By Juan David López Morales, EL TIEMPO, April 26, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
On a terrace of the formerly emblematic Hotel Nutibara in Medellín, during a meeting of notables of Colombian society of former days, some of whom still figure in our national life, they would have made the decision to assassinate the demobilized M-19 commander and presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro Leongómez.
There would have been as many as eight people that decided, not just on this assassination, but also on others, such as the leaders of the leftist Patriotic Union Party, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, and José Antequera.
This is the hypothesis that the Attorney General’s Office is working on to investigate Pizzaro’s assassination, which took place on April 26, 1990, 30 years ago, in an Avianca plane that covered the Bucaramanga to Bogotá to Barranquilla route.
Because of that, between December and February, judicial investigators went to the Hotel’s historical archive, in the basement that connects it to the rooms in the Nutibara, in the very center of Medellín.
It isn’t an organized archive, nor is it in the best condition, but there, in the books for 1989 and 1990, they are searching for information on the guests of that time, most of all on well-known personalities that would have met on certain days. And also, for the calls that they made, how many times they came, and whether there is any record of their activities.
The hypothesis is that some of those people “directed the macabre arm of the DAS, headed by Maza Márquez (then the Director of that security agency), and who acted jointly with the Castaño Gil family, which carried out the crimes” against figures of the political left, says the investigator in charge of the case.
Although they will not reveal the names, the investigators add that allegedly they were business executives, industry leaders, politicians, high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces, and members of the clergy.
Carlos Castaño had already suggested that in an interview that was published as “Mi Confesión” by the journalist Mauricio Aranguren, when he was talking about a group of the “crème de la crème” of society. “Don Berna”, in his testimony before the Peace and Justice Unit, also talked about the “Group of Six”, that served as “consultant” for the paramilitaries.
Even though the paramilitaries in their testimonies did mention the supposed connection of the murdered Bishop of Cali, Monsignor Isaías Duarte Cancino with some of the chieftains of the Self-Defense Forces, the Attorney General’s staff believes that he was not the one who knew about the Pizarro assassination, and that that would have been another prelate.
After his death, people close to the case said that Monsignor Duarte Cancino met with the paramilitary boss Carlos Castaño with the authorization of the Colombian government, and that the meeting was part of efforts to make peace. Because of that, the prosecutors are investigating the hypothetical existence of a different prelate that supposedly was part of the circle of the so-called “notables” and who might be aware of several assassinations.
That person, say the investigators, whose identity has now been established, has died, but when he was alive he had demonstrated his ideological agreement with the Self-Defense Forces.
These investigations became important to the Pizarro case after, in 2016, a man, demobilized, who had been powerful in the M-19 group, and whom the prosecutors believe to be “entirely credible”, provided two names. The investigator describes this witness as an “architect of the National Constituent Assembly” of 1991 and says they have now identified those names through their own investigation.
Once they began to verify the things these people were doing 40 years ago, they found connections and alliances that appear to support the hypothesis that that group of the powerful did exist. Its members, however, have never been investigated. “Our goal is to reach the highest point in the pinnacle of the organized apparatus of power that ordered the assassinations,” says the investigator.
The only convictions for the assassination of Pizarro Leongómez were against the paramilitary leaders Fidel and Carlos Castaño Gil, both deceased.
In the last decade, the case has been moving more than it was in the first 20 years. María José Pizarro, the leader’s daughter, who has become a symbol of the difficult peace with the M-19 guerrillas who brought in the 1991 Constitution, admits that.
She returned to Colombia in 2010 after eight years of exile in Spain. It was after her return that she was legally recognized as Pizarro’s daughter, and was admitted as a civil party to the legal proceedings. Then she began to exert pressure and, that same year, two decades after the assassination, the crime was ruled to be a crime against humanity.
Now a Representative in the Chamber, she says, “Those first 20 years, the case was practically closed.” Now that she is in Colombia, she is able to “push the case forward significantly.”
She even insists that she has done part of the work that the Attorney General’s Office did not do in those first years. She was able to obtain some testimonies, and her documentary, “Pizarro”, was even included as evidence in the case.
María José has pressed the Attorney General’s Office not to slow down the work on the case. She says that at various times it had arrived at dead ends. It was she and her legal team that requested that the case of Bernardo Jaramillo—murdered a month before—and that of Carlos Pizarro be handled in the same office because of the common patterns between them. The same tests that are being carried out could be useful in both investigations.
For her, the expectation has always been that the legal system will reach the final consequences with respect to who it was that ordered Pizarro’s assassination. “That boy that assassinated my father is almost one more victim of that system; he’s a person now engulfed in misery,” she reflects.
More is known about the ones who pulled the trigger than about the ones who ordered the killing of Pizarro and of so many other personages in public life, people who were critics of the government and of those who held public power unlawfully.
That truth “would contribute more to Colombian society,” she says. For that reason, she asks that the prosecutor in charge of the case not be relieved. There are some doubts that he will continue on the case, because he has been transferred to take charge of a section that is located outside of Bogotá.
She also requests that all of the cases be investigated equally, not just that of Álvaro Gómez—mentioned by President Duque at the ceremony when Francisco Barbosa took up his post as Attorney General—but also that of Luis Carlos Galán, one of the most advanced, and her father’s case as well.
In the hands of the JEP
The ex-director of the DAS, Miguel Maza Márquez, was ordered in 2017 to furnish certified copies of pertinent documents related to the Pizarro assassination. Not only the prosecutor responsible but also Attorney Juan Carlos Niño, who represents the civil party in the case, agreed that nothing has happened in the Supreme Court of Justice in regard to this order.
Two other cases have come out in recent years. Four people are involved in one of them: the former DAS officials Manuel Antonio González Henriquez, who was the director of protection, and Flavio Trujillo Valenzuela, in charge of public corporations; and two private citizens, retired military officer Elías Hernando Salas, who worked for Carlos Castaño and had taken the murder weapon to El Dorado airport; and the Avianca contractor Ernesto Munarriz Salcedo, that last person to inspect the flight before it was boarded, in spite of the fact that that was not part of his duties. The weapon was hidden in one of the plane’s bathrooms.
The other case is against Jaime Ernesto Gómez, DAS agent who was part of the protection unit for Carlos Pizarro at that time. Prosecutors accuse him of having killed the hit man in the act in order to silence him. His is the only case that has gone to trial and he remains in custody at La Picota prison.
The case was just two witnesses short of arriving at closing arguments, but on September 5, 2019, one day before the elapse of the statute of limitations, Gómez and his attorney applied to be allowed to submit to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) as a government agent different from the Armed Forces. His case in the ordinary justice system was suspended then.
On January 14 of this year, the Branch for the Definition of Legal Situations in the JEP undertook the study of his application, but it asked Gómez to present his proposed program for conditionality. In that proposal, he would have to show how he would be advancing the whole truth and nothing but the truth and, different from the ordinary justice system, how he plans to make reparations for the victims and assurance of no repetition.
EL TIEMPO communicated with Gómez’ attorney and assistants, but they claimed that they would not make any comment on a pending matter.
For his part, Attorney Niño says that, if the JEP accepts Gómez, he will argue on his behalf “that an attack on a person who is working for peace is an act that is related to the armed conflict.”
“We were at the point of getting a conviction of the ex-DAS agent,” says Pizarro; that’s why she is concerned that the case has been halted for so many months. If the JEP decides that it has jurisdiction of the case, “we will ask that it be speeded up, so that the rhythm isn’t lost.” She insists on pressing ahead before any legal forum that has anything to do with this so that, more than 30 years later, the truth about the assassination will come out.
“We don’t want to have to wait for decisions by international justice systems, and that is where we are now” says the leader’s daughter. Last year the complaint against Colombia for the impunity in this case was accepted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It will decide whether the case can go to the Inter-American Court.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s Office expects to finish reviewing the files of the Hotel Nutibara, but its work is now suspended because of the obligatory isolation. It also wants access to the archive for the period from a company that, in those years, was in charge of protocols, banquets, food and drink in the hotel, to see if there is information about the meetings where they must have been deciding to perpetrate this assassination that continues to find no justice.
This time the tributes will be virtual
Even though this year we won’t have “that moment of affection that is so necessary” that Pizarro’s friends and family experience every year on every anniversary, his daughter María José says that the commemoration will have two messages: one about impunity and the other about his legacy and his memory as social vindication.
On Saturday, on their social networks, they sent a conversation with the lawyers who are handling the case. And this Sunday, the New York Film Festival will show the documentary “Pizarro” at 5:00 p.m. Later on there will be a conversation between María José Pizarro and the director of the documentary, which will be shown again at 9:00 pm by Canal Capital.