The Expansion of Paramilitarism in the Llanos Orientales

(Translated by Stephanie DiBello, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, a CSN
Volunteer Editor.)
Private militias have long roots in the history of Meta, Casanare and Guaviare, but the most
recent period of paramilitarism has been the bloodiest.
Paramilitarism in the Llanos Orientales began over 50 years ago with the demobilization of the
liberal guerrillas. The demobilization took place in 1953, five years after the guerrillas took arms
in the wake of the assassination of their beloved leader, liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Afterwards,
the government organized ex-guerrilla fighters and other citizens to carry out a plan to put an end
to the banditry still occurring in the vast plains in the east and incorporate that region into the
national economy.
With this plan the Army Battalion 21 Vargas, ideologically influenced by Colonel Gustavo
Sierra Ochoa’s training manual, provided military training to rural inhabitants and proposed the
creation of an anti-guerrilla force that would attack groups of bandits concentrated within the
budding populations of San Martín, Granada, El Dorado, El Castillo, and Cubaral.
According to Colombia Nunca Más (Never Again), an initiative of 17 non-governmental human
rights and social justice organizations that seek to restore the memory of victims of political
violence, Colonel Sierra’s manual read, “The commander of the Military Garrison will be the
leader of the camp who organizes the activities and the defense strategies. Abandoned land and
livestock in the region will need to be distributed. The region’s inhabitants will be obligated to
comply with the military commander’s operations to eliminate the bandits…”
As told to, at that time the government integrated some ex-guerrilla fighters
from Monterrey (Casanare) into the army and the rural units of the DAS (Colombian intelligence
agency). “After we demobilized, the government gave us a spoon, cleaning supplies and safety
training, but when we arrived home they began to detain us. This made us return to the mountain.
When things started to clear up, we came back down and afterwards some of us joined the rural
DAS,” said an ex-fighter who belonged to the liberal armed ranks of Manuel and Pablo Bautista
Tulio, brothers whose fighters mostly demobilized on September 15, 1953 in Monterrey.
Demobilization in the region did not stick, and just thirty years later a new counterinsurgency
plan appeared again in the vast plains.
The ‘paras’ of the 80s
At the start of the 80s two forces in the region came together to form the origins of modern
paramilitarism. On one side, businessmen came down to Llanos from eastern Boyacá in search
of profits from the emerald trade, traveling through a natural corridor that passes through the
municipalities of Paratebueno (Cudinamarca), Sabanalarga, Monterrey and Aguazul (Casanare).
These men imported their own private armies with men they were accustomed to. Every person
was used to preserve their profits in the lucrative emerald business.
On the other side were the drug traffickers, who had fought to the death for a piece of the
emerald business, became rich and inverted their immense profits in the Llanos. They bought
enormous ranches there and, just like the emerald businessmen, hired their own private armies to
protect their property.
This is how the legendary emerald magnate Víctor Carranza came to buy various swaths of land
in El Dorado and Cubural in the department of Meta. The drug trafficker Gonzalo Rodríguez
Gacha, aka ‘The Mexican’, member of the Medellín Cartel, bought up land in Vistahermosa in
the same department.
Héctor ‘El Viejo’ Buitrago, a native of the municipality Páez at the foothills of the plains, left
Boyacá for Casanare 30 years ago to raise livestock. Buitrago himself stated in an article in El
Tiempo that after he killed two guerrilla fighters that tried to extort money from him he left his
ranch ‘La Sombra’ “with seven men, revolvers and 12 gauge shotguns.” Paramilitaries travelling
from the Magdalena Medio then trained them and organized them into an auto-defense group.
Brothers Víctor, José and Omar Feliciano and Jaime Matiz Benítez, other allies in the drug-
emerald amalgam, later arrived to join this irregular army.
The sale of huge ranches created friction with the adjudication of the land that the Colombian
Institute for Agrarian Reform (Incora) began handing over to members of the National
Association of Campesinos (Anuc) ten years earlier. Those agencies encouraged the creation of
a rapidly growing agrarian union, and in 1979 obtained legal status as the Independent Farmer’s
Union of Meta (Spanish acronym SINTRAGRIM). Soon after, the union had more than 2,500
members from San Juan de Arama to Puerto López and from Vistahermosa to Casanare.
That farmworker organization was tied to the work of the Communist Party in the region, which
had been present there since the 50s when the liberal guerrillas splintered, with the most radical
wing forming the beginnings of the FARC in 1964. By the 80s these guerrillas already had 13
fronts, with the majority in that region, and its center of operations was in the Green House in La
Uribe, Meta, which was a camp buried in the jungle of the Duda river valley.
In addition, the National Liberation Army (Spanish acronym ELN) spread from the department
of Arauca where it had created its Domingo Laín Front in 1980 and entered into the northern part
of Meta.
Rodríguez Gacha is known as one of the first paramilitaries in the Plains. He was member of the
Ochoa Vásquez brothers’ Medellín Cartel. After the M-19 guerrillas kidnapped Martha Nieves
Ochoa, the sister of Fabio, Jorge Luis and Juan David, in 1981, the Medellín Cartel created the
violent group Death to the Kidnappers, known as MAS for its acronym in Spanish. Soon after,
a chapter of this group called ‘Los Masetos’ began operating in the Eastern Plains. According
to testimonies and documents collected by, the first violent actions of ‘Los
Masetos’ date back to 1982 and span from the Río Ariari to the north of Meta.
Military Ties
Much like the failed attempt to create an alliance between the military and civilians to combat
the bandits of the 1950s, ‘Los Masetos’ also had a connection with the Army in the 1980s.
In February 1983, in a public report about MAS, the then Attorney General Carlos Jiménez
Gómez placed Army major Carlos Vicente Meléndez Boada, second commander of the Guides
of Casanare group of Yopal’s Seventh Brigade, as a member of the aforementioned paramilitary
group. Jiménez’s accusation led to the criminal and disciplinary investigations of several
The Center for Investigation and Popular Education, CINEP, a group of Jesuits that specializes
in human rights violations, has compiled documents collected by the 17th Criminal Court of
Villavicencio. In the open preliminary investigation in November 1982 there were indications
that the Seventh Brigade, “especially its cavalry Guides of Casanare from Yopal, together with
its military base in Arauca, created its own paramilitary structure under the acronym MAS in
The commander of the group Guides of Casanare was the then colonel Luis Alfonso Plazas
Vega, the same man who was recently condemned for the forced disappearance of the survivors
of the military rescue at the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in 1985. According to testimonies retired
soldiers Isaías Barrera, Arnubio Agudelo and José Elías Ramírez made to the Office of the
Attorney General, the Guides of Casanare illegally sold weapons to paramilitaries in Saravena
and Villavicencio.
In 1984, the FARC signed a cessation of hostilities accord with the government of Belisario
Betancur. The political movement Patriotic Union (Spanish acronym UP) was born as a result
of this agreement, and in 1986 its candidates entered into the running for public office. They
were particularly successful in Meta where, alone or allied with other political entities, they won
several seats as mayors and city councilors.
The traditional political class in the region felt that the success of the UP threatened their power
and began to pressure the national government to militarize the zone, arguing that guerrillas and
drug traffickers were taking over. Among the traditional politicians that were protesting were
Leovigildo Gutiérrez, Jorge Ariel Infante, Alfonso Latorre Gómez y Hernando Durán Dussán.
The government gave into the petitions, militarized the area, and it became one of the regions in
the country that maintained a legal state of emergency that restricted liberties.
Soon after came the assassination attempts against leaders of the UP. According to the
Independent Agriculture Workers of Meta, Sintragrim, as found in the Cinep database Noche
y Niebla, the first to fall at the hands of paramilitary hitmen was Hernández Yate Bonilla,
UP councilor for Granada, murdered in 1985. Those murdered in 1986 were: Rafael Reyes
Malangón, UP councilor for Granada; Octavio Vargas Cuellar, House representative; and Pedro
Nel Jiménez, UP senator. In 1987 Alfonso Perdomo, UP councilor for Vista Hermosa; Arnulfo
Vargas Dimate, UP councilor for El Castillo and Gabriel Alfredo Briceño, UP councilor for
Villaviencio were shot to death.
In Meta, María del Carmen Trujillo’s situation was emblematic of the systematic persecution
of the UP. In 1986 they killed her son in Granada. Four months later her other son Nelson was
murdered and the Army placed him in boots and planted a pistol and a grenade on his person. In
1988 unknown men pulled her husband Julio Cañon, then UP mayor of Vistahermosa, off of a
bus and killed him. On January 11, 1989 her son Vladimir disappeared in Meta.
She now lives in exile with the two children she has left. “They tortured me alive,” she said in
the documentary El Baile Rojo (The Red Dance), which informs about the persecution of the UP
in Colombia.
And who unleashed such terror? Many of the accounts given by different witnesses before the
judiciary and the press allege that ‘Los Masetos’ were responsible. Rodríguez Gacha’s men had
been persecuting everyone with suspected ties to the FARC. According to the accounts of several
researchers, these guerrillas had taken more than 300 kilos of coca paste from the powerful
gangster Rodríguez Gacha, stolen from a processing lab that he shared with Leonidas Vargas. In
retaliation ‘The Mexican’ declared war against the FARC, and his men were killing people left
and right in San Juan de Arama, Granada, Vistahermosa, and other towns in Meta.
Manuel de Jesús Pirabán, aka ‘Jorge Pirata’, described the perception that the auto-defense
groups had of the leftists in a 2009 interview with “The UP were guerrillas
that became a political party, but they did not stop being guerrillas. The order was to exterminate
all those from the UP that had ties with guerrilla groups”. ‘Pirata’ had arrived in the Plains in
1989, in the midst of the dirty war against the UP.
In December 1987 general Harold Bedoya Pizarro arrived in Villaviciencio as the commander
of the Army’s Seventh Brigade. Bedoya Pizarro was trained at the School of the Americas and
had extensive experience in counterinsurgency combat. According to news reports from that
time, from the start Bedoya Pizarro waged verbal war with the communist leaders and the UP,
accusing them of being the political wing of the guerrilla.
And meanwhile, the assassinations of political and agrarian leaders of Meta were not abated
under his command. To the contrary, the situation worsened. In 1989 alone 31 members of the
UP were assassinated, including Luis Eduardo Yaya Cristancho, the 52 year-old president of
the Union Workers’ Federation of Meta (Spanish acronym: FESTRAM) and ex deputy of the
Assembly of Meta for the UP.
During this time extremist groups from the right also appeared, and although they used different
names many attributed them to local variations of ‘Los Masetos’. According to the local
periodical, Oriente, in August 1986 the assassination of Reyes Malagón, the UP councilor for
Granada, was perpetrated by the group ‘Los Verdaderos Patriotas’ (The True Patriots) who were
responsible for other crimes committed against the UP. No one knew about this armed group
until the news outlet circulated a report revealing its origin: “We are herdsmen and farmers
from Ariari and Arauca, displaced by the FARC…We are not paramilitaries. Our businesses in
Guaviare have been ruined by the guerrilla and we promised to exterminate the FARC and the
Communist Party to put an end to their expansion which affects all of the plainsmen”.
While the presence of ‘The True Patriots’ was felt throughout Granada, the group ‘Los
Aguijones’ (The Stingers) circulated a black list throughout Ariari threatening assassination to
those who did not leave the region.
The UP militants found themselves in a difficult situation but their denunciations were
unsuccessful. Jorge González Acosta, then UP parliamentarian, angrily stated, “they are
assassins paid by the military commanders and local politicians of the Plains to kill all of the
popular leaders in the rural areas. The UP and leftist leaders aren’t the only ones, they are
targeting politicians from all parties”.
After a debate in Congress over the paramilitary presence in Meta, politician and analyst Hugo
Velásquez Jaramillo wrote the following in the periodical Oriente in July 1987:
“The explanation up to now has been that those groups are a replica of the guerrilla. In a way
we could affirm that some of the procedural mistakes the guerrillas made were a catalyst for
the multiplication of these auto-defense cooperatives. And some of these political leaders show
sympathy for that cause, especially the liberals…in Meta, for example, the obliging attitude of
representative Germán Hernández Aguilera, close ally to governor Ariel Infante, was reckless
and those who employed this type of armed solution instead of politically addressing the problem
believe that the problem lies in the other, which is what fuels confrontation.”
In light of the political analyst’s affirmations, Durán Dussán explained the situation in the
following terms: “Eastern Colombia finds itself in the hands of the FARC, its political wing
Patriotic Union, and other forces that are capable of receiving international recognition of
belligerent status and making the region sovereign”.
But while the temperature rose and fell within the political debate, the extermination of the
UP continued without stopping. In the following decade of the 90s the most recent wave of
paramilitarism came while the ashes of UP members were still red hot.
The FARC were accused of abandoning the UP and taking advantage of the extermination to
justify new offensives. In the Llanos, where they already had 13 fronts, they initiated a guerrilla
offensive where they took over towns, blew up ‘toll roads’, robbed businesses and banks and
extorted money from herdsmen and farmers.
The guerrillas also looked for ways to become more business-minded in order to combat the rich
and powerful alliance between the paramilitaries and drug traffickers that almost drove them out
of the Llanos. In a departure from their method in the 80s of simply taxing the production of the
coca leaf, in the 90s the guerrilla began to manage cook houses where the paste was processed,
charge to protect transportation routes, and they even began to tax the export of their own cargo.
It was clear that, as a farmer at the time reported to a documentary filmmaker, “Whoever
controls the coca wins the war”..
The New ‘Paras’
As mentioned, Héctor Buitrago came from Boyacá to Casanare and had founded his own small
auto-defense group and later allied himself with ‘The Mexican.’ In the 90s he became a powerful
landowner and the head of the Campesina Auto-Defense Group of Casanare (Spanish acronym
ACC). This group was the local chapter of the Castaño brothers’ auto-defense group, which
began in 1994, and included in its ranks José Baldomero Linares, aka ‘Guillermo Torres’, from
the auto-defense group of Vichada, Manuel de Jesús Pirabán, aka ‘Pirata’, and Pedro Oliverio
Guerrero, aka ‘Cuchillo’.
According to a report from the Vice President’s Human Rights Observatory, the ACC was
working with Los Carranceros, the men that protected Víctor Carranza’s properties. As they
went buying large stretches of land they extended their reach from Meta to Paz de Ariporo and
Hato Corozal in Casanare. The Observatory reports that according to witnesses from the zone
they acquired these lands at giveaway prices and took them forcefully.
The paramilitary groups of Víctor Feliciano and Jaime Matiz were present in Monterrery, in the
south of Casanare. Despite the fact that these organizations respected their borders, in the end
they found themselves in open confrontation.
Castaño’s Assault
On July 12, 1997, two planes, a Douglas DC-3 and an Antonov 32, landed at airport Jorge
Enrique González in San José del Guaviare, after a trouble-free flight departing from Urabá in
Its passengers, 87 paramilitaries trained on the Castaño brothers’ land, picked up their
equipment, guns, supplies and uniforms, like any other traveller. Although the ex-paramilitary
boss Elkin Casarrubia, aka ‘El Cura’, stated that, “the police and army were present, one could
see them from the airplane”, they passed by the anti-narcotics agents and the soldiers without
The group split up in San José – some got into a truck while the rest got on speed boats. The final
destination: Mapiripán, a small town lost in the borders between Meta and Guaviare. Between
July 15 and 20, the paramilitaries murdered, disappeared, tortured and plundered the area.
Although the exact number of those murdered remains unknown, it is believed around 60 people
were killed.
While the auto-defense groups were killing, the habitants desperately called the Army. Auxiliary
forces arrived late. When the first troops arrived on the scene, ‘El Cura’ said that an army captain
called him and said they were less than 10 kilometers away so it would be best if they left. “We
had established radio communication and everything was coordinated with the Army”, said the
ex-paramilitary soldier.
The Mapiripán massacre was a sign of change in the war. It was the first step towards national
expansion by the Castaño brothers and their United Auto-Defences of Colombia (AUC), which
had been created just four months earlier.
The AUC offensive in the Llanos sought to consolidate its profits off of livestock, extort money
from petroleum production and control the cocaine laboratories that dotted the region up to
Guaviare. It would not have been possible without the assistance of local ‘paras’, the Convivir
and the complicity of some businessman, soldiers and local politicians.
In Mapiripán, the men of the Buitrago family and the Convivir guided them. A few days
afterwards, after a combat, the injured men from Urabá were picked up by a white airplane
that ‘El Cura’ identified as ‘La Rebeca.’ According to ‘El Cura’ in his testimony as part of the
Justice and Peace process, the airplane belonged to Víctor Carranza. An alliance with ‘Jorge
Pirata’ was forged on May 4, 1998 with the massacre of Caño Jabón, where more than 20 rural
inhabitants were murdered. And in July of that same year, according to the confession of ‘El
Cura’, paramilitaries murdered 5 rural inhabitants in the town of La Picota and then fled to a
hideaway on a ranch named Brasil in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, which was also owned by Carranza.
A Setback and the Arrival of Arroyave
One event broke up the ACC: the massacre of 11 members of a judicial commission on
November 3, 1997 in San Carlos de Guaroa, Meta, carried out on the order of Héctor Buitrago
and Jaime Matiz. Buitrago was swiftly captured and the Castaño’s ACCU disowned him and
ordered the execution of Matíz.
Buitrago’s son Héctor, better known by his alias ‘Martín Llanos’, and Nelson Orlando
Buitrago, aka ‘Caballo’, then became the leaders of the ACC. The Castaño brothers found
themselves a new ally: Miguel Arroyave, aka ‘Arcángel.’ He was their townsman from Amalfi
and a drug trafficker with expertise in obtaining the chemical compounds needed to process
cocaine. According to various sources, they would sell the chemicals as if they owned a chain
supermarket or restaurant, making their product a brand name sold by Bloque Centauros in the
Llanos region controlled by the United Auto-defenses of Colombia. It is said that Arroyave had
to pay seven million dollars for the permission to sell in their territory.
Daniel Rendón, aka ‘Don Mario’, arrived at the same time as Arroyave and was also a drug
trafficker from Amalfi. They wanted to control drug trafficking in the Llanos, extort money from
millionaires, and snatch control of coca cultivation and processing laboratories in Guaviare from
the FARC.
Arroyave’s attack on the economy en Llanos was systematic: for every case of beer they
received 5,000 pesos; between 30 and 50 pesos per gallon of gasoline; 20,000 pesos for each
hectare of rice or palm; 20,000 pesos for each cow; and created ‘toll roads’ in Granada, San Juan,
Mesetas, Lejanía, Puerto Rico, Puerto Lleras, Mapiripán and Puerto Concordia.
And there were few political positions that they had not touched: governors, mayors, and
councilmen had accepted pacts, money or were intimidated. The list of those convicted,
investigated or implicated is long. Almost all of the governors or candidates for the governorship
were questioned for their proximity to this paramilitary block, including Edilberto Castro, Eusser
Rondón, Nebio Echeverry, José Alberto Pérez, Miguel Ángel Pérez, Óscar de Jesús López
Cadavid and William Perez Esquivel.
The growth of the Bloque Centauros became apparent in 2001 when they entered northern
Casanare and were able to run the guerrilla out of Paz de Ariporo, Aguazul, Nunchía and
Támara. But not only did they attack the guerrilla, they extorted money from landowners and
killed political and community leaders. The Centauros also fought with the ACC of ‘Martín
Llanos’ in a battle that left an astronomical amount of deaths, the toll of which the judicial
department puts at 1,000 youngsters.
Arroyave won that battle and took power over almost all of Meta. But his reign did not last long.
Because he resisted demobilizing with the other members of the auto-defense groups during
the negotiations with Uribe to lay down their arms, Arroyave was murdered by his own men
on September 19, 2004 in Casibare, Puerto Lleras, Meta, almost certainly at the orders of the
Castaño brothers.
The Bloque Centauros then split into three factions: one at the command of ‘Pirata,’ the second
at the command of ‘Cuchillo’ and the third with the largest amount of soldiers was led by
alias ‘Mauricio,’
In September 2005, 1,135 men from Centauros demobilized in the town of Tilodirán, a half hour
from Yopal. ‘Martín Llanos’ went to Santa Fe de Ralito as the representative of the auto-defense
groups of the Llano, but he never demobilized. ‘Pirata’ is in prison as a result of the Justice and
Peace process. ‘Cuchillo’ continued living the criminal life until 2010 when he was brought
down by a police operation near Mapiripán, Meta.
Today 95 ex-combatants, 18 middle ranking leaders and two ex-commanders are waiting to be
included in the Justice and Peace Law so that they can contribute to the clarification of around
3,000 homicides.
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