By Camilo Alzate González, EL ESPECTADOR, April 2, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
While a transitional justice committee was working in Istmina on February 24, an officer from Battalion 26 of Land Operations assured the committee that the majority of the members of the illegal group are either reservists or retired professional soldiers. Colombia+20 had access to the minutes of the meeting.
In the second week of February, the combat between the ELN and the AGC, also called the Clan del Golfo, provoked the massive displacement of five communities near the Sipí River, a tributary of the San Juan, in southern Chocó Department.
To deal with this episode, which demonstrated the humanitarian crisis in that department even more, a committee of the transitional justice system was put together by the Istmina and Sipí mayors’ offices. These committees are agency programs that coordinate public policy and attention to the victims, and delegates from municipal and departmental administrations attend them, as well as the Public Defender’s Office, the Armed Forces, and the Victims Unit.
Thirty people attended the meeting, which was held virtually on the morning of February 24, and included Colombian Army representatives from some of the communities.
Héver Córdoba Manyoma, Mayor of Istmina, began the presentations, which centered on questioning the minimal effectiveness of the Armed Forces in preventing the advance of the illegal groups that are causing the displacements. “It’s terrible that every day we are having more displacements. It’s terrible that every day we have to have more meetings of this kind, where getting together like this re-victimizes our brothers and sisters,” is how the minutes of the meeting read.
Córdoba Manyoma also complained about the military’s activities, “because this situation could be resolved entirely, and then the community could go back to normal,” he said.
In addition, he insisted on two occasions that the mayors’ offices take care of the displaced people, as that is a “legal obligation”, but he was forceful in saying that the origin of the crisis was the public order situation, a situation that does not depend on the mayors, and he also said that it’s urgent to guarantee the security of the rural population. Wilmer Rivas, Mayor of Sipí, agreed with that complaint.
A number of the participants offered the same complaints to the delegates from the Colombian Army, especially to Major Jorge Arévalo Cardoso, Chief of Operations of the Land Operations Battalion No. 26. The minutes show that Lieutenant Pablo Ramírez and José Lugo, commander of Battalion No. 25 were present, but did not make any statements at the meeting.
The people at the meeting consulted by Colombia+20 said that not only at this meeting, but also in another meeting called a few days earlier because of a displacement in Negría, they demanded that the Army be more present in the settlements and areas that were being taken over by the AGC, but the answer by the military officers was that they did not have enough units.
Major Arévelo Cardoso stated that it was simply not possible to guarantee security for the displaced people to return to their communities. His argument was that they
had to concentrate on guarding the elections. “We hardly have any units; the units that we have in Istmina also have to be in the Potedó sector,” he is quoted in the minutes.
He said the same thing when the Negría community complained that everybody had been displaced by successive incursions by the AGC and the ELN between February 12 and 13. “We don’t have troops available, we are appealing to our superiors to assign more units and locate them in this area where there are such problems,” declared Arévalo Cardoso, as Colombia+20 related last March 11, telling how the community of Negría had returned to their town a few days ago, without any guarantee of security or any accompaniment.
Another person at the meeting confirmed that the presentation by the Army set off a fierce argument among the military and several of the local officials. In the minutes, it describes the statements by the Mayor of Sipí in which he said, “The position of the Armed Forces is very upsetting.”
But the most striking comment by Major Jorge Arévalo Cardoso happened during his report where he assessed the security situation in the region. Referring to the Jairo de Jesús Durango Front of the AGC, or Clan del Golfo, Major Arévalo said that the members of that illegal group relied on “their training, considering that the majority are reservists or retired professional soldiers, and the strategy used by the group has been to send their future combatants to join the Army, and when they finish their tour, they enter the armed organization, the same as professional soldiers do when they retire from the Army,” he specified.
Arévalo Cardoso gave a detailed account of the routes, areas of operation, and the number of members of the AGC in the area, adding that they are dedicated to controlling the drug trafficking routes, “avoiding direct confrontation with the Colombian Armed Forces. Their purpose is to avoid calling attention to their activities, and thus be able to carry out their logistics without any mishaps, which guarantees the free transit of their corridors of mobility,” as related in the meeting minutes.
According to the Major, the AGC have 39 “armed subjects” and with 108 “members of the criminal component focused”, and their principal bases are in Istmina and Puerto Meluk. In addition, he detailed the exact routes that the AGC use, through the creeks in Suruco, San Antonio, and Chiquichoqui, connecting to the San Juan River, as far as the horse paths that lead to the settlements of Raspadura, Pepé, and San Pablo Adentro. According to Arévalo, the missions of the AGC are to “get close to the communities by sending in their members (…) dressed in civilian clothes, to buy off the indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders.”
In spite of the high level of detail in his description, Major Arévalo was not specific about the beatings and the operational results the Amy had achieved against the AGC in the subregion of the San Juan. On the contrary, he said that his troops were present in the area where the Che Guevara Front of the ELN, “are able to accentuate their system by means of taking root in places where they have been able to limit the extortion activities,” and impeding the entry of their “food and medical supplies.”
Colmbia+20 has already published the complaints by city clerks and other local officials who believe that the Army isn’t doing anything “with the same effort” when they attack the AGC, and that they act more forcefully against the guerrillas.
Without giving his name, a representative of the Inspector General’s Office recounted that the answer by the military has been that, “they don’t have the capability to furnish security in the territory. The have even told us that the polling places are at risk; they said they have no way to guarantee their security, the minutes are clear on that.” What is contained in the committee’s minutes of February 24 will verify that claim. About the alleged connivance between some of the military and members of the AGC, this representative said, “Analysis of public order has proved that situation; we have even presented this to the Public Defender’s Office.”
We asked an official of the Public Defender’s Office, who assured us that he is familiar with that kind of accusations, mostly made by the Catholic Church, even though they don’t have conclusive proof. “There are complaints of connivance and possible corruption, but we don’t have any evidence.”
Nevertheless, the Church persists with these statements. “If you don’t think there is permissiveness, why don’t the Armed Forces fight as hard against the AGC as they do against the ELN?” says the priest Albeiro Parra in Chocó. He presides over the Pacific Regional Coordination, adding to the repeated complaints from the bishops about alleged connections between the Armed Forces and illegal groups in that department.
“Some of them are there in the settlements, and they see them together; in Puerto Meluk, they are together. There are checkpoints in the rivers; they call them ‘puntos,’ so the Army knows where they are. Why don’t they do anything?” asks the priest. He explains that the complaints by the Church are because “the people come to us and they tell us things like that.”
According to Parra, that’s why the high officials in the government are pressing for the extradition of Otoniel, the former commander of the AGC. “That’s the fear they have, that Otoniel will talk, and tell which are the high-ranking leaders that are allied with them. Those are truths that nobody wants him to tell, or to give testimony either.”
The answer by General Díaz
General Juvenal Díaz Mateus, Commander of the Colombian Army’s 7th Division, denies those accusations, and insists there is no connivance. “We have battled the Clan del Golfo with everything we have; it’s the illegal organization that we’ve hit the hardest in the last two years.” According to the figures he furnished, the Titán Task Force has killed one member of that organization so far this year and has captured 15 more of them.
He also maintained that there is no report that the majority of the members of the AGC are reservists, and he considered such a strategy “not very likely” that the armed groups would be sending their members to join the Army. “Normally, they recruit and they start committing their crimes right away,” he said.
About the complaints by local authorities about the lack of military presence, he says, “It’s clear that we don’t have enough soldiers to cover every town,” and that’s why they have to move squadrons “according to the needs.” The General insisted that “we always get to the territories that need our presence.”
The confrontation moves toward the Tamaná River
The humanitarian crisis in the San Juan region started August 13 of 2021, when the non-aggression pact that had existed between the AGC and the ELN was broken off. As we have reported in Colombia+20, the AGC advanced in recent months until they completely controlled territories that previously had been controlled by the ELN in southern Chocó.
After the Army’s operations in which Fabián, Julio, and Schumager were killed in September, October, and November of last year, the command of the ELN in the region was taken over by Santiago, a mid-level commander who was trying to stop the AGC advance in its last rearguard, over the canyon of the Tamaná River. That geographic corridor between Nóvita and San José del Palmar had the only road connection of Chocó with Valle del Cauca, and besides that, it was an old coca grower enclave, inhabited mostly by mestizo settlers.
Using a strategy of selective assassinations, minefields, direct combat, and confinement of the population, the guerrillas had been able to contain the AGC, who were trying to penetrate from Nóvita by the west.
In La Italia, a district (corregimiento) of San José del Palmar, bordering Nóvita, the guerrillas are decreeing curfews after 6:00 p.m. Nobody dares to move on the road that connects to Cartago (Valle del Cauca), either by roads or trails. In addition, they prohibit the entrance of anyone not part of the settlement. “Nobody that isn’t from this community is allowed to enter,” confirmed one of the residents.
Two young people from Pereira, who were going to visit their family, were seized on March 21 when they arrived in the town in the early morning. Three days later, the guerrillas threw their bodies off a bridge at the outskirts of the district.
In the middle of March, an audio was circulated in which the ELN ordered the residents of Juntas del Tamaná, Tambito, Santa María de Urábara, and other towns in Alto Tamaná not to get on any boat on the river, or they would become a military objective.
That set off the confinement of more than 4,000 residents, a confinement that the Diocese of Istmina, along with Public Defender’s Office, were able to break on March 30, with a humanitarian corridor bringing food into the settlements. A leader in Tambito confirmed that, even though the threats are continuing, the food did arrive.
Tambito is the same town where a dead body remained right next to the houses without anyone carrying out any of the appropriate legal procedures, after the combat on March 4. “We are really worried, it lay there three days in the street, the children seeing it, and the Army ten minutes away and nobody came, at least to secure the area, so that the dead person could be taken away,” recounts a Council Member from Nóvita. “We had to get together the Mayor, the Clerk, somebody from the Public Defender’s Office, and the President of the Community Council. They finally took it away.”