By Nicolás Sánchez Arévalo, EL ESPECTADOR, May 24, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Documents from the Association of Special Vigilance and Private Security Services in Urabá reveal the role that the Cattle Ranchers Association played in that group, a group that was controlled by the paramilitaries. Among the ranchers mentioned were two important directors of that region’s Chamber of Commerce.
Cattle ranchers’ participation in financing the paramilitaries in Urabá is a chapter that has not been well explored.
Two weeks ago we learned that the Superior Tribunal of Antioquia, in a decision that restores eleven properties in Turbo, has requested that two banana producers, Rosalba Zapata and Felipe Echeverri Zapata, be investigated for their possible participation in the forced dispossession of land that benefited the company they owned, Bananeras de Urabá, S.A. Their names will be added to the list of banana producers mentioned and linked to criminal proceedings for their alleged relations with paramilitaries in Urabá. But less is known about the participation of the cattle ranchers in the paramilitary web that savaged and dispossessed the inhabitants of that area.
This paper examined some archives that reveal the participation of well-known cattle ranching leaders in the Convivir Papagayo that operated in the region. The organization took its legal refuge in Decree 356 of 1994, issued by the César Gaviria government, but the Convivir was controlled by the paramilitaries. That was disclosed by the former commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish), Hebert Veloza, or HH, who described how the Urabá Convivir was created to “collect funds in a legal manner so that the companies would not have any legal problems; so they would be able to pull the donations out of their accounting system and the transfer of the money would be legal.”
A telling detail in this relationship is found in the resumé of the paramilitary Jesús Alberto Osorio Mejía; it contains two employment references: the first is Fabio Arango Ramírez, one of the founders of the Cattle Ranchers Association of Greater Urabá (Aganar in Spanish), and the other is Roberto Hoyos Ruíz, who was President of the Banana Producers Association (Augura in Spanish) for eleven years. Osorio was sentenced in 2009 to three years in prison for aggravated criminal conspiracy, after his connections with the AUC’s Bananeros Bloc and his close relationship with Raúl Hasbún, the AUC’s former commander, were proved. After he was released from prison, he was murdered in Montería (Córdoba Province).
A certificate, dated March 9, 2003, to which we had access, shows a regular meeting of the Special Vigilance and Private Security Services Association of Urabá. (This was the name adopted by the Papagayo Convivir.) New members took their seats that day, among them Fabio Arango, former president of Aganar and Jaime Sierra, who would take the place of Gabriel Jaime Sierra Moreno, alternate on the Board of Directors of the trade association. Sierra Moreno was sentenced to ten years in prison for taking part in a criminal plan by the Castaño brothers to dispossess the black communities in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó River Valleys (Chocó Province).
Another certificate, dated July 12, 2004, relates to the telecommunications radios belonging to the Association. Seven devices of brands Yaesu, Icom, and Motorola were maintained by Cattle Ranching in Urabá for US Market (Ganaderías de Urabá E.U.). Alonso Hurtado Patiño, Director of the Convivir between 2003 and 2004, told prosecutors that among his duties “was to carry out the tasks assigned by the Board of Directors. Sr. Arango, who managed the Cattle Ranchers Fund, and someone named Sierra, a rancher in the area, were some of the members of the Board.”
According to the testimony that Hasbún gave to Specialized Prosecutor 103, attached to the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Rights Unit, when he and the Castaños decided to form a paramilitary group in Urabá, they had the support of the banana producers, the cattle ranchers, and the merchants. The former paramilitary commander gave the agency a list containing the names of 91 ranchers who had contributed money to the armed group.
At the end of 2004, the cattle ranching association formalized its entry into Papagayo by means of a letter, dated December 17, that Arango sent to María Fernanda Kerguelen Ardila, Director of the Special Services Association. “We accept the commitment as an organized trade association to pay the dues that we determine jointly, so as to obtain security through fully trained personnel in the service of the Security Company,” he emphasized.
Arango attached the certificate of the Aganar Chamber of Commerce. Several of the names of the Directors are conspicuous. For example, Adolfo León Zapata Betancur, the current President of the Board of Directors of the Urabá Chamber of Commerce. Among the alternates on the Aganar Board of Directors was the aforementioned Jaime Sierra. Also appeared Claudia Ángela Argote Romero, a purchaser of dispossessed property in Chigorodó, as pointed out by the Superior Tribunal of Antioquia. Then there was Alberto León Mejía, another Director, assigned by Hasbún to organize meetings to replicate the Convivir model in Magdalena, and thus finance the paramilitaries there. Besides that, there was Amador Caicedo Mena, the former mayor of Chigorodó (Antioquia Province) and a Democratic Center militant.
The letter was followed by a meeting of the Special Services Association in February 15, 2005. The President was Irving Jorge Bernal Giraldo, who was close to Hasbún, and who was convicting of taking part in the Castaños’ criminal projects in Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó, and of being for several years a member of the Augura Board of Directors. Bernal, as can be seen in the document, proposed “a change in the current Board of Directors in accordance with the new inter-association dynamic that we are building (…) The Board needs to contain the people that are leading the banana association, and we need to bring in other associations from Urabá.” At that time 33 cattle ranchers joined the Association.
The power of the trade association in that organization is made clear in an order signed by Gabriel Jaime Uribe Botero, the Director of Administration and Contracting in the Antioquia provincial government. The document, dated June 14, 2006, makes official the appointment of three principal members of the Board of Directors: Osorio and Bernal, allies of Hasbún, and Adolfo León Zapata. And as alternates, Antonio Arboleda, convicted of connections with the paramilitaries, Fabio Arango Ramírez, and Rodrigo Alberto Mejía Arango, manager of Cattle Auctions of Greater Urabá (Suganar in Spanish).
According to a decision by the Superior Tribunal in Medellín, the Bananero Bloc began to receive money from the ranchers in 1998 and “to accomplish that, Hasbún created Suganar and Aganar, led and managed by him and other leaders of the trade association. In that way they received the money and turned it over to the AUC.” “The money from the cattle ranchers, (to the Convivirs) came through Suganar at the time of payment for the vaccinations against foot-and-mouth disease,” points out the decision of the Superior Tribunal of Bogotá on the guilt of Hebert Veloza, HH. Sister Teresa Gómez, a paramilitary convicted of the murder of community leader Yolanda Izquierdo, admitted having been a Suganar shareholder.
We searched for Adolfo Zapata to get his side of the story, but he would not comment, even though we telephoned him and sent him a questionnaire. Fabio Arango died in January. We made several calls to Rodrigo Alberto Mejía, who was associated with Special Services. He did not answer; we sent him a questionnaire, but he did not respond. Mejía continues to be influential, since José Manuel Restrepo, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, in Decree 977 of 2019, appointed him an alternate to the Board of Directors of the Urabá Chamber of Commerce, representing the government.
“The companies represented by these people furnished money to the Convivir, with full knowledge that that money was for the purpose of financing the paramilitary groups that operated in the area,” stated Hasbún about the people that were connected with the Association before 2005.
Even though the Attorney General’s Office has filed away the investigations against the former Directors of Papagayo, because allegedly Hasbún’s involvement lasted only until 2004, after that year several of the paramilitaries’ supporters continued in the Association, such as Irving Bernal, Alberto Osorio Mejía, and Antonio Arboleda. These last two in 2006 continued to carry weapons furnished to them by the company, as can be seen in the document. The Association’s Director of Operations since 2005 was Eladio Atehortúa Grisales for whom Peace and Justice even collated copies so that he could be investigated for possible connections with the Miners Bloc of the AUC. We tried to speak with Kerguelen, who for years had direct responsibility in the Association, about the final years of operation of the company, but he did not want to be interviewed.
The Attorney General’s Office declared that the financing of the paramilitaries by the banana producers is a crime against humanity. “That money that those banana producers gave to finance the paramilitary group not only guaranteed its illegal operation, continuity, and expansion in the area, but it also permitted it to purchase weapons that were used to commit every sort of crime,” stated the investigative entity. At present there are ten Directors of Chiquita Brands being tried, but there have been no convictions of the business owners associated with Papagayo and little is being said about the role played by the leading cattle ranchers. “There is criminal conspiracy here and I’m the only one convicted,” said Hasbún in 2012, and what he said is still true.