VerdadAbierta.com, May 7, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The list of alleged allies of the “Gaitanistas’, leaked to a couple of communication media five days before the Colombian government turned him over to United States authorities demands a broader context, because of how much it amplifies cases that are already known and have been processed, and encompasses the more than thirty years that Otoniel spent as a member of illegal armed groups.
Daíro Antonio Úsuga David, known by his alias, “Otoniel”, is one of those survivors who were able to dodge the bullets in the many battles they took part in. That’s why his memories of more than three decades of war are important to construct our memory, but how much of that will help in doing justice in favor of the victims, especially now that he is in a United States prison?
VerdadAbierta.com went over in detail the document that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) sent to the Attorney General and to the Special Instruction Branch of the Supreme Court of Justice last April 25. It lists 62 individuals and companies that “Otoniel” named as having had some type of relationship with the illegal armed groups that this former paramilitary and drug trafficker had been part of during his criminal career.
In reviewing that document, you can see some preliminary conclusions, among them that alias “Otoniel” was providing information to the Justices of the JEP about the possible criminal alliances of political and economic sectors with illegal groups that he was part of, and not only the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC).
A large part of his testimony about the war agrees with that furnished by several former paramilitaries to the prosecutors and Justices of the Peace and Justice Tribunals created by Statute 975 of 2005 to judge the demobilized paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) under the agreements signed in mid-2003 by then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010).
What alias “Otoniel” has been doing is digging more deeply into those relationships of the political and economic sectors with the paramilitary organizations for which he was fighting, giving names, and explaining, from his experience, how they all fit together to strengthen those illegal armed groups in departments like Antioquia, Casanare, Cundinamarca, and Meta.
His testimony to the JEP will be corroborated by the competent authorities that received the certified copies, and will demonstrate that those often-mentioned alliances did indeed constitute crimes, and those responsible ought to be punished criminally. Even though it’s important to point out that some of the people referred to have already been convicted for those illicit agreements.
Before the transitional justice
This former paramilitary got into the war at the end of 1988. He joined the FARC and EPL guerrillas in the Urabá sector of Antioquia. Later on, he joined the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), and as part of that paramilitary organization, he put together the Centaurs Bloc, beginning at the end of the ‘90’s and until September 3, 2005, when he demobilized in a rural area of the Municipality of Yopal, along with 1,134 men and women, under the Colombian government’s demobilization agreements.
Even though he had received the legal benefits provided by Statute 975 of 2005, known as Justice and Peace, which included a maximum term of eight years in prison in exchange for commitment to tell the truth about his time in the war, and to make reparations to the victims, he decided to leave that process and go back into hiding, and he joined the “Gaitanistas” that were being led by Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario”, and so to strengthen the drug trafficking networks.
In view of his failure to carry out his commitments as one who had demobilized, the Justice and Peace Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá excluded him from the list of those receiving the benefits of the Justice and Peace Law, in a decision dated November 19, 2015.
So how did it happen that he ended up submitting to the JEP? Alias “Otoniel” was captured on October 23, 2021 in a rural area of the Municipality of Necoclí, in the Urabá part of Antioquia, after an intense search by the authorities, lasting more than five years. Once he had been arrested, the procedure for his extradition to the United States at the request of the U.S. government commenced. He was wanted there for crimes associated with drug trafficking.
In parallel proceedings, victims’ organizations requested that alias “Otoniel” be heard under oath to give his testimony about the war, testimony he refused to provide to the Peace and Justice court, and to detail the alliances between the paramilitary organizations and various legal sectors in this country.
In addition, in a statement dated February 22 of this year, his attorney, Camilo Alfredo Santacoloma Patiño, petitioned the Review Branch of the JEP for a guarantee of no extradition so that he could testify about “events that produced serious violations of the human rights of civilian victims of the armed conflictd and the commission of murders of people protected by International Human Rights Law in the regions of Casanare and Meta”.
Even though he had been summoned by the JEP to tell what he knows about those crimes, the Criminal Appeals Branch of the Supreme Court of Justice approved the request for extradition on last April 6, stating that “the person named in the request for extradition can be seen and heard as often as is indispensable, so as to provide for the rights of the victims (. . .) by the use of information and communication technology (TICI)”.
Two days later, President Iván Duque signed the decree authorizing the extradition of alias “Otoniel” to the United States.
However, on last April 28, the Council of State halted the adoption of the decision until it could resolve a civil rights action filed by victims’ organizations. They alleged that, with his extradition, the drug lord would be violating their fundamental rights to “sanction, investigation, effective legal recourse, the imposition of penalties, truth, justice, and reparation (sic)”.
In spite of that, the preliminary relief was lifted yesterday, and the government proceeded to turn him over to United States authorities in a swift proceeding that was carried out at the Catán military base in Bogotá, under strict security measures, and he was then transferred to American soil by a DEA plane.
Left behind are dozens of open files related to the crimes he committed during the time he belonged to illegal armed groups for more than 30 years. For now, they are on the shelf, awaiting his improbable return to this country after serving his sentences in the United States.
Before he was extradited, alias “Otoniel” appeared three times before the JEP, on March 23 and April 19 and 20, to testify about what he might know about the commission of extrajudicial executions committed by agents of the Colombian government in the department of Casanare between the years of 2005 and 2008, by soldiers attached to the Army’s 16th Brigade.
In those court appearances, he referred to alliances of paramilitary organizations with the military and the police in those departments, as well as with officials, politicians, business owners, and contractors. His testimony went beyond the “Gaitanistas” and included allusions to the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
What calls attention here is the inexactitude of the certified document that was issued by the JEP to the Attorney General’s Office, the Inspector General’s Office, and the Supreme Court of Justice, because it only emphasized that criminal organization. “In the previous proceedings, according to his testimony, you can infer the participation of people and institutions in criminal activities related to the illegal organization that’s being called the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or the ‘Clan del Golfo’”.
Through a leak of the 62 names supplied by alias “Otoniel”, you can see the level of coordination that the paramilitary organizations achieved with the administration of Casanare Department, through the Governor’s Office and different Mayor’s Offices, to fleece the public treasury.
Regarding that, in one of his testimonies, cited by the JEP in its certification of copies, alias “Otoniel” stated that part of the financing of the Centaurs Bloc came from collecting five percent of the value of the contracts executed by the municipal administrations under his control, so therefore a good share of the names he turned over in front of the JEP were of former regional governors, former secretaries of government, and contractors; the majority of the contracts were for infrastructure projects.
But what might seem to be new here for national and international public opinion, it was really nothing new. There were more detailed and cross-checked explanations in the finding of conviction as explained on July 25, 2016 by the Peace and Justice Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá in an opinion by Justice Alexandra Valencia Molina. Manuel Pirabán and a dozen of the men in his command, part of the Centaurs Bloc, were the defendants that were found guilty.
In one of the statements by Peace and Justice prosecutors, Pirabán had said that, “all of the contractors in the region had to pay a percentage to the organization (. . .) people that didn’t pay the organization couldn’t work.”
The finances of that armed group, associated with the AUC, were administered by Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias “Don Mario”, the creator of the AGC, by the middle of 2006 in the Urabá part of Antioquia. That former paramilitary was captured in April of 2009 and extradited to the United States in April of 2018, where he pleaded guilty to crimes associated with drug trafficking.
But the Centaurs Bloc wasn’t the only group that was charging tributes in Casanare. Before their arrival in 1997, the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Casanare (ACC), an illegal armed organization with a long tradition in that department, was commanded in the beginning by Héctor José Buitrago Rodríguez, alias “El Patrón” and later by his son, Héctor Germán Buitrago Parada, known as “Martín Llanos”. Both groups fought to the death for control of the countryside in that department in the early years of the 21st century.
Under agreements with the candidates for elected positions, especially governors and mayors, the ACC obtained control of fifty percent of the budget plus ten percent of the value of the contracts signed by administrations that were under their control.
In fact, the list constructed by the JEP through the testimony of alias “Otoniel” included six governors—William Hernán Pérez Espinel, (1/01/2001-12/31/2003); Miguel Ángel Pérez Suárez (1/01/2004-12/26/2004); Heli Cala López (1/04/2005-9/21/2006); Óscar Raúl Iván Flóres Chávez (1/01/2008-12/31/2011); Nelson Ricardo Mariño Velandia (1/01/2012-12/5/1012); and Marco Tulio Ruiz (7/24/2013-12/31/2015).
Two of the former governors, Pérez Espinel and Suárez Perez, were convicted by the Supreme Court of Justice of their alliances with the ACC and not with of Centaurs Bloc of the AUC or with the AGC, and that’s why it’s notable that alias “Otoniel” alluded to them in his testimony before the JEP.
Pérez Espinel asked to be accepted by the JEP on June 7, 2018 as a “government agent not a member of the Armed Forces,” because of his connections with the ACC, the reason he was sentenced to 180 months in prison by the Supreme Court of Justice in a decision issued on September 28, 2009. It is not known whether the JEP has accepted him.
Along with the two governors, the now extradited former paramilitary chieftain and drug trafficker also gave the names of people that worked in the Governor’s Office in Casanare as Secretaries of Government at the times when those Offices were under ACC control.
One who stands out on that list is Orlando Vesga Niño, who was the Secretary of the Health Department in the years 2001 and 2002. He was sentenced to 66 months in prison for unlawful contracting. The list includes Jorge Camilo Abril Tarache, who was the department’s Secretary of Agriculture in 2004 and 2005, and later was Mayor of Paz de Ariporo (2008-2011), and a Member of the Chamber of Representatives (2014-2018); and Narda Consuelo Perilla, Secretary of the Treasury from 2001-2005.
These officials occupied their positions at the time when the ACC exercised ironclad dominion over the department’s finances, so they knew very well how the paramilitary organizations obtained their
The contractors that carried out projects for the Governor’s Office and some Mayor’s Offices were also under the control of that paramilitary group. That’s why alias “Otoniel” furnished several names. In that case, the authorities have to establish who it was that participated in financing paramilitary organizations in Casanare, whether it was the ACC or the Centaurs Bloc of the AUC.
The contractor that stands out on that list is the University of Cartagena. Nevertheless, a review of that case permits a conclusion that it’s a case already decided, as stated in a decision by the Appeals Branch of the Supreme Court of Justice on July 9, 2014.
According to that decision, the University signed two inter-administrative contracts with the Office of the Governor of Casanare during the William Hernán Pérez Espinel administration. The contracts were dated November 19 and December 27 of 2002, and were intended to “carry out the work of technical, administrative, and financial audits of the plan to develop the Department” and to “furnish the delegated administrative and audit services in carrying out the development plan (. . .), while acquiring as specific obligations the management of funds and execution of different public works.”
The execution of both of the contracts generated millions in cost overruns, which led the authorities to open criminal investigations that led to the sentencing of then-Rector of the University of Cartagena, Sergio Manuel Hernández Gamarra to 15 years in prison. A decision issued by the Superior Tribunal of Yopal on March 25, 2011 held him responsible for the crimes of misuse of public funds and entering into contracts without following required legal procedures.
According to the version given by alias “Otoniel”, the money of those cost overruns, calculated to be 3,400 million pesos (about $830,000 USD at 2022 exchange rates) had ended up in the treasury of the Centaurs Bloc of the AUC and not in the AGC, as stated by the JEP.
In the testimony proceedings before the JEP, “Otoniel” made reference to Miguel Ángel Pinto Hernández, currently a Senator, and to the former Members of Congress Milton Rodríguez Sarmiento, Carlos Cárdenas Ortiz, and Jorge Camilo Abril Tarache.
At the same time, he spoke of the current candidate for President of Colombia, Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, former mayor of Medellín, and former governor of Antioquia; and of Sabas Pretelt de la Vega, Minister of the Interior and Justice in 2003-2006, and Colombian Ambassador to Italy in 2006.
With regard to Pinto Hernández, “Otoniel’s” testimony seems imprecise in that one of the fragments of his testimony was that the politicians were supported by the paramilitaries, “so that they would be elected and would support the regions where the Centaurs Boc was operating,” and that a Member of Congress was among them.
But it turns out that Pinto Hernández is now a Senator (2018-2022) from Santander Department, which he represented in the Chamber in the period 2014-2018. Reviewing the information, you have to consider that the Centaurs Bloc didn’t operate in that region, so it looks as if alias “Otoniel” was confused. The area they dominated was the vast regions of the departments of Boyacá, Casanare, Cundinamarca, and Meta.
In his defense, the Member of Congress denied the allegation and, through a communication, he alleged that it might be a case of homonyms, and he asked that the JEP correct the certified copies of his testimony.
Regarding Milton Arlex Rodríguez Sarmiento, who was elected to the Chamber of Representatives for the term of 2002-2006, and served as a Senator between 2006 and 2018, the former paramilitary said that he had talked with him personally, twice, without giving dates, but always as a member of the Centaurs Bloc.
“We were consolidating those areas in Cundinaarca, he went down there to support the people there so that the organization would be well accepted in that region, declared alias “Otoniel”, which would make you think that those conversations could have taken place in the first years of the decade of the two thousands.
With respect to the Casanareños Carlos Cárdenas Ortiz, who occupied a seat in The Senate between 2006 and 2010, the JEP doesn’t refer to Otoniel’s comments in the certified copies, nor to Jorge Camilo Abril Tarache, a Representative in the Chamber between 2014 and 2018, and who was the Mayor of the Municipality of Paz de Ariporo between 2008 and 2011, and the department’s Secretary of Agriculture between 2004 and 2005, during the term of Miguel Ángel Pérez Suárez, who was convicted of being connected to the ACC.
And, as to Presidential candidate Luis Pérez Gutiérrez, the former paramilitary gave more details in his testimony before the JEP, and he is the only one with supposed connections to the “Gaitanistas”. He stated that he was a friend of Henry de Jesús López Londoño, known by the aliases of “Mi Sangre”, “Carlos Mario”, and “Salvador”. That man was demobilized from the AUC and with a broad trajectory in the streets of the capital of Antioquia ever since the time of the Medellín Cartel.
According to “Otoniel”, Pérez Gutiérrez often traveled around the Urabá part of Antioquia and, apparently, would stay two or three days in the rural part of the Municipality of San Pedro de Urabá, which was controlled by the “Gaitanistas”. “When there was that conflict in Medellín with the Offices, that is, the people in Urabá with the Offices in Medellín, he would go around to visit “Salvador” and collaborate with him on things like information and support, but not military and financial support, just coordinating things in Medellín.”
When Pérez Gutiérrez heard about that, he used several interviews with news media to deny any connection with paramilitary organizations, although he did say, “it’s very possible that after I left the Mayor’s Office in Medellín I did have a meeting with alias “Mi Sangre”. I remember that they were moving all around legally, they certainly asked me for meetings as a leader and a job creator in Antioquia.”
Minutes after hearing the news of the imminent extradition of alias “Otoniel”, the Supreme Court of Justice announced on social networks that it would open a preliminary investigation of Pinto Hernández, Rodríguez Sarmiento, Cárdenas Ortiz, and Camilo Abril Tarache, to determine whether what the now extradited drug trafficker had said was true or not.
With the former paramilitary turned over to United States authorities, the possibility of receiving more testimony about those alleged alliances was up in the air, at least for the short term.
Finally, with respect to Pretelt de la Vega, the JEP included in its document requiring certified copies of what alias “Otoniel” had said, that he “was very close to Vicente Castaño”, one of the strategists in the creation of the AUC.
It’s not the first time that former paramilitaries have referred to that relationship. Ten years ago, Salvatore Mancuso had indicated something similar during a hearing before the Peace and Justice Branch of the Superior Tribunal in Bogotá on October 3, 2012. On that occasion, he claimed that, in 2006, Pretelt de la Vega, as Minister, told Castaño, “please, let’s go back to helping in the election of Uribe; it was for the re-election of Uribe, and so that different political friends of ours would try to use social bases where we had instructed the people to support the re-election of Uribe, who was already the President.”
Pretelt de la Vega was sentenced by the Supreme Court of Justice in 2015 to six years in prison for the crime of extortion by a public official, after it was shown that he had offered gifts to various members of Congress in 2004 so that they would vote to allow re-election, which undoubtedly benefited then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
Not much information about the “false positives”
Alias “Otoniel” was summoned by the JEP to tell what he knew about the extrajudicial executions committed in Casanare between the years of 2005 and 2008 and attributed to soldiers from the Colombian Army’s 16th Brigade. Nevertheless, that’s what he talked the least about, but he did detail the relationship between the Army officers and the Centaurs Bloc of the AGC.
With respect to the Centaurs Bloc, this former paramilitary referred to “hearsay” about Retired General Mario Montoya, who has been criticized for promoting operational results by the troops when he commanded the Brigade, the Division, and the Army. “You heard a whole lot of talk about Mario Montoya, I never did, myself, but you heard that he worked with the paramilitaries,” is what alias “Otoniel” said.
According to his testimony, the communication with this Army officer, being tried by the JEP in the case of the extrajudicial executions, it had been through the paramilitary chieftain Miguel Arroyave, head of the Centaurs Bloc, and his second in command, Manuel Pirabán, and it achieved its goal of obtaining the support of sectors of the Army for the Centaurs Bloc in the war that had broken out with the ACC for control of Casanare at the beginning of the decade of the 2000s.
In fact, alias “Otoniel” testified to the JEP that, to be able to advance in that confrontation, they had asked Montoya to transfer to Casanare Leonardo Barrero, a high-ranking officer who ended up commanding the entire Armed Forces, a position he held between August 2013 and February 2014, when, by order of the President, he retired, because he had suggested that they ought to “create a mafia” against the investigations that were advancing then about the “false positives”.
According to the former paramilitary, with Barrero they would be able to organize stronger support in their war with the ACC. “With the transfer of General Barrero to Casanare, there was better communication with Montoya, and old Arroyave gave Montoya some money in exchange for the transfer, and using that, the Casanare Front was able to give him an armor-plated apartment here in Bogotá.”
Like some others of his statements, this allusion to Retired General Montoya has been testified to already by others who demobilized from the AUC. In February of 2010, alias “Don Mario”, who had been Vicente Castaño’s right hand, and served as chief of finance for the Centaurs Bloc, testified to the prosecutors at Peace and Justice that, to support them in their war against the ACC, Montoya had given them 1,500,000 pesos (roughly USD $365 at 2022 exchange rates) and an apartment in Bogotá that cost 400 million pesos (roughly USD $98,000 at 2022 exchange rates).
Added to that alleged support, according to “Otoniel” was the DAS (Department of Administrative Security) a previous intelligence agency where some of the Directors were at the service of criminal organizations. And the Centaurs Bloc took advantage of that, using its trucks to transport some of their chieftains, including “Otoniel” himself, and receiving information about their enemies.
Those alliances were possible thanks to the support they got from Jorge Noguera, national Director of the DAS between 2002 and 2004, and who was convicted of his connections with the AUC’s Northern Bloc, and of the murder of University Professor Alfredo Correa de Andreis, which took place in Barranquilla on September 17, 2004.
According to alias “Otoniel”, the Centaurs Bloc had paid Noguera between 300 million and 500 million pesos (roughly USD $73,000 and USD $122,000 at 2022 exchange rates) to appoint Orlando Rivas Tobar as an Assistant Section Director of the DAS in Casanare. Apparently he was someone close to the Centaurs Bloc, and has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for his participation in the extrajudicial execution of three people on April 6, 2007 in the town (vereda) of Las Tapias, between the municipalities of Hato Corozal and Nunchia, in Casanare, along with soldiers from the 16th Brigade of the Colombian Army.
“He (Rivas) first was a DAS agent, rose to Assistant Director, and it was fixed that he would end up as Director. They fixed that up in Bogotá. The one who helped with that was Noguera and they gave Noguera money to place him there (. . .) I don’t understand the whole business, but they told me that it was more than 300 million pesos, between 300 million and 500 million (roughly USD $73,000 and $122,000 at 2022 exchange rates). They gave it to him up front and the Attorney General’s Office knew about it (. . .) that was in 2003 or 2004 that that happened.”
With regard to relationships between the AGC and sectors of the Armed Forces, alias “Otoniel” admitted that in the regions of the Urabá part of Antioquia and Cordobá, where the illegal armed group became very strong after 2006, there are still agents of the Armed Forces that collaborate with them.
“So, there in that part of Urabá, for sure. In the Armed Forces there are definitely people that are still cooperating (. . .) In all those little towns, the Police commanders there, nearly all of them are still on our payroll. In that region of Córdoba, all over there, they’re paying the Armed Forces the same (. . .) In Urabá in municipalities like San Pedro, they pay what the law requires, same in Necoclí, in all municipalities in Urabá the coordination by law still exists (. . .) In Córdoba too, plenty, in the municipalities in Tierralta, up there by Montelibano, they pay the Armed Forces.
Reacting to the extradition, César Santoyo, Director of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which represents the families of the victims of extrajudicial executions by government agents, lamented the Colombian government’s decision to extradite alias “Otoniel” without his having been heard about his crimes.
“We have stated, in the first place, it’s a necessity that can’t be postponed, and it’s that we have to hear criminals of this kind in hearings that are confidential but with the participation of the victims, so that the crimes committed at that time can be explained,” stated Santoyo.
“In the second place,” he added, “it appears to us that it’s mechanism of impunity; they have used it with the clear intention of burying in the short term the opportunity for the families to have free and active access to that explanation and, because of that, the possibilities of flagrant, evident, and total impunity are multiplied with respect to the chain of command and the high-ranking commanders in charge of the orientation and the orders that they gave to their subordinates, agents of the government, and also the evidence of the connivances they have had with the organized armed groups that are the heirs of the paramilitaries.”
And finally, Santoyo reiterated that what had happened with alias “Otoniel” is “an affront to the victims; it makes their access to the whole truth impossible, it restricts their opportunity to question those accounts, to establish systems for deeper exploration, for analysis, for contextualization of what took place at different moments of the conflict. That harms and constricts the possibility of learning the whole truth in so many ways.”