EL ESPECTADOR, April 17, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Three decades have passed since this municipality in Norte del Valle Province was marked by barbarism; however, its people know from memory how the narco-paramilitary alliance managed to put it together. The memory of Father Tiberio Fernández Mafla remains intact.
Thirty years ago, about two o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 17, 1990, Father Tiberio Fernández Mafla, the parish priest of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Trujillo (Valle Province), left for Tuluá in a Daihatsu jeep, together with his niece Ana Isabel Giraldo, the architect Óscar Pulido, and a parish employee, Norbey Galeano. Their purpose was to attend the funeral of the political leader Abundio Espinosa, murdered the day before. When they were going back to Trujillo they were stopped by some armed men and, from that moment, they were never seen again.
Five days later, the 23rd, in the District (corregimiento) of El Hobo in the Municipality of Roldanillo (Valle Province) the body of the priest, shot and mutilated, was found floating in the waters of the Cauca River. The other bodies were never found and remain labeled “disappeared”. The event caused a national commotion, but the people in Trujillo had known for a long time that that the Cauca River was filled with the bodies of the dead. Four campesinos that helped recover the body and later attended the priest’s funeral were also murdered.
It was the final days of the Barco government, and in the midst of the narco-terrorist war declared by the Extraditables, the Trujillo event scandalized the country. Nevertheless, the community of this Municipality and of the towns of Riofrío and Bolívar made sure to remember that these selective crimes had been going on since 1988, without the authorities paying any attention to their complaints. The Inspector General’s Office of Special Investigations decided to confront the situation and began to expose the routine of crimes that some members of the Armed Forces were supporting.
Some time later, with the support of the Ministry of Justice and Public Order, they were able to establish that a large part of this wave of murders was associated with two capos of the Norte del Valle cartel, who were posing as ranchers in the region: Diego León Montoya Sánchez, alias Don Diego, and Henry Loaiza, alias El Alacrán (The Scorpion). Working from the ranches La Granja, Las Violetas or Villa Paola, the drug traffickers had the support of officers from various Police stations in the region, and of some members of the military in the Palacé Battalion, attached to the Third Brigade.
However, the investigations by the authorities concentrated on revealing the homicidal path that unfolded between March 20 and April 17, culminating in the murder of the priest, Father Tiberio Fernández Mafla. And what they found was that the events that set off the attack by the illegal group were the killing of several Police Inspectors in Obando, Trujillo, and Buga, and a combat between the ELN and the Army. That last action took place in the town (vereda) of Playa Alta, in the District (corregimiento) of La Sonora, in which seven soldiers lost their lives.
Two days later, in the early morning of April 1, the illegal group burst into the District of La Sonora and seized eleven residents who were never seen again. A witness told prosecutors later that on that same day the eleven were taken to the La Granja ranch, where they were tortured and their bodies, cut in pieces, were thrown into the Cauca River. But the narco-paramilitary group didn’t stop there. There were selective murders and disappearances almost every day. The only voice raised in protest was the voice of Father Tiberio Fernández Mafla.
Since 1985, the priest had been assigned to Trujillo, and what followed was pastoral engagement amounting to making complaints in the region. He was from Riofrío, as you can read in the profile about his life and work included in the book Aquellas muertes que hicieron resplandecer la vida (These are the deaths that made life resplendent). From a very young age, he stood out as a campesino leader and as a student at Buga University, created by the Company of Jesus. Later he traveled to Israel to familiarize himself with the kibbutz experience. When he was ordained as a priest, he decided that would be a good alternative for his region.
Father Tiberio Fernández was ordained in 1977 and carried out his ministry in Tuluá and Andalucía. In 1985 he arrived in Trujillo, where he began to promote the creation of community businesses and rural microbusinesses. His leadership was notable and, because of that, when the mafiosos, paramilitaries and Armed Forces Units worked together to impose their reign of terror, he didn’t hesitate to stand up in his pulpit and denounce it.
From that moment the threats began. They circulated reports from military and police intelligence that accused him of supporting the ELN. He paid no attention to the complaints and the pamphlets against him up to the time when they killed him. On the day of his funeral, the then-Bishop of Armenia, Monsignor Rodrigo Arango, summarized the meaning of his sacrifice in a few words: “When he faced the danger of ferocious wolves, he refused, like a good shepherd, to abandon his congregation, and that’s why, not caring for his own life, he died standing up for his flock.” The violent death of Father Fernández Mafla and the disappearance of those who were with him marked the story of Trujillo, but it failed to banish the reigning impunity.
Up until his capture in 2007 and his subsequent extradition to the United States, where he was sentenced to 45 years in prison, the capo Diego León Montoya was one of the principal promoters of the violence in Norte del Valle Province. In a crucial moment in the development of drug trafficking, h even played the lead in a violent dispute with his ex-partner, Wilber Varela, alias Jabón. While he was consolidating the narco-paramilitary group Los Rastrojos, Montoya Sánchez was leading Los Machos. Dozens of families in Norte del Valle were left in mourning because of this separate war.
As to Henry Loaiza Días, alias El Alacrán, in 1995, when the Samper government was leading an offensive against the narcos in Cali, Loaiza and other leaders of the Norte del Valle cartel surrendered to the authorities and were sent to prison. Like the other narcos using the back door of Statute 81 of 1993, created to make permanent the policy of submitting to the legal process, which had been pushed in the Gaviria era, he tried several times to clear up his accounts and serve just a few years. But the murders in Trujillo always pursued him, and he was incarcerated for several years.
Between procedural haggling and the prosecutors’ difficulties in determining the exact number of actions to be attributed to El Alacrán, he was finally released. Nevertheless, in 2019 he was arrested again, this time accused of continuing to commit crimes, now by supporting the La Constru gang in the Putumayo region. During the time he had been at liberty, the residents of Norte del Valle reported having seen him going around the region where he had sowed terror. The people that live in Trujillo still make a face when they pronounce his name.
Faced with the prevailing impunity regarding what was later discovered about the Trujillo massacre, President Samper in 1994 agreed to the creation of an investigative commission made up of the government, several nongovernmental human rights organizations, the Catholic Church, and the Inspector General’s Office. The Commission documented everything that had happened. The Samper government accepted the government’s responsibility, and new investigations were opened, but the victims’ families made clear that this initiative came up short, considering the reality of what took place.
Headed by a nun, Martize Trigos, the Association of Families of the Trujillo Victims (Afavit in Spanish) not only was able to erect a monument in honor of the victims, but also persisted in the search for the truth, because everybody knew that impunity had achieved its goal. For its part, in 1992 the Intercongregational Commission for Peace and Justice took the case of the violence suffered in Trujillo to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH in Spanish). In April of 2016 an amicable resolution was reached. The CIDH found the Colombian government responsible, and awarded damages to the victims.
Now 30 years have passed since the residents of Trujillo experienced this tragedy. As Aldenivier Cano, another of the leaders of Afavit, has emphasized, “the massacre was an alliance between the drug traffickers, the Army, the Police and some paramilitaries,” and that can never be forgotten. The name of Alirio Antonio Urueña, a retired Army major, who as one of those responsible for what happened there, at least constitutes a judicial nexus for insisting on the truth; but in Trujillo they know that he was not the only government agent that was involved in that terrible chapter.
But for the memory of the priest, Tiberio Fernández Mafla, the words of farewell by Monsignor Arango on the day of his funeral still ring in the conscience of this country: “They denied him all respect for his character as a decent man. They completely devalued his dignity as a human being. They ignored with sacrilegious cynicism his priestly investiture as a good pastor. They not only cut short his life, but they disfigured him and left him, as Isaiah says of Christ: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”