EL ESPECTADOR, March 5, 2020


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The boss of the Clan del Golfo proposed to the JEP that, as a way of making reparations to the victims, and contributing to the disarmament of that armed organization and of other groups that are successors to the paramilitaries. He wants to play the same role as “Karina” of the FARC, or “Francisco Galán” of the ELN.

Otoniel would like to enter the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). He wants to have his extradition to the United States suspended, because he insists that he intends to collaborate with the justice system and make reparations to the victims. And, besides that, he would like to be a “peace manager”. That’s what he claimed in two documents that he filed in different Branches of the JEP. He is seeking the benefits that the transitional justice system, created after the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC, is authorized to provide.

In the document filed with the Branch for the Determination of Jurisdictional Status, Otoniel’s defense counsel stated that, if he is admitted to the JEP, his proposal for reparation to the victims would include: “Become a ‘peace manager’ from his prison location, for the purpose of ending the violence in the areas where the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC, known as the Clan del Golfo) are operating. He would invite his troops and the command staff of the AGC to abandon the use of violence against the civilian population and the Colombian Armed Forces, and he proposes a dialog with the Colombian government to reach a setting for his members to submit to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”

With a life of crime lasting 35 years, Otoniel has belonged to two different guerrilla groups and at least two paramilitary groups. This flow of criminality has left at least 137 warrants for his arrest, and seven convictions. Besides his proposal to turn into an agent for the eventual disarming of the Clan del Golfo, in the same manner, he states that he would support “every political, legal, and social action to dismantle the paramilitary successor organizations that are continuing to cause enormous harm to the communities, especially in the rural areas that were the most harmed by the armed conflict that persists in Colombia.”

First and Foremost: truth and justice, say the victims

The list of Otoniel’s victims is uncertain. It may never be possible to calculate them exactly, even though he himself has already told the JEP that he is disposed to tell everything he knows, including coordinates for locations where there may be common graves where he and his men buried men and women that still today are “disappeared”. Because of what he could help to clarify, the victims have requested, using every kind of appeal, that he not be extradited until he has told everything he has to tell. Up to now, the Supreme Court of Justice, which is responsible for deciding whether or not he is to be extradited, has not accepted any of those petitions.

For many people, before talking about being a “peace manager”, which in places like Urabá might be a positive thing, it’s first necessary to talk about justice. Attorney Germán Romero, who represents the victims of the massacre at San José de Apartadó, which took place on February 21, 2005, points out that to achieve peace, a clear explanation of what happened is crucial, and that can only be achieved in a legal proceeding that fully explains the violent acts that took place. Three children and five adults were murdered in that massacre by men from the Colombian Army and men from the Heroes of Tolová Bloc of the AUC. This is precisely one of the events that Otoniel wants to recount, as he made clear in his petition for admission to the JEP.

Romero added, “History, and what that tells us, is that the paramilitary and drug trafficking organizations are being recycled and turning over their commanders very rapidly, and he is a perfect example of that. To achieve peace, it’s crucial to have a serious accounting in cases of terrible crimes, and in my judgment, right now neither the Attorney General’s Office nor the JEP can guarantee that. I’m referring to an accounting that does not necessarily lead to imprisonment, but definitely includes serious proceedings, rigorous investigations, and analysis of structures (chain of command, financers, decision-makers) and at the same time, drives processes to dismantle the existing organizations,” exactly what the boss of the Clan del Golfo is proposing.

Attorney Romero added that these procedures must be specific, and that they must make sure that none of those groups are allowed to arise again. He says that this is the situation that is making the conflicts eternal. However, with regard to the particular case of Otoniel, Romero emphasized that, in the hearings in which he has taken part, and with what he knows about the case of the boss of the Clan del Golfo, he has been able to see that there is a “double standard. We, in the testimony that was offered in Case 04 (on Urabá), we asked about the Peace Community, and they had almost nothing to say (. . .) The question is if the JEP is going to keep on with its strategy of confessions trying to get benefits (where a lot of the issues have already been proven) or if it’s going to try to get at the truth.”

This is nothing new

The role that Otoniel wants to play is not unusual in this country. And even though it can seem crazy for a person connected to massacres, displacements, recruitment of children, and other atrocities you can think of, is now “peace manager”, other blood-soaked individuals in the conflict have had that title. For example, one of the best-known was Elda Neyis Mosquera, alias “Karina”, a commander of the José María Cordova Bloc of the FARC, who submitted to the Peace and Justice process. Charged with a selection of massacres and selective murders, she turned herself in in 2008 and, the next year, the Álvaro Uribe administration set her free as a “peace manager”.

“The institution of the “peace managers” had tactical usefulness. International organizations were concerned because Uribe was at war and made warlike statements. So the “peace managers” were useful so that he could say, “I’m ready to negotiate.” And, at the internal level, it also served as an incentive to other guerrillas to get out of the insurgency,” commented political analyst Juan Carlos Palou. At the time, the administration also appointed Raúl Agudelo, alias “Olivo Saldaña”, which led paramilitary chieftains like Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Aleman”, or the former member of Congress, Rocío Arias, convicted for “parapolitica”, to ask for the same appointment.

“When Uribe traveled outside the country, he would talk about the work of Francisco Galán (a former member of the ELN’s central command) as a ‘peace manager’, recalled Palou. More recently after the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC in 2016, hundreds of former combatants were set free and were appointed as “peace managers” so that they would support the implementation of the reincorporation procedures, and also as a measure recognizing their activities such as demining or searching for people who had disappeared. At that time, the administration even provided Galán with “peace manager” status, and also Carlos Arturo Velandia, known as “Felipe Torres”.

The administration has the last word

As in previous cases of people that wanted to be “peace managers”, they seek to obtain legal benefits, says Palou. As this newspaper has reported, besides filing an application for admission to the JEP, Otoniel has also filed a second petition to the JEP, asking that it halt his extradition to the United States. Palou also sees this as problematic, as it’s not clear how much influence Úsuga will have in whether or not the JEP will accept him. “While the Clan del Golfo is indeed a very hierarchical organization, will his request lead all of its members, especially the middle ranks, to leave behind their drug trafficking and their other businesses,” he wondered.

Members of Otoniel’s inner circle have told this newspaper that Otoniel is highly respected among the rank and file of the Clan del Golfo, because he was with them from the beginning, in the hill country with them, he knew the region where they have the most influence, and came from a humble background before he joined the insurgency—he started out in the now-defunct FARC–.The members of the Clan that are called to succeed him have a different history; some of them came to criminality from lives of luxury and money from the drug traffic. Besides, Otoniel himself has told the JEP that his group has been looking for a way out for years.

Even though Otoniel offered that possibility to the JEP, all of the “peace managers” in the past have been designated by the central government, not by judicial authority. “These are decisions related to public order that are the direct responsibility of the executive branch. I can’t imagine a Constitutional Court or Supreme Court of Justice designating anyone as a ‘peace manager’; that is the exclusive power of the President. Another possibility could be that the JEP might ask the President to make such a designation,” observed Palou. That means its success would depend on political will.

From the Presidential Palace, a number of voices, starting with President Iván Duque himself, have closed the door to any eventual process of dialog with the Clan del Golfo. They have said they would accept their submission to the criminal justice system, but not any kind of dialog. In addition, with the short time that remains in Duque’s term, it will probably the responsibility of the next President to answer Otoniel’s call. Before that could happen, the boss of the Clan del Golfo could already have been extradited to the United States. Unless, of course, the JEP would agree to halt that proceeding to make sure that he continues his appearances before that Court.

While his legal future is being unraveled, Otoniel has once more been cited as a witness before the JEP on this March 8. And before that Court, he has already made statements that have raised some hackles, such as claiming that he was not captured in October of 2021, but that he turned himself in, and his promise to provide information about key events in the conflict in Urabá and Casanare, and especially about the relationship he maintained with members of the Armed Forces, politicians, and business owners. Those proceedings have gone on in his place of confinement, at Dijín[1] headquarters in Bogotá. Meanwhile members of the Truth Commission and of the JEP have made serious objections to the lack of security guarantees that would allow him to speak freely.

For example, the theft of information from a Truth Commission investigator who participated in Otoniel’s interview has yet to be explained. Nevertheless, the boss of the Clan del Golfo has continued to testify to the agencies created by the Peace Agreement, not only in his petition for admission, but also in his request that he not be extradited, where he insisted that the only thing he is seeking is peace, reconciliation, and reparation for the victims. In Palou’s opinion, that might be the reason for his intention to be a “peace manager”. “He could be reading that as a kind of ‘shield’, since it’s been so difficult to get them to let him talk.”

Shielded or not, the fact is that his testimonies have certainly given people something to talk about, but also, because of the circumstances that have surrounded the hearings (at one of them, his handcuffs were so tight that a Justice of the JEP had to stop the proceeding until the officers could assure dignified conditions for him to continue with the details of his testimony). Meanwhile, the victims are still waiting to hear everything he has to say, and what the truths are that he can really provide to the justice system. They insist that, before he’s a “peace manager” it’s necessary for the JEP to demand that he furnish new information, about things not previously revealed, and with supporting evidence. And for that to happen before his likely extradition.

[1] Colombian Judicial Police

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