CAMBIOCOLOMBIA, February 20, 2022


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In the last few hours, the home of an official of the Truth Commission was broken into for the purpose of stealing the audio recordings of the testimony by the chief of the Clan del Golfo. What does Otoniel know that has so many people so nervous? CAMBIO had access to several confidential fragments of the testimony he gave to the JEP.

The theft was targeted. The thieves didn’t want anything else. Saturday, in the early morning hours, they broke into the home of investigator Eduardo Andrés Celis, an official of the Truth Commission. They caused almost no damage; the door wasn’t forced; they may have entered silently through a window. This was not the work of vulgar apartment thieves. They only took two tape recording machines, a cell phone, and a laptop. The tape recording machines contained the testimony that Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias Otoniel, had furnished a few hours earlier to Truth Commissioner Alejandro Valencia Villa. There was only one other person present, namely, the researcher whose house was broken into. “They went straight to the information. That was what they were looking for, and they knew he was the one that had the tape recorders,” Commissioner Valencia told CAMBIO.

Criminal law professors say that the first thing to investigate when you’re looking for the motive of the crime, is who will be benefited by the stolen property. The theft of Otoniel’s testimony puts on the table all of the obstacles that have existed to prevent him from testifying before the Truth Commission. “You can’t tell if it’s an aggregation of all of the economic, political, and business interests, also connected with the Armed Forces, that know what Otoniel knows, through all of the many moves that he has made. So there is a lot of fear and trepidation about the truths that he knows about,” says Valencia.

Very few people have had a criminal career as long and broad as that of Otoniel. He started at the age of 15, when he was forcibly recruited by the FARC, just as his older brothers had been.

After that, Otoniel changed guerrilla forces, and became a militant with the Maoist Popular Army of Liberation, EPL. When that group demobilized, the majority of them, along with Otoniel, joined the ranks of the so-called Self-Defense Forces. As a paramilitary, he was in various areas of the country and took part in the massacres at Mapiripán, in the plains, and San José de Apartadó in Antioquia. Later, in the negotiations with the paramilitaries, Otoniel demobilized.

His civilian life didn’t last long. Along with members of his family, he founded the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces, AGC, which, according to authorities not only in Colombia, but also in the United States, is really a drug trafficking gang without any ideology, known as the Clan del Golfo.

With that kind of criminal record, Otoniel knows a great deal about how the guerrillas operated, about drug trafficking, and about the paramilitaries. But most of all, he knows perfectly well the alleged alliances between the criminal groups and the agents of the government, especially the military and members of the security agencies, but also civilians, cattle ranchers, trade association leaders, political leaders, and business owners that have kept their heads down and have been in total impunity for many years.

In his testimony before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP, Otoniel disclosed a part of the vast quantify of information that he has, and therefore, in a situation seldom seen, the defenders of the victims have made common cause with the victimizers, both asking that he be allowed to speak, and that his extradition be delayed until he finishes his testimony in Colombia.

It’s vitally important that the country learn what Otoniel knows, but the government appears to believe the opposite. The extradition process is advancing with a speed hardly ever seen before. A lawyer that CAMBIO consulted relates that the procedures that usually take eight months have rushed by in less than sixty days. And to top it off, Otoniel is isolated in a subterranean cellar of reinforced concrete with bulletproof doors, at the central headquarters of the Judicial Police (Dijin).  He is sheltered by  special penitentiary regulations that appear to have been created especially for him by a resolution issued last December, weeks after his capture, by Colombian Police General Mariano Botero Coy, Director of the National Institute for Penitentiaries and Incarceration (Inpec).

The custody of Otoniel, who in normal circumstances would be under the charge of patrol officers of the agency, is instead the responsibility of captains, majors, and colonels.

Otoniel has a group of five attorneys in Colombia and one in the United States. All of them are criticizing the treatment he has received. When consulted by CAMBIO, they said that they have not been able to meet with their client in private, because there are seven cameras focused on him, which they claim interferes with the confidentiality of the attorney-client relationship.

The most striking case is that of the United States lawyer, Arturo Hernández, who represents Otoniel in the U.S. District Court in Florida. Hernández is a well-known criminal lawyer in Miami, who won prestige and notoriety when he successfully defended the Cuban, Luis Posada Carriles, charged with causing the explosion of a commercial airliner in flight, killing 73 people. The story of Posada Carriles, which includes his defense by Hernández, has inspired movies and TV series like “Operación Avispa” (“Operation Wasp).

Hernández came to Colombia at the end of January for the purpose of meeting with his client and preparing a matrix for collaboration with the United States legal system. The Dijin (Colombian Police), without any explanation, only allowed him one 20-minute meeting, which was interrupted by a Police official, who simply argued, “orders from above”.

This week Attorney Hernández was back in Colombia for the purpose of spending several hours with Otoniel to prepare for the first hearing on his extradition. He said he had authorization from the Attorney General’s Office, and that he had submitted to all of the demands by the Dijin. He spent three full days at his client’s place of confinement, but they did not let him see him even one single time.

Besides that, the attorneys have been required to take the shoestrings out of their shoes and take off their belts. They are not allowed to bring pencils or pens to take notes, because, as was explained to them informally, there is fear that something like that could be used to kill Otoniel or for Otoniel to kill his visitors. The scenes, worthy of a Hannibal Lecter movie, were described to CAMBIO by two of Otoniel’s attorneys.

Not only the lawyer from the United States, but also those from Colombia, insisted that the defendant’s right to counsel was being violated, as they cannot possibly structure legal arguments if they are not allowed to meet with their client for the time and privacy that that would require.

They were not the only ones subjected to that treatment. They also took away a pen from Truth Commission member, Alejandro Valencia Villa, and replaced it with one that the Police furnished. The seven cameras that are focused on Otoniel were activated during the time their meeting lasted.

The prisoner does not have minimal privacy conditions to provide his testimony confidentially, especially considering the monitoring by the Police when the greater part of his testimony is focused on the participation of members of the Armed Forces in crimes against humanity.

The Man Who Knows Too Much

What does Otoniel know that has so many people so nervous? Some clues of what he might say have come out in his testimony before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP. Part of his testimony was made public, but the rest of it remains sealed. CAMBIO had access to some confidential fragments, that say a whole lot, but anticipate much more. He has named names of high officials allegedly involved in associations with criminal groups. Starting with two generals:

“Testifying under oath, I identify Generals Leonardo Barrero Gordillo and Henry William Torres Escalante; I carried out joint operations with the solders that were part of their command when I was a paramilitary in the Centauros Bloc of the AUC.”

The name of General Leonardo Barrero Gordillo, the former Commander of the Armed Forces, made news again this week when journalist Sylvia Chorry of BLU Radio revealed that investigations by the Attorney Generals Office identified him as “El Padrino” (“The Godfather”), a member of the drug trafficking organization “La Cordillera”, a subsidiary of the Clan del Golfo. Otoniel told the JEP, in a statement that CAMBIO has seen, that General Barrero not only had tactical agreements with the paramilitaries, but also that he was their salaried employee, facilitating their drug trafficking, illegal mining, and human trafficking.

“He received benefits, payments in cash in return for the support he gave to the Centauros Bloc of the AUC in Casanare and later in Urabá, when he was commanding the Junin No.33 Battalion, allowing us to develop our war economy in those territories that were fundamental to controlling the coca plantings, and to transform the chloral hydrate and cocaine in the laboratories, and to transport it to areas where it could  be shipped. Another illegal income that we paid him was payments for supporting the illegal gold mining and the trafficking of migrants through the Gulf of Urabá. That collaboration continued after we put together the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AGC in 2009 and continues today.”

A large part of what Otoniel was saying is corroborated by evidence from other sources. He has also pointed to civilian members of security organizations as participants in murders, kidnappings, and extortions.

“I am testifying under oath that I met Sr. Orlando Rivas, the former Director of the DAS[1] in Casanare Department, and I worked with him and other agents of the now-defunct DAS, before 2006 when I was a member of the Centauros Bloc, and after that year when I had demobilized and was a civilian third party in 2006 -2008. We worked together to plan, support, and finance crimes, homicides, extortions, kidnappings, displacements, forced disappearances, thefts, terrorism, and in general. serious actions that violated the human rights of the civilian victims of the region.” Every one of Otoniel’s testimonies shows that he still has a lot more to say:

“To commit crimes, I worked together with civilians, business owners, former members of the AUC, politicians, military men, and former militaries in the regions of Urabá and Córdoba, to finance, promote, and put together groups and organizations that were successors of the paramilitaries in Urabá, Chocó, and Córdoba from 2007 and until 2009, and which later became the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AGC.”

Otoniel also has information about the massive land theft in four municipalities in the Antioquia part of Urabá. They assembled the theft of the Tulapas Ranch, an operation in which cattle ranchers, financiers, and land registry officials are involved. His testimony:

“Those of us in the AUC carried out an operation that would generate a forced displacement from the Tulapas Ranch in Urabá, so that Fedegan[2] could buy it at a laughable price. This happened in coordination with the officials of Incoder[3], some notaries and some land registry officials.”

Colombian Police vs. the Truth Commission

This is just one part of the cases that alias Otoniel could explain in his testimony. That’s why the representatives of the victims are insisting on the necessity that he be heard by the Truth Commission before he is extradited. Once he gets to the United States, the interest of the legal system will be centered on his activities as a drug trafficker with the Clan del Golfo, his identification of routes, and the financial network for laundering the profits of Los Urabeños (a drug trafficking gang).

The establishment of the truth about the conflict in Colombia is not a priority for the United States legal system. The extradition of alias Otoniel removes the possibility of identifying the members of the military, business owners, and politicians involved in crimes against humanity. The Truth Commission believes that his testimony is fundamental, as it expressed in a message made public when the Commissioners were having trouble attending the testimony by the boss of the Clan del Golfo.

“The Commission insists that this interview is fundamental to the right of Colombian society to learn the truth of what took place in the armed conflict, and we expect that this process, begun by Dairo Úsuga David, who was involved in the armed conflict for 35 years, and was connected to various illegal armed groups, will culminate in a satisfactory manner.”

For the Truth Commission, it’s essential that Otoniel be able to talk in conditions of privacy and confidentiality. In contrast, for the Dijin the priority must be their security measures because, as they announced in a statement, there are intelligence reports that say there is a plan by the Clan del Golfo to rescue Otoniel from his place of confinement.

People that are close to Otoniel told CAMBIO that “if he was thinking about escaping, he wouldn’t have turned himself in.” That statement was tossed out almost casually and it re-opens the controversy that arose with Otoniel’s capture, effected on October 23 of last year, and continues to generate doubts. The government has presented it as the result of an epic operation of intelligence, pursuit, and closing in, which the President described as the most important strike against the mafias since the fall of Pablo Escobar. Otoniel’s version is a little bit different.

A good friend of Otoniel’s told CAMBIO that the boss of the Clan del Golfo was alerted 24 hours before the operation to capture him, by soldiers that were on his organization’s payroll, and that he decided he was sick of being on the run and would turn himself in.

When the soldiers came near Pueblo Nuevo in Urabá, where he was, he ordered the men that were accompanying him to get out of the way by a safe route, and he went alone to where the Army soldiers were waiting. He threw his pistol to the ground and he took off his shirt so they could see that he was unarmed, and he started to yell, identifying himself as Otoniel.

Even though the government’s final version describes his capture differently, there is a report by a noncommissioned officer that took part in the operation that corroborates some of the details described by Otoniel: “When we saw someone kind of stout wearing rubber boots and in black, he started to yell don’t kill me and identified himself as Otoniel.”

Before the JEP, Otoniel gave his version in these terms: “I went up to the troops where the Army was, voluntarily. It wasn’t that I was grabbed like that. It was quiet. Because if you don’t, this is a place where they grab you and kill you right there, you might say. I went voluntarily up to a troop of soldiers. And that’s how I was captured.”

The Dijin, responsible for the custody of the capo, reminds us how dangerous he is, pointing out that he’s responsible for the murder of dozens of social leaders, members of the Armed Forces, abusing children, and drug trafficking activity. The Truth Commission says that it understands the measures necessary for security, but it emphasizes that it is imperative that they can freely listen to what Otoniel has to say, if they are to obtain the truth that the victims must have.

Both parties have a good dose of what’s right. The truth is that the regular communications between the President of the Truth Commission, Francisco de Roux, and Dijin Director, General Fernando Murillo, were interrupted three days ago. In spite of that, Commissioner Alejandro Valencia Villa met Friday with the Dijin and, with the known restrictions, continued listening to Otoniel’s testimony until after 2:00 in the afternoon. That is the same testimony, the recording of which was stolen in a clinical theft from the home of one of the Commission’s investigators.

The Dijin’s reaction to the illegal act was disconcerting. In a statement, the Judicial Police recommended, “filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, so that it can undertake an investigation into the theft.”

On Friday at a little after 4:00 in the afternoon, speaking before the JEP, Camilo Santacoloma, one of Otoniel’s attorneys, filed a petition requesting his admission to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, identifying his client as a “third party collaborating with the Armed Forces, a promoter, and a financer of paramilitary groups.” According to the interpretation by the defense, the petition could implicate the suspension of his extradition until the JEP can decide whether or not to accept him.

Dairo Úsuga, alias Otoniel, who was claimed as a trophy by President Iván Duque, might convert himself into a political nightmare in the last months of his administration. Because of that, it won’t be easy for people to believe that his extreme isolation is only to protect him or to prevent his flight. Many are starting to think that there are powerful interests working together to keep him from talking.

[1] The DAS was the former Colombian Administrative Department of Security. Because of its participation in criminal activity, it was dissolved in 2011.

[2] Cattle Ranchers Federation

[3] Colombian Institute for Rural Development

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