerrillas, who at present are in peace negotiations with the government, in order to take over the territory that the subversive group has left. And they have been able to do this from their “territories where paramilitarism is very consolidated, such as the town of Playa Larga, where the La Marina ranch is located. It belonged to the father of the Usuga family—maximum leaders of the AGC”.

These versions match what has been reported since 2009 by the Early Alert System of the Public Defender’s Office. In its Risk Report No 003-09 dated February 17 of that year. it warned about “the rearming of demobilized AUC in alliance with strongholds of paramilitaries who never demobilized and with armed groups of drug traffickers who called themselves at various times “Black Eagles”, “The Countrymen” and “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia”.

Subjugation and repopulation, the AGC strategy

The Public Defender’s 2009 report indicates that for that year the post-paramilitary groups were carrying long guns, sometimes dressing in civilian clothes and other times in military uniforms, wearing AUC bracelets, and patrolling on the road that leads to the District of San José de Apartadó, especially at Caracolí. Besides their presence in San José, they are active in the Districts of Nuevo Antioquia and Currulao, in the Municipality of Turbo, and in the northern part of Urabá.

In these sectors there have been territory disputes between the AGC and the FARC guerrillas, who historically have been present with their 5th Front and the Mario Vélez Mobile Column. In 2014 the Public Defender’s risk report No 012-14 dated June 10 of that year it pointed out that “in the area of the District of San José de Apartadó and the Serrania de Abibe, nearly ten people have been murdered, some by the FARC-EP, and some by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, in different circumstances, but all as part of the dynamic of the armed conflict.”

As might be expected, the civilian population began to suffer the effects of this confrontation and Rodoxalí was one of the towns affected. On August 14, 2014, the Public Defender found out that in the sector known as El Limón, during the night, the AGC murdered three men; one was shot and the other two strangled and with their throats cut.

In August of 2013 the entrance of the paramilitaries into La Hoz and Rodoxalí “generated the massive displacement of 30 families from those towns” according to a human rights report by the Campesino Association of San José de Apartadó (Acasa) (ii) The report stated that there was another massive displacement in November 2015 in the town of La Esperanza where 47 families (151 people) left after receiving threats from the AGC.

As a result of that push, “the AGC between the months of May and November of 2013 achieved the occupation of the towns of Riogrande, El Gas, Los Mandarinos, Bajo el Oso, Guineo Bajo, Arenas Bajas, Playa Larga, Sabaleta and Rodoxalí”, the Public Defender’s report revealed.

Along with the violent actions and the subjection of the people, eventually the paramilitaries claimed that they had undertaken a “social policy”, as the Public Defender describes in his 2014 report, where the construction of 48 dwellings in Rodoxalí is revealed, along with a road they built between that town and the Nuevo Antioquia District.

“When the Community complained about this,” says Father Giraldo, “the then-Mayor denied it. Same with the Inspector General. Then the former Mayor Gloria Cuartas wrote to the Planning Department, but they also denied the construction of the road. It’s impossible to ignore that. And now, in spite of the fact that the houses exist, and that the paras built the road, they deny that there are any paras.”

After analyzing the situation in 2014, the Public Defender’s report concludes that “the strategy of the AGC has been to move into the towns, displace and intimidate the population and develop methods of social control by regulating the census, putting pressure on the town councils (JAC) and provide incentives for repopulation. They have also intensified the purchase of land in these towns and the development and technification of the small cattle ranches.”

With these strategies, the report concludes, the paramilitary group is trying to control the corridor between Turbo and Apartadó that connects with Córdoba Province. The question is: besides being an area that is strategic for agriculture and coca trafficking, for smuggling, for military movements, for the importation of weapons for other regions, what are the riches that are contained in this territory?

What is there in San José?

Apartadó has four Districts: Churidó, El Reposo, Puerto Girón and San José de Apartadó. This last one occupies more than half of the territory. It is made up of 34 towns and according Colombia’s System for Selecting Beneficiaries of Social Programs (SISBEN) data, there are 5,308 inhabitants, representing 23.74% of the rural population of the municipality.(iii) The District is deficient in housing, health, land titling, basic energy services, sewer and water supply. The majority of the people work at farming cacao, plantain, subsistence crops and raising cattle.

In the towns of San José “they know that there is coal, but they also talk about oil, coltan and even gold. The coal is the most evident,” says Father Giraldo. “Since the time that Gloria Cuartas was the mayor, there were applications from international companies.”

According to information from Colombian Mining Cadastre in the National Mining Agency, there are three mining permits in effect in the territory of San José de Apartadó, for exploration and exploitation of coal. The first is coded File ED4-152, under contract with the concessionaire Carbones del Golfo S.A., with a registration date of June 5, 2007, with locations in Apartadó, Turbo, and Carepa. The second is coded ILL-09231, under contract with Cementos Argos S.A., registered on November 15, 2011 and with locations in Apartadó and Turbo. And the third is coded HJBL-05, under contract with the concessionaire Cementos Argos S.A., with a registration date of January 29, 2009, and with locations in Apartadó and Turbo.

In this setting, Rodoxalí would be important for transporting the coal and, according to the leader in San José, the proposal for the town is “building a highway, because it is a level area that goes along the edge of the river and leads to Saiza in Córdoba”, which would be advantageous because the region is mountainous, being located in the Serrania de Abibe.

Father Giraldo has also heard that “they want to bring heavy machinery into Rodoxalí for the exploration. They talk about Korean concessionaires to build roads all over the area. The Koreans were here six years ago, asking the people of San José for permission. And they said that the government was in favor of it.”

The priest added that the government, for its part, talks about a tourism area in San José de Apartadó and about penetrating the territory with a road that would join it with Córdoba Province. They also talk about the potential for water supply for the region that would be starting to be exploited by private companies that would build aqueducts.

Those riches could explain why the armed actors historically have fought for San José de Apartadó and why in recent years the paramilitaries have attacked the people. The questions is What have the authorities done to stop them?

With respect to that, the Peace Community’s complaints have generated “alerts”, because on Wednesday, October 12, 2016, in the place known as Pela Huevo, close to the town of Arenas Altas, “soldiers insisted – to members of the Community – that they are aware of the paramilitary presence in the region, but that they don’t plan to do anything about it because every complaint that that sonofabitching Peace Community makes will be misconstrued by public and international opinion as “hoaxes by the Peace Community”. (iv).

Situations like these increase the fear and mistrust in the population, given the past experience of violence that the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has had. They still remember the massacre of February 21, 2005, during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez, when paramilitaries supported by the Army’s 17th Brigade tortured, killed and dismembered seven people in that District. The Colombian government has admitted what happened in a conciliation process with the victims’ representatives, to whom the government will have to pay damages in the amount of 3,800,000,000 pesos (about $1,266,,667).

It is these complaints precisely, complaints of the presence of paramilitaries and the Army’s connivance with them, that have generated so much bad feeling between them and the Army that has denied the complaints on numerous occasions, using the communications media and just now took a group of journalists and officials from the area to Rodoxalí with the intention of demonstrating a different reality.

The questions remaining after this event are many: Why did the Mayor, in spite of the Army’s long history that is well known in Urabá insist on only supporting the Army’s version? Why did Public Defender and Inspector General officials go along with the Army in one of its helicopters? And finally, evoking a comment that a regional official made to me – Could it be that this has something to do with an eventual proceeding with the AGC?

• Response from the Inspector General’s Office to a petition submitted by the Public Education Institute (IPC), file number 001906, filed May 10, 2016, regarding the agency’s report to the Colombian Congress in April 2016.
• ACASA, December 2015, “Review of the situation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law regarding the District of San José de Apartadó” in State of Human Rights in Antioquia: Between the dream of peace and the continuing war, Coordination Between Colombia, Europe, and the United States, Medellín, page 109.
• Information from the Municipality of Apartadó, official web page:
• Information from the web site of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó:

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