EL ESPECTADOR, October 30, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

There are three “macrocases” in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) that seek to bring in the people that were crucial points in the armed conflict. Urabá, Case No. 04, is probably the most complex of those three. The JEP hopes that this high official (now retired) can contribute toward the construction of the truth about that episode in the war.

In the last few days of September 2017, the retired General Rito Alejo walked free. He had already served nine years in a military prison, after the Attorney General’s Office had undertaken a formal investigation of the killing of the campesino and Chocó leader Marino López Mena. Paramilitary groups executed him on February 27, 1997 in Bijao, in the Chocó part of Atrato. The Attorney General’s Office charged the retired General because he failed to do what he ought to have done in his position of guarantor, since at that time he was the Commander of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade, and was responsible for public order in areas like Urabá and Chocó.

Del Río was known as the “Pacifier of Urabá” for his battle to the death against the guerrillas in that region. For years that region was abandoned to the violence, especially by the FARC. For years, human rights organizations have complained that Del Río had become an ally of the paramilitaries, which he denies. When he sought entrance to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Del Río agreed to appear whenever he was called by any of the agencies that make up the Integrated System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and No Repetition. And, by that route, he now has a hearing scheduled for next December 11 at 8:00 a.m. to talk about what he knew about the conflict during his time in Urabá, according to a document that EL ESPECTADOR has seen.

Ever since he was set free, Del Río, who has never admitted to any crime, has made clear that he would not accept responsibility for anything. Nevertheless, at least on paper, the commitment he made in order to receive this kind of legal benefit is to furnish the truth for the victims. And Justice Nadiezhda Henríquez, who manages the “Territorial Situation in Urabá, Case No. 04”, determined that his testimony could be worthwhile for this complicated matter, which seeks to investigate “the events constituting the serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in the Urabá region between January 1, 1986 and December 1, 2016”.

This is not the first time that Justice Henríquez, who has been in charge of Case 04 since September 11, 2018, has summoned retired General Del Río for a proceeding to furnish his voluntary testimony. She did it for the first time on October 29, 2019, but the proceeding was suspended, according to JEP documents, for reasons having to do with public order, and rescheduled for April 20 and 21 of this year. At that time, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 30,000 deaths and counting, and the isolation required by President Iván Duque’s Decree beginning at the end of March was the reason that the proceeding could not take place.

Case 04 goes like this: “Up to now, 249 people in active service, retired, or separated from the Armed Forces (Colombian Army), former members of the FARC-EP, and civilian third parties have been connected with and mentioned in the Territorial Situation in the Region of Urabá, and the reports that involve them have been transmitted, placing their files at the disposition of the Court.” There have been five collective proceedings for the construction of the truth, focused on the first decade of the armed conflict in Urabá. One hundred ninety-three orders requesting information have been issued. No fewer than 284 judicial files have been inspected; 30 reports by victims’ or human rights organizations have been annexed; and 45 voluntary testimonies have taken place.

Among the victims accredited in Case 04 are 37 from La Chinita, which became an invaded neighborhood in Apartadó (the Antioquia part of Urabá) and now is known as the Obrero neighborhood. There the FARC Commando 5 group arrived on January 23, 1993, to machine-gun 35 people, including a woman who didn’t want to be separated from her husband. The victims of the FARC, who carried a list of names of people to kill, were demobilized from the EPL who had been part of the Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace, and Freedom) movement. With the La Chinita massacre, the FARC began an intense persecution against the former guerrillas, considering them to be traitors to the revolutionary cause.

“Beginning August 13, 2020, the JEP has been receiving testimony in these proceedings and looking for potential witnesses to bolster their storehouse of probative evidence. These and other elements of persuasion that rest in the file, lead to a decision about useful voluntary testimonies that may be necessary and pertinent in this period,” explained the Justice in the document that ordered retired General Del Río to testify. For his part, he made a couple of public appearances last year to criticize even former President Uribe, who in 1999 organized an event to express “an apology” to Del Río when the Pastrana government ordered him to leave the Army. Given his prominence in military  intelligence, his retirement order was a blow to the Army’s pride.

“We have evaluated the usefulness, the necessity, and the prospect of getting results in scheduling a new date in the near future for the voluntary testimony proceeding for this party, Rito Alejo del Río Rojas (…) and we find that his statement about his role within the command of the 17th Brigade from December of 1995 until December of 1997 could be useful in bolstering the findings of the Recognition of Truth Branch during that period within the framework of the investigation of the Territorial Situation in Urabá”. That, according to Justice Henríquez, is the principal reason for summoning Del Río, who on previous occasions has demonstrated no interest in cooperating with the Integrated System of Truth, Justice, Reparations and No Repetition.

“You twist everything, so it’s going to be very difficult to go there.” That’s what Del Río himself told members of the Colombian Armed Forces Reserve Society at an event in 2019, and that’s how he answered Fr. Francisco de Roux, the President of the Truth Commission when they invited him to testify there. “Father, with all due respect, they make the laws we have to obey, they give us orders we have to follow, they give us a deadline for carrying them out, and after we carry them out they tell us that we’re criminals. But then the criminals are the members of Congress and the Presidents that got us into all this,” Del Río added then.

In addition, the retired General is not just going to get questions about Urabá. “This office understands that the party who will appear is also aware of events that may be of interest with regard to Case No. 06—(The Victimization of the Members of the Patriotic Union Party) and given that this is a prioritized case in front of the JEP Recognition of Truth Branch, the Justice in charge is obligated to contribute to generating ways of harmonizing and doing collaborative work in the best interest of justice,” observed Justice Henríquez. For that reason, the order to appear also makes clear that the proceeding has invited Gustavo Salazar, the Justice in charge of pursuing Case 06. He will be able to ask the retired General questions when he is finished talking about Urabá.

In 2018, the Attorney General’s Office issued a warrant for the arrest of Del Río for the massacre at Mapiripán, committed in 1997 by paramilitaries that traveled to this remote municipality in Meta from Urabá. There are at least three witness statements from former paramilitary chieftains (alias H.H., Elkin Casarrubia, and Raúl Hasbún) that have stated that Del Río was the ally of the Castaño brothers, and that he carried out an essential role in getting the paramilitaries from Urabá to San José del Guaviare in an airplane. There are two retired officers convicted for those activities: retired General Jaime Uscátegui, now also free after submitting to the JEP, and retired Colonel Hernán Orozco, who has gained asylum in the United States. Will Del Río cooperate with the JEP? We will see.

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