By Alejandra Bonilla Mora, EL ESPECTADOR, September 14, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Retired General Héctor Jaime Fandiño died last June without the legal system having reached a conclusion as to whether or not he took part in the massacre of eight people in San José de Apartadó in 2005. He commanded the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade when it executed “Operation Phoenix” with the participation of the paramilitaries. Five adults and three children were murdered in cold blood.
On February 21, 2005, in the towns (veredas) of La Resbalosa and Mulatos in Apartadó Municipality (Antioquia Province), Luis Eduardo Guerra, his partner Beyanira Areiza and Deyner Guerra Tuberquia, only 11 years old, were murdered in cold blood. Later Alonso Bolívar, Sandra Muñoz, and two children aged 5 years and 18 months, Santiago and Natalia, were also executed. They were members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. The legal system has determined that the massacre was perpetrated by members of the Army together with paramilitaries of the Heroes of Tolová Bloc. One of the highest-ranking individuals to be investigated was the Retired General Héctor Jaime Fandiño, but knowing whether or not he was responsible for this crime is now not an option.
Fandiño died last June 22 and, for that reason, on September 2, the Attorney General’s office concluded the investigations into his actions in a brief order issued by the Specialized Management Against Human Rights Violations. So Retired General Fandiño died without the clarification of whether or not he had taken part in the slaughter for which the Peace Community had held the Colombian Army directly responsible immediately after it took place. Fandiño was the Commander of the 17th Brigade at the time that Operation “Phoenix” and the “Ferocious” Mission had been commenced. It was allegedly directed against the paramilitaries and the guerrillas in the area and was led by soldiers like Retired Captain Guillermo Gordillo.
The operation was launched on February 17, 2005, but the legal system found that at least 150 soldiers were patrolling jointly with paramilitaries from a place known as Castañeda Hill. Fandiño, as Commander of the Brigade, had planned the operation, established the use of paramilitaries as guides, and had tried to avoid having his subordinates tell the authorities the truth. For example, Captain Gordillo, sentenced to 20 years in prison for the massacre after he confessed to the charges, said in the investigation that “General Fandiño ( . . . ) was informed that there would be civilian guides with the troops from the Vélez Battalion, but there was never any mention of them in the Operation Phoenix Orders.”
Captain Gordillo also said that the details of Operation “Phoenix” were explained to General (Mario) Montoya, then-Commander of the Caribbean Joint Command, so that he could approve it. “In those days, more precisely the 15th or the 16th, General Fandiño got back (from Bogotá) and now that the order for the operation had been explained to the Division Commander, General Fandiño, the only thing he did was verify that the order for the operation was in accord with what he had before he had returned with the corrections, said Captain Gordillo in amplifying his testimony in July of 2008. It is contained in a document in the file that has been made available to El Espectador.
In addition, Gordillo said that Retired General Fandiño had called him on November 5, 2007, to tell him not to make any mention of the civilian guides or of the paramilitaries in his testimony. “General Fandiño, who had talked with the civilian guide who was with me in carrying out the operation, that the Brigade had even sent him to the heliport owned by the Cooperative on February 25. After that he talked to me and told me that they most likely would want me to answer some questions, but that I should say that at no time were there any civilian personnel or guides or any other member of an illegal group. Later on I met with him in Bogotá, near the 13th Brigade, in an apartment, and he showed me the testimony of alias Melaza (Adriano José Cano Arteaga, a paramilitary who took part in the crime).”
It was only around March 21 of 2013, eight years after the massacre, that the Attorney General’s Office, by means of testimonial statements, made the connection between Retired General Fandiño Rincon and General Luis Alfonso Zapata Uribe (who has also died) for the crimes of homicide of a person protected by law, and criminal conspiracy. The testimony was given on the following April 19, and it was amplified on July 13, 2016, after years of insistence by the victims’ representatives to have the prosecutors analyze the role that those two high officials had played in the massacre. On July 14, 2016, the prosecutors decided not to issue an arrest warrant for Retired General Fandiño, believing that the evidence in the case was now completely collected, and therefore his arrest was not necessary.
The file remained on the shelf at the Attorney General’s Office until May 27, 2019. On that day the investigation was closed and the parties were advised that everything was ready for the decision on whether to accuse (file charges against) Retired General Fandiño or close the file. “The outcome of this disgraceful administration of justice is that these two generals have died without being charged,” said Attorney Germán Romero. He also explained that, with the effective date of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the Attorney General’s Office had suspended its activities. “The transfer to file the charges took place between the departure of Néstor Humberto Martínez and the takeover by Fabio Espitia (substitute attorney). It was a window of opportunity that lasted only a short time,” he added.
The victims’ representatives saw General Fandiño as the one responsible for incorporating the paramilitaries, together with the unit’s command staff, into the operation that resulted in the massacre. As well as permitting that the Francisco de Paula Vélez Battalion would join up with the paramilitary commandos, that they allegedly communicated with the members of the illegal group, and that they doctored the report that recorded the troop movements. Besides that, they had requested the Attorney General’s Office that would be charging them to instruct the witnesses to derail the investigations. With his death and the resulting conclusion of the case, no one will ever know for sure if Fandiño played a role in this serious crime.
The Attorney General’s Office is still proceeding against Colonels José Orlando Acosta Celis, José Fernando Castro, and Néstor Iván Duque, who gave their testimony in 2019. Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltrán, Major José Fernando Castaño López, and Sergeants Henry Agudelo Cuasmayán Ortega, Ángel María Padilla Petro, as well as Corporals Ricardo Bastidas Candia and Sabaraín Cruz Reina have all been sentenced to 34 years in prison. And 2d Lieutenant Alejandro Jaramillo Giraldo as well. And at least 29 paramilitaries have been processed in the Peace and Justice program.
Ten members of the military who have already been sentenced by the superior Tribunal of Antioquia and by the Supreme Court of Justice have submitted to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. They are free at this time, although they have yet to furnish the Special Court with any additional information and have not yet been summoned for any investigation by the JEP. Among them are a 2d Lieutenant from the squadron “Anzoátegui 1” Jorge Humberto Milanés, 2d Lieutenant Édgar Garcia from “Anzoátegui 3”, and Staff Sergeant Darío José Brango “Anzoátegui 2”, sentenced to 34 years in prison. In that case, the Peace Community has refused to participate in the JEP because they don’t think it will provide any real guarantees for the prosecution of the crimes committed against them.
The Peace Community was founded as such by the inhabitants of 17 towns (veredas) in 1997. It was their way of rebelling against the war. They don’t permit the presence of any armed actor in their territory—not even the Armed Forces—and they are the subject of protective measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and by provisional measures ordered by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in the year 2000. A few days after the massacre, then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez claimed that some of their members had been aiding the guerrillas. That resulted in the 2012 Constitutional Court order requiring him to retract the statement. And in 2019, the Council of State convicted the government of responsibility for the event and ordered the State to request the Community’s pardon.