By Alberto Donadio, invited columnist “Los Danieles”, January 10, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
At the beginning of 1950, Virgilio Barco had not yet married his gringa fiancée, Carolina Isakson. He was 28 years old and was a Liberal Party Representative for Norte de Santander in the Chamber of Deputies when his friend and fellow Party member, Victor M. Pérez was murdered in his birthplace, Cúcuta.
Barco wrote to his fiancée, who was studying in the United States, “I have been terribly upset. This man, who has made his simple and humble life a continual witness in the service of his ideas, was viciously murdered simply because he was a popular leader that made the governing party uncomfortable. This is gangsterism.”
As has happened with several generations of Colombian politicians, Barco was surrounded by violence ever since he started his career as a member of Congress, after his typical debut as member of the City Council, and until he ended up as President of the Republic 40 years later. Shortly after the murder of his fellow Party member, he started receiving death threats. He left for the United States, where he received a degree in economics. In the ‘40’s he had already received his engineering degree from MIT in Boston. When he returned in 1954, he saw the end of the conservative violence, the ephemeral ascent of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, and the birth of the National Front, a peace pact between the two enemy parties. Throughout the so-called “regime of shared responsibility”, he was a Senator, a Minister, an Ambassador, and the Mayor of Bogotá.
In 1986, when he was elected President, the violence continued. But it was a different kind of violence. Now it wasn’t settling scores between liberals and conservatives, but rather between the Army and the leftist guerrillas, and between the government and the drug traffickers. During Barco’s four years, murders, combats, and terrorist acts multiplied. During his administration, according to the National Police, nearly 78,000 people were murdered, 250 police officers were shot to death, 19 car bombs were exploded, leaving 300 victims, and there were more than 125 dynamite attacks on oil pipelines.
The political violence was the most disastrous. It pursued, harassed, and practically eliminated the leftist group, Patriotic Union (UP), which in 1985 had signed a peace agreement with his predecessor as President, Belisario Betancur. More than 3,000 people were murdered, according to the National Center for Historical Memory. A decision by the Peace and Justice Branch called it “political genocide.”
How the drop-by-drop murder of the UP surged and developed is one of the most concealed chapters in our recent history. The most serious thing is that there are reasons to think that President Barco played a determining role in the extermination of this group, which was close to the Communist Party.
A spy called Rafi
To lay it bare, it will be necessary to put together a series of clues that up to now have been kept strictly secret. All of them lead to an Israeli agent that Barco hired to combat the violence. His name was Rafi Eitan and of his silent passage through Colombia there were vicious consequences but very few tracks.
He was born in 1926 in what is now Palestine, and died in Tel Aviv in 2019; he was a politician, a bureaucrat, a businessman, but above all, a spy; a legendary spy who in 1960 commanded the kidnapping operation of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires carried out by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Returned to Israel, Eichmann was tried and sentenced to death.
Later Eitan specialized in the struggle against terrorism, and in his country he managed the Office of Scientific Relations, another Israeli espionage agency.
His history reveals that he was always a spy with a real license to kill, not one of those in the movies dedicated to seducing blondes in fast cars, but rather one of those that finds reasons of state or patriotic sentiments to end the lives of other people. In an interview with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he said that if the kidnapping of Eichmann had failed, he had already decided to kill him himself. “The commando was armed then?” they asked him. “No,” he answered, “The easiest way to kill somebody is to break his neck.” For him, “every intelligence operation is an alliance with crime.”
Eitan took part in hunting and eliminating the Palestinians who murdered the Israeli athletes in Munich during the 1972 Olympic games.
Virgilio Barco met Eitan when Barco was Colombia’s Ambassador in Washington (1977-1980). They became good friends. Barco was interested in the kind of jobs that Eitan did, and the contact turned into a secret operation when, in 1986, the man from Cúcuta was elected President. (To learn the details of the unorthodox manner in which the Israeli agent was hired and paid, consult an article published in El Espectador, 13-14 XII. 2020)
Two unreported meetings
The connection between Eitan and the Barco government and its effect on the recent history of Colombia has as its inflection point two meetings that took place in the first months of the new administration. They allowed the President of the Republic to hire in pectore a foreign intelligence agent who did not speak Spanish and was not expert in Colombian issues so as to be able to give advice on the best way to combat the guerrillas.
The first meeting took place a little after August 7, 1986. In the presence of Germán Montoya, the Secretary-General of the President’s Office, in a very limited conclave in the Presidential Palace, Barco indicated that he wanted “my friend Rafi Eitan” to come to Colombia to lay out a process for shutting down the guerrillas. The government cloaked his decision with a thick blanket of secrecy. There was no press release from the Presidential Palace; there was no report to Congress in his message of July 20; and no discussion with the cabinet. Barco arranged to have Ecopetrol pay Rafi Eitan’s fees, and that’s what happened.
Now we go to the second meeting. It also took place in the Presidential Palace, a few months after the first meeting. Rafi Eitan had already been in Colombia for a while, along with a group of aides, and he had crisscrossed various areas of the country, his expenses paid by Ecopetrol’s secret accounts. At least President Barco, the Secretary-General Germán Montoya, and a high-ranking military officer were present.
Barco told them that Rafi Eitan had concluded that the best advice would be to eliminate all of the members of the Patriotic Union Party. Eitan offered to take charge of that mission in exchange for a second consulting contract. A source, whose name must remain confidential, told me that Barco did not question the recommendation or suggest any ethical, moral, legal, or political objections. According to the source, in this meeting Barco did not say that killing political opponents was “gangsterism”.
The high-ranking military officer vehemently opposed the second contract, and said he would resign if Eitan were put in charge of that mission. To his way of thinking, it ought to be carried out by the Army and not some foreign commando. Barco backed down and agreed to do it that way. Eitan was left without a second contract.
So in just a few minutes, they decided the fate of the leftist militants who had signed a peace agreement. Obviously, there are no audiotapes of these meetings. But there is the testimony that the source, who was present throughout the process, years later confided to me. The source has furnished details. For example, that Barco communicated with Juan José Turbay, who was a member of the Ecopetrol Board of Directors, so that the Board would authorize the payments to Eitan. In the records of that time, which I reviewed very carefully, there was no mention of Turbay’s transaction. But this testimony permits the revelation of the best-kept secret of contemporary Colombian governments. That’s to say, of the influence in this country of a world-famed intelligence agent like Rafi Eitan.
What’s really unusual is that the international press found out about this before the Colombian press. Attorney Ernesto Villamizar Cajiao, a friend of his, confirms Eitan’s mission in Colombia. Also the Washington Post newspaper, on September 3, 1989, identified Eitan as Barco’s national security advisor. In the files of the President’s Legal Office I found the draft of a 1987 contract with an Israeli security firm.
The news about Eitan’s visit and the meetings called by Barco have the same origin: the testimony of the source who was part of the process. There is no written record of the President’s verbal orders. The nature of the decisions explains the interest in protecting them with absolute secrecy, which was actually achieved throughout more than three decades.
Voices of Alarm
What is certain is that the fate of the Patriotic Union Party changed after the two meetings in the Presidential Palace. Under the previous administration of Belisario Betancur there had been very few murders of members of the new party, which was legally recognized in May of 1985. On the other hand, in the first 14 months of the Barco administration, there were more than 400.
According to the National Center for Historical Memory, 3,122 members of the Patriotic Union Party were murdered during an extermination that began in 1986 and lasted for many years, even after Barco was no longer President. The dead and disappeared under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) were a little more than 3,000, according to official Chilean statistics. The total number of Patriotic Union Party victims was more than 6,000, including murders, disappearances, tortures, forced displacement, and other human rights violations, according to data presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In 1986 and 1987, the dead in the Patriotic Union Party represented 60% of all of the victims of political violence in Colombia, according to a report by the President’s Human Rights Program, prepared in 2008. In a period of 223 consecutive months (a little more than 18 years), analyzed by the National Center for Historical Memory, there was not one single month without the register of a murder or disappearance of a Patriotic Union Party militant. In other words, the extermination of the Patriotic Union Party was carried out throughout several administrations.
The sudden profusion of political murders aroused alarm, even in government officials who didn’t know about the presence of Eitan and his plan. Barco’s Peace Councilor, Carlos Ossa Escobar, who died in March 2019, swore in 2011, before Bogotá Notary No. 3, that during the administration of the Liberal engineer, he told the Minister of Defense, General Rafael Samudio Molina, about his concern that a member of the Patriotic Union Party was being killed every day. Samudio answered him, “At that rate we’re never going to finish them off.” That was on the Caracol Radio news on June 2, 2011 and in El Espectador on June 10 of the same year.
In his book in 2009, Ossa Escobar wrote that after the October 1987 homicide of Jaime Pardo Leal, the UP’s Presidential candidate, several Ministers and military and intelligence officials held a meeting. Ossa noted that nobody wanted to respond to his analysis as Peace Counselor: “The Army, whether by action or by omission, has allowed the drug traffickers and their maximum leaders to sponsor the paramilitary groups in their bloody career of crimes against the Patriotic Union Party.”
In a recent column in Los Danieles, Enrique Santos Calderón writes: “Barco was completely overcome by the macabre succession of assassinations, car bombs, massacres, and selective killing of judges, politicians, journalists, and police.” The country has a right to know that not all of the violence in those four decades was done by Pablo Escobar and other killers. The President of the Republic himself became a catalyst for violence when he hired Rafi Eitan. That’s the reality, although the country has taken 34 years to figure it out.