By Nicolás Sánchez Arévalo, EL ESPECTADOR, July 4, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Edgar Payares Berrio became the Director of Chigorodó Alegre in 1997. It was a Convivir[1] that was integrated with the paramilitaries of the Banana-Growers Bloc in Urabá. In fact, among the associates in that organization was Raúl Emilio Hasbún, former commander of the armed organization, as well as several well-known business owners. Payares defends himself by saying that he only did “social work”.

Edgar Payares Berrio became the Mayor of Chigorodó (Antioquia Province) between 2012 and 2015, representing the U Party, which strongly supported him politically. He received support at the hands of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Juan Lozano, now the Director of RCN News. “He’s a steady man, fraternal, and with clean hands: the soul of transparency,” insisted Uribe about Payares. He also said they had been friends “since 1996”. For that campaign, Payares furnished a curriculum vitae on the internet, enumerating the positions he had held, even though he omitted one: on December 1, 1997 he was named legal representative of the Convivir Chigorodó Alegre, an organization that also contained members of the paramilitary groups in the region.

El Espectador haslearned of a series of documents that set forth the history of that  organization, which operated in Urabá. On October 28, 1996, Óscar Hernán Jiménez, the first legal representative of Chigorodó Alegre, applied to the Antioquia Governor’s Office for status as a legal entity. The person responsible for the legal review of the Convivir at that time was Faber Leonel Londoño Londoño, known during the war as “Gustavo Alzáte”. He was a trusted adviser of Raúl Hasbún, the commander of the Banana-Growers Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish). Álvaro Uribe, then the Governor of Antioquia, granted the legal entity status in a document signed on November 5, 1996. A month later, on December 6, General Rito Alejo del Rio (later convicted of being allied with the paramilitaries) requested authorization for the purchase of five submachine guns, ten 9mm pistols, ten revolvers, and twenty repeater shotguns for that Convivir.

Londoño also served as the statutory auditor for requests by other Convivirs that were organized at the end of 1996: Nueva Luz, Churidó, La Tagua del Darién, Papagayo, and Palma Real. He has told the Attorney General’s Office that he never signed any document approving those charges, but he admitted that he collected the contributions to the paramilitaries by the ranchers in the region. Londoño demobilized in 2004.

The legal system, in a number of decisions, has established that the Convivirs in Urabá made it possible for the AUC to receive money from the business owners. “The manner that Hasbún thought of for the collection of the contributions, with an apparent halo of legality, consisted in creating entities that could count on the blessing of the authorities and that permitted the members of the Self-Defense Forces to roam freely on the pretext of belonging to those organizations, even though everybody, even the authorities, knew that the Convivirs were simply the urban arm of the paramilitaries. At first these groups were called “Convivir Associations,” explained the Attorney General’s Office in a criminal complaint filed against several owners of banana businesses connected with the multinational Chiquita Brands, which did contribute to the paramilitaries.

Another fact that points to the irregularities in the conformation of Chigorodó Alegre is the way in which Óscar Hernán Jiménez became its first legal representative. “They made me sign,” he insisted in an interview with this newspaper, even though he refused to give any details, claiming that the Attorney General’s Office had questioned him about these events. He said that the ones who had made him sign were “people that belonged to an organization. It could have been the paramilitary groups. It was strangers that came to Chigorodó.”

Jiménez didn’t spend much time as Director of the Convivir. On December 1, 1997, according to an Antioquia government document, the position was taken over by Payares Berrio, a decision made by the board of directors. When we asked him why he didn’t include that information in the curriculum vitae that he published, he answered: “A curriculum vitae contains what is considered pertinent to the position. Because there was so much speculation about the Convivirs, which ones were legal, which ones were illegal, I didn’t see it as pertinent to include that name there.”

The events that connect Chigorodó Alegre to the paramilitaries continued. On April 30, 1998, María Lourdes Villa, a member of the Association of Special Vigilance and Private Security Services of Urabá (Asevsp), sent a document to the Office of the Superintendent of Vigilance and Private Security (attached to the Defense Ministry). In the document she requested renewal of the license of the Convivir directed by Payares, and also the licenses of the Coembera, Covitur, Una Nueva Luz, and Abibe organizations. She sent along with it a list of the members of Chigorodó Alegre. It’s striking that among the members appears the signature of Raúl Emilio Hasbún, who at that time was already the commander of the Banana-Growers Bloc. The signatures of well-known business owners in the region like Antonio Argote Bolaños, José Gentil Silva, Jaime Ardila Sarmiento, and Felipe Echeverri Zapata (The Superior Tribunal of Antioquia recently ordered him to be investigated for allegedly creating a rash of land thefts and having financed paramilitary groups in the region.) among others.

At that time, the Convivirs had to make changes because of a decision by the Constitutional Court in 1997. On August 20, 1998 they had to have a meeting in Apartadó (Antioquia). Some 300 representatives of the associations were in attendance and they requested the cancellation of the licenses for operations. However, in Urabá they had a plan B: they changed to Special Vigilance and Private Security Services and they joined together as Asevsp (also known as Papagayo). Payares himself handled the paperwork for the change of social purpose of Chigorodó Alegre, as required by the government of Antioquia, on March 9, 1998.

On October 6, 1998, Arnulfo Peñuela, Director of Asevsp, who ended up convicted for his connections with the paramilitaries, once again requested the renewal of the licenses for operations. In the documentation for Chigorodó Alegre that he attached, we see the curriculum vitae of Realvale Sepúlveda Corrales. That document reveals that Sepúlveda was recommended by Payares for entrance into the organization. Furthermore, in the personal references we see the names of Jesús Enrique Doval Urango, the former Mayor

of Carepa and former Congressman in the Cambio Radical Party, and Antonio Arboleda. Both Doval and Arboleda have been convicted for their connections with the paramilitaries.  Sepúlveda was known as “Alfonsito” when he lived as a criminal. He directed a faction of the Popular Commandos, armed groups that were later absorbed into the Castaño criminal organization. He demobilized along with the Banana Growers Bloc, under a decision by the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá.

Other curricula vitae that are found in the Chigorodó Alegre archives are those of the business owners Francisco Luis Castaño Hurtado, who had to give back land that he had stolen, and Jesús Emilio Manco Zapata, who has been accused by the Colombian Rural Development Institute (Incoder in Spanish) of occupying in bad faith some land on the banks of the Jiguamiandó River in Chocó Province.

When we asked Payares about his relationships with people connected to the paramilitaries who were part of Chigorodó Alegre, he responded: “That’s what you say, but in my case, I had no idea that it would turn out that way later on. It was not my business and not my responsibility (. . .) I don’t know anything about the things you are talking about.”

Another subject to clear up is the financing of Chigorodó Alegre, now that its general balance reports are under suspicion. In 1997, accountant Carlos Mario Jaramillo signed the document, but the space where the legal representative was to sign was left blank. The reports for 1998 and 1999 bear a signature that ought to correspond to the legal representative, who was Payares at that time, but the signatures look more like those of Arnulfo Peñuela Marín. The reports are signed by accountant Emma Eugenia Cadavid, who was also the statutory auditor for the Cattle Ranchers Association of Greater Urabá (Aganar in Spanish). That organization, according to a decision of the Superior Tribunal of Medellín, was created by Hasbún. The report for 2000 also contains a signature that looks like that of Marín on a line that was supposed to be for Payares’ signature and instead was used by the accountant Luz Mery Álvarez.

Payares withdrew from Chigorodó Alegre in 2001, and José Rodríguez Martínez took his place. His alleged signature is also very similar to Peñuela’s , as can be seen clearly on the report for that year.

With regard to that, Payares insisted “we didn’t manage the money. That was managed by Peñuela from Carepa. He was the financial director of the Convivirs. I don’t know anything about that.” His version is, “what they did there was social work, it was a legal process.” He also added that he arrived in that organization because of his work in the National Agricultural Industry Workers Union (Sintrainagro in Spanish). A document shows that Payares had been assigned a radio, model GP68 series 477TXNC733 and his code was “46”. We contacted Peñuela to find out his explanation about the possible falsification of signatures, but he did not answer our questions.

Absalón , who was the supervisor of Chigorodó Alegre, also referred to “social work” by the organization, such as road construction. However, he summarizes the work done by the company in a way that was different from what Payares said: “We simply were like snitches for the Police, for the Army, because you went all over,” he emphasized. He insisted that they went around the banana plantations every day and reported anything new to the Armed Forces and to Asevsp by radio. They were based in Carepa, just behind the 17th Brigade. He said in an interview with this newspaper that he never knew anything about connections with the paramilitaries.

The violence did not diminish with the establishment of Chigorodó Alegre; on the contrary, it intensified. According to the Victims Unit, 1996 was when the most people were affected by the armed conflict: 5,808. In the years that followed, the victims were counted by the thousands: 3,598 in 1997; 2,002 in 1998; 1,771 in 1999; and 2,100 in 2000. That municipality had 462 applications for land restitution. Besides that, the inhabitants remember the massacre perpetrated by the paramilitaries on January 8, 1999, when four people were killed. 

Payares also supported the special services of vigilance and private security when he was Mayor. In a letter that he sent to the Superintendent’s Office on February 28, 2007, he wrote that Asevsp “is playing an important role in terms of the principle of social solidarity. It collaborates constantly with the legitimate authorities of the government in the prevention, suppression, and prosecution of crime.”

A justice system that refuses to act

In 2013, the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá ordered: “that there be a criminal investigation of the members of the boards of directors of the nearly 15 ”Convivir” Private Security   Cooperatives that were functioning in Urabá, and that which were directly tied to the paramilitary movement, and  the Banana Growers Bloc of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces in Córdoba and Urabá.” However, Payares says that he has never been required by any authority to explain the role he played in the Chigorodó Alegre Convivir.

Even the Attorney General’s Office itself, in a criminal complaint filed against business owners connected with an affiliate of Chiquita Brands in 2018, emphasized that “paramilitarism, in the shadow of the Convivirs, turned into a macro-criminal organization, sowing bloodshed and pain in the history of Colombia.” Because of that the investigative agency compelled copies so that it could investigate the directors of the agency responsible for supervision of Vigilance and Private Security, mayors, governors, and “other officials of the executive branch for the years 1997 to 2004, regarding their official conduct, actions, or omissions, in the formation, oversight, and control of the Convivirs.” The investigative agency declared in 2017 that financing of paramilitary groups in Urabá by business owners is a crime against humanity.

In spite of the statements on the news and the court orders, impunity is almost total in this case. The Attorney General’s press office, when consulted by El Espectador, answered that, with regard to the order by the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá, “they ordered statements to be taken from approximately 65 members of those associations.” However, seven years later, they have taken only 25 statements. “Once we have all of the statements, we will analyze the possibility of opening an investigation and the eventual connection of these people by means of a formal investigation,” responded the agency. Neither have we heard of any decisions against the business owners in the region for the financing of the paramilitary groups.

Payares is under house arrest because of a charge against him for possible corrupt acts, misusing money appropriated for school transportation when he was mayor of Chigorodó. He was arrested in the midst of the 2019 campaign, when he was running for a third term as Mayor of Chigorodó on the ticket of the Alternative Indigenous and Social Movement (Mais) and he received the second highest number of votes. The victims of the paramilitaries in Urabá are still waiting for the Attorney General to explain to them who it was that financed and organized the criminal machinery that murdered, displaced, and stole land belonging to thousands of the inhabitants in the region.

[1] (Special Vigilance and Private Security Services) were created by the Colombian government as neighborhood watch groups but soon became part of the paramilitary organizations.

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