By Nicolás Sánchez A., EL ESPECTADOR, May 31, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
General Víctor Álvarez and Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, responsible for the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade, warned then-Governor Uribe that such associations would generate more violence in Antioquia. At the time they both left the military base, thirteen of them had already been formed in Urabá. The following is an interview with the retired Colonel.
Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez was expelled from the Army after he complained that he suspected that General Rito Alejo del Río was connected to the paramilitaries. He had arrived on June 1, 1995 at the 17th Brigade, headquartered in Urabá, but his departure was precipitated by a report that he delivered to the Army’s leadership on May 31, 1996. The report exposed different episodes in which he had been able to tell that General del Río was not disposed to combat the paramilitaries. On June 1, Velásquez left the military base and on August 23, 1996, General Iván Ramírez Quintero, commander of the First Division, signed the punishment document. The Colonel was said to be a traitor.
An example of General del Río’s attitudes that made the Colonel suspicious happened in the midst of a Brigade inspection by General Manuel José Bonett. Del Río enumerated the enemies to be fought, but did not mention the paramilitaries. The retired Colonel relates how Bonett said to the General that everybody knows there are paramilitaries in Urabá, and how del Río responded that he was right. He said he just forgot to mention them. That was the end of Velásquez’ patience and he decided to turn in the report.
That story was known at the time, but while all of that was going on, Antioquia was beginning to experience a crucial moment for understanding the development of the armed conflict. Álvaro Uribe Vélez had taken over as Governor of the province in 1995, one year before the government of César Gaviria signed the decree that created the legal framework under which the Convivir Associations burst forth. Uribe was one of their promoters.
But the idea of arming civilians had opponents. In Urabá, Gloria Cuartas, the Mayor of Apartadó (Antioquia Province), along with General Víctor Álvarez, Commander of the 17th Brigade, and Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez were opposed to the creation of the Convivirs. They even warned the Governor several times about the explosion of violence that would come about in the region if the organizations were to be set up. There had already been signs of the fragile situation of public order when, in October 1955 Edgar Mauricio Plazas Niño, Secretary-General in the Apartadó Mayor’s Office, was murdered.
Álvarez commanded the 17th Brigade until December of 1995. His replacement was General del Río, about whom there were already rumors of his connections with the paramilitaries. When Velásquez left Urabá, his replacement was Colonel Jorge Eliecer Plazas Acevedo, who was also an ally of the criminal organization. It was then that the 13 Convivirs operating in the region were installed. The first one to begin functioning was the Convivir La Restauración. Uribe established it as a legal entity on July 17, 1996. Herman Arias Gaviria issued its license to operate on October 15, and del Río signed off his approval on the 17th of the same month. All of the Associations in Urabá started operating in 1997.
Much later, the paramilitary chieftains revealed that they controlled the Convivirs and they used them to account for the financial support of the armed group by the banana growers, cattle ranchers, and merchants. They also used the accounts to buy weapons, housekeeping and maintenance supplies, and to get intelligence information. Luis Fernando Claros Guerra, who was Vicente Castaño’s accountant, had his own Association, that he called Abibe, where Jesús Ignacio Roldán, “Monoleche” was one of the fighters. The legal representative of La Tagua in the Darien (another of the organizations) was Jaime Alonso Castrillon, who was convicted of financing the paramilitaries, as was Arnulfo Peñuela Marín, the representative of the Convivir Papagayo. Those associations allowed the consolidation of the paramilitaries in Urabá, where they displaced, murdered, and stole the land from thousands of campesinos. For example Turbo (Antioquia Province) is the municipality with the most applications for land restitution in the entire country, with 2,742.
Del Río and Plazas Acevedo were finally convicted by the courts, the first to almost 26 years in prison for the murder of Marino López Mena during Operation Génesis, which he commanded, and for which the Inter-American Court for Human Rights convicted the Colombian government. The retired general is on parole after applying to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Plazas Acevedo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli businessman, Benjamin Khoudari. Both of them were connected to the investigation of the murder of the journalist Jaime Garzón.
In the interview, retired Colonel Velásquez tells how they had warned Uribe about the risk, about who it was that was promoting the associations, and how the Army, under del Río’s command was no longer doing any intelligence about the Castaño family.
At what time did you start talking about the structures of the Convivirs?
When I arrived, in June of 1995, Governor Álvaro Uribe was starting to promote the creation of the Convivirs in Urabá. In the second half of 1995 the Mayor of Apartadó, Gloria Cuartas, General Víctor Álvarez, the Commander of the 17th Brigade, and I could see that this was not healthy for Urabá, because in that region the paramilitaries had arrived to remove with fire and fury anything that smelled of the guerrillas. Many of “Los Esperanzados”, who had demobilized from the EPL in ‘91 and made up the party called Esperanza, Paz, y Libertad (Hope, Peace, and Liberty), were working for the DAS in Urabá. The FARC were murdering them because they considered them to be traitors to the revolution. The FARC wanted to influence the banana plantations where a labor union from the prior EPL had moved in and was under the influence of Esperanza, Paz, and Libertad. That collective for self-defense, which is not justifiable, armed the Popular Commandos to retaliate against the FARC for the murders. Those Commandos were co-opted by Castaño’s paramilitaries. There was a boiling stew made up of people doing justice with their own hands. We told him that if the Convivirs were created, some would join the FARC and others would join the paramilitaries, but mainly, the paramilitaries because they had commitments with the big banana producers in order to avoid having the labor union receive any more concessions. Every time that Uribe would go to Urabá to talk to the Convivirs there would be a wall of contention from those three people. Álvarez left in December of 1995, I left in June of 1996, and Gloria Cuartas was left alone. So then the Convivirs were started in the second half of 1996. With time, it became clear that we were right; they were totally co-opted by the paramilitaries and they produced more violence, disguised in legality.
What were Uribe’s arguments?
It would make it easier for the Army to get immediate information from the civilians on the farms. That was his main argument that he used to try to convince us that it would be positive for us.
How did Uribe respond to your opposition to the Convivirs?
He just didn’t answer. We insisted, but he realized that he didn’t have any counter-arguments. The proof of that is that they couldn’t get them started while we were there. Afterwards they went ahead because they had del Río on their side . . .
Why did General Álvarez leave?
It was a regular transfer; he lasted a year in Urabá. That’s a funny thing, too; in that Brigade the generals only stay a year because there was a lot of tension, a lot of stress, and usually without your family. But when del Río came, a Brigade Commander stayed two years, for the first time.
Were there other sectors that tried to convince them to establish the Convivirs?
The banana producers and the big land owners.
You’ve said that you could see that the businessmen were inclined to support the paramilitaries. What role did they play in Urabá?
Yes, I could kind of smell that, and so, for that reason, I never talked to them. They would invite me to meetings, and I always made up an excuse not to go.
Do you know how the Convivirs operated in Urabá?
Well, sure. The Papagayo Convivir even had an office at the Brigade.
Did del Río help them with their installations?
I didn’t see that, but I’ve been told that he did that.
Did you clash with del Río over the Convivirs?
No, over the paramilitaries. We never talked with him about the Convivirs because they hadn’t even been started yet. And he didn’t promote them either, at least not in front of me, because he certainly knew where I stood. The problem was because I could see that he had zero inclination to fight against the paramilitaries. With time, I came to realize that not only was he unwilling to fight them, but that he had been their ally for a long time.
There were a lot of military opinions supporting the creation of a Convivir that General Alfonso Manosalva Flórez, Commander of the 4th Brigade, signed. What was the relationship between Brigades 17 and 4?
The 4th Brigade and the 17th Brigade share borders in their areas of responsibility. The 4th operates from Dabeiba toward the south and the 17th from Dabeiba toward the north; sometimes they had to coordinate operations. But more than that, even though Governor Uribe did not have command over the troops, he tried to assume it and some generals like del Río and Manosalva went along with it. Uribe had an every two-weeks or monthly meeting at the Governor’s Office with the military and the Police commanders. Monosalva and del Río always attended those. I’m sure that their ideas came out of those meetings.
Did you know about the House of Castaño at that time?
When I arrived I started to check on that and I could clearly see it, but the intelligence function at the Brigade was still at the diaper stage. They were seen as secondary actors, criminals yes, but nothing important enough for intelligence to keep in mind. Thanks to the work that I did with General Álvarez, they started to be seen as an actor that had to be considered. When del Río arrived, he let them alone, and he took me out of anything that had to do with intelligence.
And what work did he assign you to do?
He decided to manage operations, intelligence and civilian relations, and that I should manage logistics and personnel. Following the regulations more closely, the second in command would be responsible for everything, and to aid the Commander in everything. The Mayor of Apartadó, who had confidence in me, would always go to the Brigade and ask to talk to me, never with del Río, and that bugged him. Once he put a camera in my office to film all the people that came in to talk to me. He suspected that I was talking with who knows who, but mainly he wanted to know about it when the Mayor talked to me.
Had you identified the people that were committing crimes along with the Castaños?
No. We had some information, and we had read about the paramilitaries. Mainly, the intelligence was about contacts with the friends of Esperanza, Paz, y Libertad. They told me things about who was who, plus the Mayor of Apartadó, other mayors, a Councilman that represented the merchants, and some members of the Patriotic Union that told me about the paramilitaries. I took notes, and made them into a notebook.
Several Convivirs were made up of paramilitaries such as Jesús Ignacio Roldán, “ Monoleche”, and people close to the Castaños. Did the Governor’s Office and the Brigade know who they were?
As far as I could see, which was in December of ‘95, because
they took me away from intelligence, there was no data about who “Monoleche”
was or the others. One time, because of a massacre in Chigorodó, I had just
arrived there, I was in a phone call with a retired major that lived in
Medellín and he said he had a friend that could give me some information. A
half an hour later I got a call from a guy that identified himself as “Double
zero” and he told me “we’re cousins”, and I said “they don’t have anything to
say to me.” And I hung up. The Brigade never took any interest in doing
intelligence on the paramilitaries because they didn’t care about them, and we
didn’t get any intelligence information from the Division. It’s also true that
names like Roldán became known later, but at that time, the press never talked
 Administrative Department of Security (DAS in Spanish). This agency was found to have violated the law and was dissolved in 2011.