By José David Escobar, EL ESPECTADOR, August 29, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Beginning in May of 2021, the high-ranking Colombian Army official, convicted of the homicide of a campesino, has testified to the Justices of the Special Court about the cases involving the extermination of the UP and the violence in Urabá. The victims say that Del Río’s testimony is false, and that it has revictimized them.
More than two weeks ago, the voluntary testimony by retired General of the Army Rito Alejo del Río was suspended in the Recognition of the Truth, Responsibility, and Establishment of the Events and Conduct Branch of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The high-ranking official, who had already been sentenced to 25 years in prison by the ordinary justice system for his actions surrounding the murder of the campesino Marino López at the hands of paramilitaries, had health problems and was transferred to an intensive care unit. He is now recovering at home.
While it’s being determined when the testimony of the 77-year-old retired official will be re-commenced, EL ESPECTADOR will give an account of what has gone on since May of this year—when his public testimony began—and we talked with those who have attended his examination by the Justices of the Court that was born in the Peace Agreement between the FARC and the government of Colombia.
Beginning in December of 2020, Del Río was summoned by the Recognition Branch to provide voluntary testimony in the macro cases of the extermination of the Patriotic Union Party and of the violence in the subregion of Urabá, which he knows well, because he was the Commander of the 17th Brigade, which is headquartered there.
This newspaper learned that Del Río’s defense counsel requested that the hearings be closed to the public so that he could furnish sensitive information, but he said that he would not give any information that could affect his own safety or that of his family. Apparently the hearings were held in early August, but victims accredited by the JEP stated that, up to now, they have not had access to videos of the interrogation.
Furthermore, neither do the victims believe that he gave any new information, or took responsibility for any action about which he was being questioned, or about any act by which the Attorney General’s Office had already charged him in criminal proceedings such as the massacre at Mapiripán in 1997.
That crime, emblematic of the armed conflict, even though committed in Meta Province, was perpetrated with military aircraft that took off from the airport in Carepa (Antioquia Province), and Carepa was one of the municipalities under the jurisdiction of Rito Alejo del Río. During extensive questioning before the Justices of the JEP, they noted several testimonies of former paramilitary chieftains from that area, who stated that he was an ally of the Self-Defense Forces. Among those were alias HH and Pedro Bonito who, before he became a paramilitary, was well-known in the banana business. However, the retired General insisted he did not take part in the slaughter, perpetrated by paramilitaries from Urabá, and commanded by the Castaño brothers.
Justice Gustavo Salazar, heading the macro case on the UP, asked Del Río to identify any court decisions against those two former paramilitaries, or against other criminals such as the narco-paramilitary Don Berna or El Negro Vladimir, in which any of them had been found to have testified falsely. Salazar also asked him about the massacre at Campo Capote (Santander Province) in 1986, against members of the UP and perpetrated by the narco-paramilitary group MAS. Del Río responded that he had no memory of that crime. Right after that, Justice Salazar pressed him: “How can you explain that you never heard of that massacre?” And the fact is that at that time, Del Río was in command of the Army’s Rafael Reyes Battalion, with jurisdiction in that area.
Throughout his appearance, on several occasions the Justices have scolded Del Río when there is evidence indicating that he definitely was an ally of the paramilitaries. For example, last May they showed him documents containing his signature and which authorized the delivery of weapons to the Convivir, the groups of private security authorized by the Colombian government, but which later became fronts for the paramilitaries. Faced with that evidence, he maintained his position: he said he never requested support of that kind. Even though Del Río admitted that the signature was his, he asked the Recognition Branch to allow his attorneys to review the document.
On that same August 12 when the General could not continue with his voluntary testimony because of his health, Justice Gustavo Salazar, who was presiding over the hearing, called on him to commit to telling the truth, for the sake of the victims. “I beg that with the words you are speaking, you consider the dignity, the re-dignifying of the victims, and the establishment of their good name, their memory, and their right to justice,” stated the Justice.
The victims in the case point out that in his testimony, Del Río is trying to torpedo the questioning, and has avoided all responsibility for his role in the consolidation of the paramilitaries in Urabá. “He is mocking the victims of the conflict,” said an attorney who represents the victims.
This newspaper contacted the retired General’s defense counsel to ask about several accusations that the victims have made, such as, for example, that his legal strategy is to delay the process until he is eventually expelled from the JEP, which could take months or even years. However, up to now we have received no response. Even though there is a sector of the victims that are positive that Del Río will never collaborate, others hold onto the hope that he will, when the JEP starts to “pressure him with warnings that he could lose his release status and be sent back to the ordinary justice system where he will not have legal benefits, but an eventual conviction instead,” said one of the sources.
Likewise, Luis Antonio Marín Burgos, the Inspector General’s Delegate to the JEP, during that same hearing, called on the retired General to contribute the whole truth, for the dignity of the victims. “There needs to be an account that is based on empathy,” declared Marín. Later, when the retired General was being questioned about his time as Commander of a military garrison in Urabá, in the period when there was the highest number of victimizations of members of the UP in all of history, the General declared that he tried as hard as he could to protect them, together with the Police, but, according to him, he wasn’t allowed to.