By Valentina Parada Lugo, EL ESPECTADOR, April 17, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
While the military maintains that there was no manipulation of the victims’ bodies in Alto Remanso, the certificate of technical inspection of the bodies by the Attorney General’s Offices proves that they did do that. There are several contradictions in the versions the military commanders have furnished about the planning and conduct of the operation.
Twenty days have passed since the military operation was carried out in the town (vereda) of Alto Remanso (Puerto Leguízamo, Putumayo Department) and the official versions of what happened have been changing. Even though the Army maintains that the 11 people that died were part of the armed organization Comandos de la Frontera (Border Commandos), a high official of the Defense Ministry confirmed to us that he could only confirm that eight of them were “combat kills”, and not 11, as the Ministry had reported in its first statements. The other three, the high official said, had been killed by gunfire from the illegal armed group of which, according to the authorities, they were all members.
Divier Hernández, the President of the town’s Community Action Board (JAC), and his wife, Ana María Sarrias, a 24-year-old woman, pregnant and the mother of two children, were two of the three victims about whom the Army won’t take responsibility in its new version. “We have no report that they were armed,” was the statement from the Defense Ministry, after having claimed for two weeks that they had been among the people “neutralized” by the soldiers as part of an operation that they claimed was a hard blow to the Dissidents in the southern part of the country.
General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, Commander of the Colombian Army, answered that she “was in combat, in the line of fire”. His claim doesn’t coincide with what General Juan Carlos Correa, Commander of the Army’s Aerial Assault Division said the next day in an interview with WRadio Colombia. There he said that “(Ana María) was starting to pick up weapons (of the FARC Dissidents) from the people that had been killed and then threw them in the river.” A source in the Defense Ministry confirmed to us that, in spite of that claim, the divers that inspected the Putumayo River around there didn’t find any weapons.
The military operation, carried out last March 28 in the town of Alto Remanso, some four hours by launch from Puerto Asís, has furnished a number of inconsistencies that this newspaper has denounced, along with the CAMBIO and VORÁGINE papers. For example, the fact that the civilian population insist that the soldiers had presented themselves as guerrillas during the attacks and that they had attacked unarmed civilians, as witnesses and survivors are saying. The Public Defender’s Office, representatives of which arrived at the site six days after the events and one day after the social organizations and the journalists arrived, confirmed that civilians had been killed in the attack, “The President of a JAC, his wife, a 16-year-old adolescent, a governor of the indigenous people, along with other people.”
Even though this news organization has been requesting an interview about this case with some representative of the Army or the Defense Ministry through their press offices since last April 11, nobody has answered us. Nevertheless, the Southwestern Joint Command No. 3, by General Juan Carlos Correa, Commander of the Army’s Aviation and Aerial Assault Division, and General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro, Commander of the Colombian Army, have issued statements to other media.
Although those military commanders have insisted that all of those killed were reported by military intelligence to be members of the residual group 48 of the FARC Dissidents, the records that are in the hands of the news organizations are brief and they don’t identify any role that the 11 people were alleged to have been playing in the illegal armed organization. In many of those documents, the connection with the armed group was based solely on the information supplied by the military troops at the time of the operation.
Regarding the background of the operation, the Army’s versions have pointed to the work that intelligence had begun last September of 2021, six months ago. The official version from the Defense Ministry has always been that it was an action against Carlos Emilio Loaiza Quiñónez, alias Bruno, and another commander known in the war as Managua. Both are, according to the authorities, leaders of the 48th Front. A source close to the legal process said that “the arrest warrant for Bruno was issued in October of last year.” At the press conference on April 6, Defense Minister Diego Molano insisted that the operation was legitimate. “We knew where the leaders were operating, and the threat they presented to the population,” he claimed. Even so, Bruno, the principal objective of the operation, was not killed in the operation, he was not wounded in the operation, nor was he captured.
For now, there are two versions by the military about Bruno, the supposed head of finances for the Dissidents. The first version comes from some soldier who talked to journalists in Alto Remanso. He said that on Sunday March 27, one night before the attack, they had seen him leave the town. However, they had gone ahead with the operation because of Enuar Ojeda Sánchez, who was identified by military intelligence as one of Managua’s aliases, and he was one of the 11 people killed in the operation.
On the other hand, General Correa, in an interview with WRadio, said that the soldiers only found out that Bruno was gone on Monday morning, after the armed attack. “At the time of the operation, we thought Bruno was there (. . .) later on, with military intelligence, we learned that he had left the night before.” A source at the Defense Ministry said that they didn’t know that the finance boss had left the town the night before the operation. “The soldiers saw a launch leaving with coca base, but the report doesn’t say that Bruno had left town on that boat.”
Who opened fire?
With regard to the question of who was first to open fire, the testimonies of the inhabitants of Alto Remanso all agree that it was the Army that, from the mountains behind the houses,, had fired three shots. In the press conference on April 6, the military explained that on the day of the operation, after they had been observing, at about 6:40 a.m., they “reported the presence of an armed organization, of some subjects that were dressed in civilian clothes and carrying long guns that were in the sector and were starting to leave the settlement (. . .) That was when the combat started, about 7:20 a.m.”.
That version matches what a source in the Ministry told us, that the soldiers had said that when they observed three armed men that were trying to board a launch, the special forces requested permission to “set off the operation, and they attacked.” This version doesn’t agree with the statements made last April 12 by General Correa on Caracol Radio about the same issue. He denied that the Army had started the confrontation. “The combat started when they began shooting. They were firing at us indiscriminately, in all directions.”
The clarification of who fired the first shot is key to this investigation, said Attorney Antonio Varón Mejía, Professor at Rosario University and an expert on International Humanitarian Law (DIH). “That’s where we see the principle of distinction, which can be vague, because it isn’t clear if DIH should be applied here, as this group is not recognized as an actor in an armed conflict. Thus, it’s not clear that it would be legitimate to identify them as a military objective,” he explains.
On that matter, General Zapateiro, for example, insisted that for the soldiers, they had the “extremely clear” right to fire, under the principle of distinction, on each of the people who died in the operation. This is another of the great contradictions between the official version and the testimonies of the community. Those were corroborated by more than 30 witness statements we journalists collected in the territory and that match the time, some 7:20 a.m., when some of the inhabitants were outside of their houses. Some were just going back to their houses, some of them at the edge of town were inebriated, some of the women were taking their turn in the kitchen, and some other people were walking from one end of the village to the other.
We had access to an audio that one of the survivors, a resident of Alto Remanso, was able to record at a time when the Army was in the middle of the sports center court, as this newspaper revealed with a photo where you can see some 50 people sitting on the cement where they say they were forced to stay, right after the military operation was over. In the audio you can hear the military helicopter in the distance, and he says,
“There are people that are wounded and some people have been killed. I’m hiding what I’m doing because they won’t let us do anything. They’ve got us sitting here since 6 a.m., sitting in the sun and the rain with nothing to eat. We are civilians and we need help from the NGO’s or human rights. They don’t identify themselves, they don’t have patches, they don’t have name tags on their camouflage or anything. They came in black outfits and green sweatsuits. No patches and no names. They identified themselves as guerrillas and they’re not guerrillas. They’re soldiers, I suppose.”
About the population detained after the operation, the official version that General Correa furnished to the EL TIEMPO newspaper is that the soldiers had “reunited” the population “because there had been a disturbance in the afternoon by the people living there; they had threatened the people from the Attorney General’s Office and tampered with the scene.” However, all of the inhabitants we interviewed denied that they had attacked the authorities, and on the contrary, they complained that they had been subjected to a kind of kidnapping. “After several hours, we had to beg the soldiers to give us some water for the children. When we wanted to go to the bathroom, for example, the soldiers told us that we had to go just two at a time, and join hands while a soldier waits outside the toilet,” complained a 31-year-old woman.
In spite of that, General Correa has denied the presence of civilians at the time of the military operation. In his press conference, he insisted that “there were 15 men, more or less, with long guns, and trying to kill our soldiers.” Six days later, in an interview with CARACOL RADIO, he stated that six armed men had been identified. “On Monday nobody was in the settlement, they weren’t at the sports center, they weren’t outside dancing, they weren’t in any bazaar, there wasn’t any activity. Our groups observed that there were six members of the armed organization walking toward the dock.”
Meanwhile sources in the Ministry have pointed out that the operation was carried out against three armed men, even though 15-18 men had been identified in the intelligence documents as having been in and out in the three days of the bazaar.
Were the dead bodies manipulated?
General Zapateiro, on Noticias RCN, was very definite when he said that “the people killed in the operations were lined up at the river and two of them were bringing up the rear.” This statement is contrary to the complaints stated by the people of Alto Remanso and to the photographs of the dead bodies. EL ESPECTADOR, CAMBIO magazine, and VORÁGINE have copies of the photos (which will not be published because of their sensitive images). You can see that the bodies of some of the victims, like the one of the governor, Pablo Panduro, are more than 60 meters from the shore of the river, on the football field.
The Commander of the Army, in that same interview, insists that “the soldiers never touched a single one of the bodies”, but there is an exception with what happened to two of the bodies, one of them that of Bayan Santiago Pama, the 16-year-old minor. “There was a cave-in of part of the left shore of the river, and the water was carrying those bodies away, so the Navy recovered them and placed them where they had been before, on the shore.” Specifically, in the case of Brayan Santiago, this news group has seen three photographs, which are in the possession of the Attorney General’s Office. They will prove that the body of the teenager had been dragged, and a rifle placed over the body after his death, according to an analysis by a forensic physician we consulted about this issue.
According to Zapateiro’s version, there had only been two bodies whose locations were changed by the military. However, we had access to the cadaver technical inspection certificates, in the possession of the Attorney General’s Office. These certificates confirm that the Army, together with the CTI investigators on the ground, did move all of the bodies. “Being at the location, military personnel, in the company of CTI officials attached to the Special Investigation Unit of the City of Bogotá (the officials are named), transferred the bodies to a secure area so that CTI Puerto Asís-Putumayo could perform the cadaver technical inspection.”
The information that the CTI officials set in motion also didn’t agree with the information furnished by General Correa in his interview on CARACOL RADIO, where he claimed that, after “two hours of tough combat, we weren’t able to bring in the helicopters (. . .), so we coordinated with the Navy to secure the site. At 9:40 a.m., when the firing died down, the area was secured.” However, in the certficates of technical inspection, the investigators from the Judicial Police denied receiving a secure location.
According to the General’s version, which is similar to the one he gave in the press conference on April 6, the helicopters entered the town at about 11:50 a.m., bringing the CTI officials to carry out their urgent functions. In spite of that, in the cadaver technical inspection document furnished by the Attorney General’s Office, the two officials from the Judicial Police reported knowing what was happening as late at 2:20 p.m. The technical inspection documents note the time of processing as 3:45 p.m., four hours after the time reported by the Army.
Regarding the possible manipulation of the bodies, the judicial certificates this newspaper has seen, that were analyzed by a forensic physician, indicate that all of the bodies were found in a “natural” position, that is, that had not been moved or their location altered from the place where they fell. What’s contradictory is that, according to the expert we consulted, “by the position of the bodies that was described (on their backs, with the palms of their hand up and without any bending of their extremities) it appears that the bodies had been lined up someplace for the CTI later to do their urgent work.”
The 11 dead belonged to the Dissidents.
The statement that the 11 people killed in the operation were members or combatants of the Commandos de la Fronters (Border Commanders) is one of the matters that has done most to place the families of the victims at risk. After the operation, several of them complained that they are now victims of stigmatization, intimidation and threats because of the supposed connection of their loved ones to the FARC Dissidents.
In the record of each of the dead, an “alias” is specified for each person, and the reasons for their connection to the illegal organization. In many of the records, the only observation of such a connection is the testimony of the soldiers who carried out the operation. One of the most striking cases is the record of Brayan Santiago Pama, the 16-year-old teenager. His only information recorded is “personnel committed to the military operation said they were able to observe this person carrying a long gun while doing their maneuvers and placing it in a combat position in the direction of our troops.” There is no report in this document of any other kind of history identified by military intelligence that would show that he belongs to the armed group.
This case is similar to that of Ana María Sarrias, the 24-year-old woman, the wife of the President of the Community Action Board. The Army claimed that she had thrown some weapons and munitions belonging to the armed group into the river. This is the only information that appears in her record, which also connects her with the alias “Dayana”, using that to connect her to the armed group, in spite of that fact that they had denied that she was acting as a combatant.
Another matter that attracts attention is that in the Gaor 48 organization chart, which the military presented at the press conference last April 6, of the 11 victims of the military operation, only Managua is included, which could indicate that, in case they could prove that more of the 11 were members of the armed group, they could not have been important commanders, or even mid-level commanders in the organization.
The Army’s feeble evidence against the indigenous governor, Pablo Panduro
The name of Pablo Panduro Coquinche, the indigenous governor of the Kichwa del Bajo Remanso reservation, also appears on the list. The community lovingly called him Pantalón, but the Army insists that that nickname was his alias. According to the governor’s record, the only connection they had to claim that he had swelled the ranks of the Commandos de la Frontera was that military personal in the operation claimed that they had seen him “carrying a long gun and firing at the troops. He had a rifle with a scope.”
What attracts attention here is where they explain his connection with the armed group by referring to a statement by a demobilized fighter who had mentioned that, but they clarify that “that interview was never signed, and therefore is not valid at this time.”
In fact, several testimonies by people in the community who knew him refuted the claim that the indigenous leader belonged to any armed group and, in fact, insisted that in several of his projects in Bajo Remanso, he had led procedures to keep the civilian population away from the armed groups. “If it were true that he was a member of the armed group as the Army is claiming, why didn’t they capture him before? If he was the most traceable of all the victims, why had he been recognized by the Mayor’s Office and by the Interior Ministry as an indigenous authority,” demands one of his stepdaughters from Puerto Leguízamo.
The governor’s family says that they haven’t been able to go back to their farm in the town since the day of the operation, because of the threats they have received, in spite of the fact that their relative had been an indigenous authority for three consecutive years on the Bajo Remanso Town Council. “They say we can’t go to the farm because everything is still pretty hot; they have called us guerrillas, even though they know that everybody around here is familiar with the work done by Pantalón, and that my mother is responsible for the files in which the national government recognizes him as an indigenous governor. His wife, Fideligna Gaitán says, resignedly, that “now they’re coming out saying he was a militiaman, but he was the person that got the most done in Puerto Leguízamo.” Why didn’t the authorities capture him before; he was such a public person in the municipality? The doubts are continuing.