EL ESPECTADOR, August 29, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
There was an invasion of two thousand people who arrived in the area of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, known as La Lengüeta. They came to invade the property belonging to indigenous communities, and it results from a resurgence of the paramilitary war, which, in spite of the alerts, appears to be returning with a vengeance.
What the Colombian Army, the Police, and the Personería (City Services) could not achieve in responding to the complaints by indigenous people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta concerning the massive invasion of their territories, was accomplished by the armed groups that for decades have terrorized the people living there. More than two thousand people arrived a few days ago in the Kutunsama ancestral territory with the intention of staying. The Kutunsama people live in the Kogui Malayo Arhuaco Reservation. The government, represented by the agencies mentioned above, told the community they could not do anything, because there were “group interests much greater and more powerful”. The paramilitaries in the area published a pamphlet to the people who had just arrived, warning them that if they didn’t leave the area the paramilitaries would have to use force. In a matter of hours, the invaders departed in terror.
The invaders were from Guachaca, Palomino, Marquetalia, Puerto Nuevo, and Venezuela, according to reports from the Armed Forces. And, according to the people who dared to talk to El Espectador about the reality they are experiencing right now, the invaders had come responding to a proposal they had received: “There are properties here that belong to some “capos” and nobody is claiming them. You can just go in there and take them over.” That was the reason they listened to the “foreigners” who came up with the idea of staying there. Nobody knows for sure who the “narco” is who owns that land and who made the armed groups come in, but those who know the history of the properties in La Lengüeta, located between the Don Diego River and the rural area of Santa Marta de Perico Aguado, have some clues.
The first clue points to what’s going on with a farm that belonged to the brothers Miguel Ángel and Victor Manuel Mejía Múnera, known as Los Mellizos (The Twins) in the 90’s. They were both powerful drug traffickers who, in the 90’s, were partners of the paramilitary chieftain Salvatore Mancuso, with the support of the Vencedores del Cauca Bloc (The Conquerors of Cauca). They tried to get in on the Peace and Justice process, but it was decided that they were nothing but drug traffickers, and that for years they had sponsored the Castaños’ paramilitary movement. While Victor died in a confrontation with the Police in April 2008, Miguel Ángel was extradited to the United States in 2009. At that time, the Attorney General’s office undertook operations with the objective of seizing the properties belonging to Los Mellizos.
The investigators already have an ownership list of several properties that might coincide with the location of the recent invasion, and there are also some signs of the tracks left by the brothers in the Sierra Nevada. That’s where they founded the drug trafficking gang Los Nevados, which then moved to the frontier with Venezuela. A presence in the Sierra, in the Don Diego River, with its accesses to Cesar or La Guajira, was no accident. At least since the 60’s, in this luxuriant territory full of Colombian biodiversity where the indigenous Koguis, Malayos, and Arhuacos have always lived, there has also been a disputed center where armed organizations have never stopped fighting for the geographic and strategic corridors to develop their illegal economies.
Hidden by the jungle vegetation and the difficult access to the mountains, and with its easy access to the sea, the Sierra has always been an ideal location for coca plantings and drug laboratories. Besides Los Mellizos, another person who knew how to identify the advantages of such a holy site as the Sierra Nevada was Hernán Giraldo Serna, even long before the Mejía Múnera arrived in the area. The court decisions convicting Giraldo Serna, along with the investigations by the Attorney General’s Office, document that this drug trafficker was the brains behind the paramilitary heyday in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta in the 1980’s. That started with the creation of the Convivir Conservar Ltda., dedicated to carrying out “social cleansing” in the territory, a place that ought to have been protected by the government.
In the memoir of the armed conflict, Giraldo Serna is the protagonist of sinister histories and is part of the list of the bloodiest “capos” and paramilitary chieftains of the war. In September of last year, in the Peace and Justice Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Barranquilla, he was convicted of 32 crimes, including kidnapping, forced disappearance, illegal recruitment, drug trafficking, and seven varieties of sexual violence. That court decision condenses the whole history of this man, known by the alias “El Patrón” (“The Boss”); and “El Taladro” (“The Driller”); and “El Señor de la Sierra” (“The Lord of the Sierra”). He became the nightmare of hundreds of children that he seized, raped, forced to be prostitutes and have abortions. Under his command, sexual attacks of every kind became a form of social control in the Sierra Nevada.
The creation of the first paramilitary groups, after the decision of the Constitutional Court in 1997 that limited the Convivir and forced them out of business, is attributed to Giraldo Serna. He called them Campesino Self-Defense Forces of the Town (Vereda) of Mamey—in honor of the name of the place where the group was created—and after that the Campesinos of Magdalena and La Guajira (ACGM), when his power and the number of men in his ranks already had the proportions of an army. In spite of the name change, his objective was always the same: fight the FARC. The guerrillas killed his brother in 1984, and he decided that he would never forgive that, and that he would use his power to fight them. His power grew so great that in the Sierra Nevada a leaf could not flutter without his knowledge.
His hegemony lasted 15 years. The Castaño brothers were the only ones who could control him and his men, in another war that caused the displacement of at least 14,000 campesinos and the murder and disappearance of thousands more. In 2002 the Lord of the Sierra accepted the command of Salvatore Mancuso and Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40”. Both of them were key parts of the demobilization plan put forth by the Álvaro Uribe government to pay off the paramilitaries in a few years. Along with Castaño’s men, Hernán Giraldo demobilized in 2006 with the Resistencia Tayrona Bloc. He hoped to remain at liberty very soon and go back to his kingdom, but in the crisis of May 2008 he was extradited to the United States along with 13 other paramilitary chieftains.
Anyone who knows Hernán Giraldo knows that there are other realities in his long illegal history. In the archives of the prosecutors, for example, there is evidence that Giraldo and Jorge 40 paid thousands of young men to pretend to be paramilitaries, while the real paramilitaries went deep into the jungle of the Sierra. At least three sources consulted by this paper pointed out that those same fighters are the ones that are terrorizing the people today in a corner of the territory. And with the imminent return of “The Boss” to Colombia, the situation is even more tense. Even though Hernán Giraldo insisted in a video published by El Tiempo that he wishes to pass the rest of his life in peace and tranquility at his family’s side, the people of the region know that his power still lives.
Some of his relatives never left their land or their weapons. In December of last year, residents of the municipalities that had been haunted by him said that right now in the Sierra, it feels as if the ominous years of the paramilitary war and its cycles of death have returned: “We know that the big boss here was Hernán Giraldo and that when he was extradited his friends and family were still here and they have inherited all of his power. You can feel that, there’s tension and uncertainty. In places like Palomino what you breathe is an air of the cold war,” That warning is not for nothing. For two years, the Public Defender’s Office has been warning of a resurgence of the war in the area because of the Los Pachencas group.
The Public Defender’s Office, now directed by Carlos Negret, has warned about the heirs of Giraldo Serna’s men. They maintain alliances with the Caribe Office, a collection agency created by “The Boss” just before he demobilized, in partnership with the Envigado Office. It functions as the financial muscle of the illegal organization, as it receives the money from the extortion they charge the tourist sector and the “taxes” that they demand when land in the Troncal Caribe sector is sold. Besides Los Pachencas, the Public Defender has also warned of the presence of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces who apparently maintained good relations with the former groups until 2018, the year when a war broke out between the two gangs.
The detonator was the murder of a member of Los Pachencas by the Gaitanistas in revenge for the seizure of a drug shipment out of the country that ended up being confiscated by the authorities. Even though the residents of La Lengüeta knew that talking about them was practically suicidal, several of them told this paper that just as in the time of Hernán Giraldo, in the Sierra Nevada a leaf doesn’t flutter without the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Los Pachencas finding out about it. With regard to the latter gang, the authorities know that now they want to be called the Conquerors of the Sierra Nevada Self-Defense Forces. They are the authors of the pamphlet that came out in a question of minutes, directed to the invaders who thought they could remain in the territory that they control.
The authorities know about the resurgence of the war in the Sierra Nevada and the growing power of the armed groups, and they are scrutinizing it. But the murders increase faster than the advances in the investigations. In one single month two social leaders were murdered: Maritza Quiroz and Wilton Orrego. Both murders happened in January of last year, only nine days apart. In 2019 there was also a fire in a Natural Parks office, which protects not only the Tayrona Park but also the Sierra Nevada Park. At the end of the year, the country shut down the New Years parties with the news of the murder of Nathalia Jiménez and Rodrigo Monsalve, a young environmentalist couple spending their honeymoon in Santa Marta.
At the end of those same years, Tito Ignacio Rodríguez, Chief of the Sierra Nevada National Natural Park, went into exile because of the threats. He traveled to the United States along with his wife and two children. They were planning to reach Canada to request political exile. “Who wanted to kill you?” John Myer, founder of the organization ProSierra, asked him. He answered, “As you know, John, the Sierra is not an easy place to work. In a lot of parks in this country we have serious problems with public order, deforestation, illegal mining, and megaprojects too. But here in this Park we have areas that are very complicated.”
Last April another link in the chain of slaughter was added: Alejandro Llinás, a leader in the town (vereda) of Calabazo. He had warned about the dangerous outlook in the Sierra and the upsurge of the armed groups. The environmentalist had asked for protection and help from the government. He published his petition all over the territory, because he knew that all of the people were terrified. Even on the day of his murder he had called the Police to warn that he was in imminent danger. It took them 12 hours to arrive and they found him dead, with two bullet wounds. One of his most serious complaints stated that he had proof to demonstrate that a large part of the war strategies of the paramilitaries were being carried out with the complicity of the authorities.
In spite of the alerts by the Public Defender’s Office and from residents who predicted the return of the worst years of the war, the government’s answer keeps on being ballistic. The Governor of Magdalena, Carlos Caicedo, and the Mayor of Santa Marta, Virna Johnson, called a work group together, but the Arhuaco Town Hall of Magdalena and La Guajira characterized that effort as passivity. The indigenous people have complained about the constant failures of this government, and also of the Juan Manuel Santos government, to solve the problems like land ownership that caused the invasion. And whenever anybody shows up in the Sierra, the communities prefer to stay on the reservation in the density of the jungle, trying to find a way to negotiate some tranquility to enjoy the land that belongs to them.