EL ESPECTADOR, June 4, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

El Espectador  has seen all of the testimony given by the former boss of the Clan del Golfo. Besides his alliances with politicians, he described how the Centauros Bloc managed public contracting in Meta and Casanare, and he gave names of the sponsors of his cause.

The secrets of the war between two factions of the Self-Defense Forces in the Eastern Plains; the collaboration by some public officials in sponsoring and protecting the Centauros Bloc; the sticky fingers of the Bloc in public contracting in Meta and Casanare; the business owners and politicians that financed that gang and its support in guaranteeing seats in Congress and in local elections; some “pearls” of the Capital Bloc and how the emerald merchant Victor Carranza opened the doors to the Self-Defense Forces in that region; the alleged support by autonomous regional corporations and petroleum businesses in logistical operations, and the full and complete truths that the former paramilitary chieftain Jorge Pirata forgot, among other revelations as witness and protagonist of the violence in Colombia. All this was part of the  undisclosed confessions of Daíro Antonio Úsuga, alias Otoniel.

Last May 16, the investigative unit of Noticias Caracol published in an extensive report part of these revelations by the extradited former chieftain of the Clan del Golfo to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The station related how Otoniel had furnished new details about the relationship between him and his men with Retired Generals Mario Montoya and Leonardo Barrero, including their alleged connections with politicians like former Mayor Luis Pérez, now-Senator Miguel Ángel Pinto (who was re-elected to his seat), and Nebio Echeverry, the former Governor of Guaviare Department. El Espectador has had access to all of Otoniel’s testimony, in which he detailed his criminal career, his allies in the wars he fought, his knowledge about some extrajudicial executions, and the extermination of the former guerrilla fighters of the EPL in Urabá, as well as why he returned to warfare after the Centauros Bloc demobilized.

According to Otoniel, after the death of the drug trafficker Miguel Arroyave in 2004, the Centauros Bloc that he had commanded was divided. One part remained with Manuel de Jesús Pirabán, alias Jorge Pirata, and the other part was headed by Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias Cuchillo. Pirata is the only one surviving now. In 2005, his Bloc demobilized with more than 1,400 men, and the one remaining there for the delivery of the weapons was Vicente Castaño Gil himself, then the high commander of the Self-Defense Forces. In the midst of the tension because of the submission of the paramilitary bosses under the Justice and Peace Law, the legal framework, the narcos then lined up and bought franchises, and the pressure from the United States to extradite them, as had happened in May of 2008—, Otoniel started working in cooperation with the Army, the DAS[1], and the Police in the Plains.

“I was left working hard on the productive projects and we formed a security business. I worked with the network of people that were cooperating, the Brigade, the DAS, the Police. At that time, I had to go to a lot of meetings when the Erpac (Cuchillo’s gang) got going, because I knew the region and we had youngsters that served to guide them. I wanted to help because I was legally demobilized; then Cuchillo got going and the Crazy Guy’s (Berrerra’s) people in Guaviare found out that we were working together with the Armed Forces, and that was when they started killing the guys. They killed a lot of them with that same law. I saw the bad situation and I headed for Urabá, toward Necoclí,” he said. At that time, 2007, Daniel Rendón, alias Don Mario, was re-arming and he started a war between the old paramilitary factions.

Otoniel maintained that his old allies paid the GAULA[2] to do some of the killing in Urabá, but he rescued a soldier that he knew. “They wanted to exterminate all of Vicente Castaño’s people. That’s where I went back to the Self-Defense Forces because I picked Don Mario,” he added. Otoniel’s testimony is limited to two specific periods when he was in Urabá between 1987 and 1997, years before he became the maximum leader of the Clan del Golfo, and when he functioned as the military chief of the Centauros Bloc in the Plains. About that last period, he said that they controlled all the public contracts in Meta and Casanare Departments, and that when a contract had to be awarded, 5% of that money was for the organization. And there he mentioned the Universities of Cartagena and Sergio Arboleda as beneficiaries of contracts managed by the Centauros Bloc.

Justice Alejandro Ramelli of the JEP, and his auxiliary Justice, Hugo Escobar, inquired about the relationship between politics and the financing of the paramilitaries in Casanare. Otoniel replied, “When they came out as candidates (for Governor) we talked with them about the tax on public contracts, so whoever won the election would be responsible for that (. . .) When they decided on a contract it was because the contractor was already chosen; they would pay the advance and 10% to the Governor and 5% to the organization.” There were several contracts that were awarded directly to the organization. Otoniel spoke specifically of a million-peso (roughly USD $264 at today’s exchange rates)[3] business that the hospital in Yopal gave directly to the Self-Defense Forces. “It was the Governor who awarded that contract, so that the utilities would remain with the organization.” He was referring to the former Governor Miguel Ángel Pérez, who was convicted by the authorities.

A large part of that public contracting was to finance the war between the Centauros Bloc and the men of alias Martín Llanos. “When there had been so many killed and most of those people, they took them to the area of San Martín (Meta Department),” said Otoniel, and added that in that war they had the support of Retired General Leonardo Barrero, whose “commitment was to attack the Buitragos,, the people from Casanare, and besides to let us, the Centauros Bloc, do our operations, but not to attack his troops. That was the commitment that man had with us.” He even stated that the Air Force helped them to carry out bombing against Martín Llanos’ men and that Miguel Arroyave coordinated those attacks, which were deployed from official aircraft and helicopters. “They were already squared away with Don Jorge (Pirata), Don Miguel Arroyave, and the people here in Bogotá,” he added.

About political work, Otoniel described how they guaranteed that their allies would be elected to Congress, Department Assemblies, City Councils, and Mayors. “The organization collaborated closely with the communities to see that they were elected (. . .) So that they supported the regions where we were. In Casanare we met with Deputies and sometimes with all the Council Members.” In the proceeding they asked him about the drug trafficker Juan Larrison Castro, alias Matamba, whose name has been in the news because of Members of the Armed Forces working with his organization in Nariño, as well as his escape from prison and subsequent death. “I never met Matamba and I was never part of his organization. He sent a message once telling why he wanted to be part of the Clan del Golfo, but it never led to any arrangement,” he said. Otoniel also spoke of the connections between a Director of the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Orinoquia with his organization.

At that time, Otoniel said that officials of Ecopetrol did collaborate with money and logistics. According to him, the oil company gave the organization 75 million pesos (roughly USD $20,000 at today’s exchange rates) per month to provide security for two oil wells in Casanare. “I travelled in a private plane of theirs, and in a helicopter they had. That was the support Ecopetrol gave us.” According to Otoniel, they were allowed to use that plane to move their commanders. “The benefit to them was the security they got in that area; we had control of all that area, so we could work there in the area, and nobody bothered us. That was the tax they paid to our organization,” emphasized the witness. Consulted by El Espectador, Ecopetrol rejected those accusations vehemently and declared, “The company does not have, nor has it ever had helicopters and planes of our own, and has not placed, nor will it place its assets at the service of those who are committing illegal acts.”

The extradited former boss of the Clan del Golfo claimed that the Centauros Bloc shared all of its intelligence information, and operated with the Serviez and Pantano de Vargas Infantry Batallions. He also criticized his former boss Jorge Pirata when they asked him if he had told all of the truth about the war in the Plains. “They were connected to Peace and Justice, and they were supporting it, but a lot of people gave very little. To be able to have a true peace you have to really tell the whole truth. I think that Don Jorge really did know a great deal,” he added. Otoniel recounted, for example, that in the war in the Plains they were even sent the phantom airplane. “Don Jorge called somebody at Avantel and here came the air support; there was even a platform to support the phantom directly. They called it the gonzo plane because they used it to strafe all the mountain chains when they were fighting with Romaña’s people.”

He also said that the Centauros Bloc reached a stage where they had 5,000 men, but that the genesis of that Bloc dated back to 1997, when the Castaño family sent the first 90 men from Antioquia to San José del Guaviare. From there they moved to Mapiripán in Meta, and carried out the massacre, although Otoniel maintained that they had killed six people in that incursion. (The Inter-American Court for Human Rights convicted Colombia for the murder of twenty civilians.) In that context, Otoniel mentioned the emerald merchant Victor Carranza, who died in 2013. “The entrance of the Self-Defense Forces into the Plains and into Vichada in 1997 was sponsored by Vicente Castaño, who gave the order, and it was coordinated with Martin Llanos’s people, along with Victor Carranza’s people, and by cattle ranchers that wanted the Self-Defense Forces to come into the region, and by the Armed Forces themselves, because there were so many guerrillas.”

With regard to the massacre, Otoniel explained that ever since they left Urabá to perpetrate all of this, everything was coordinated with the Armed Forces, so when they arrived in Guaviare, the rifles had already been sent there, and everything had been done to cover their tracks. When he was asked if he knew of any mass graves or extrajudicial executions during his years in the war, Otoniel referred to some crimes in Urabá where they killed people alleged to be collaborators with the guerrillas, or killed civilians to dress them in uniforms. About the 17th Brigade, headquartered in Carepa (Antioquia Department), he said that the Brigade’s collaboration was complete when he was in Urabá in the ‘90’s, that the paramilitary chieftain Carlos Mauricio Garcia, or Doble Cero, was the one that managed the relationships with high officials, but that he, on one occasion, was in a meeting with Retired Colonel Jorge Eliécer Plazas Acevedo. “He was from the intelligence people in the Brigade,” he said.

Plazas Acevedo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli business owner, Benjamin Khoudari, which proved the relationship between the paramilitaries and the Armed Forces. Alias Otoniel also said that he knew about arrangements between the paramilitaries and numerous politicians in Urabá, and mentioned somebody called Piñuelo, who supposedly managed the Convivir in the region. Regarding the Capital Bloc, he added that it was managed by Henry de Jesús López, alias Mi Sangre, and Miguel Arroyave, and that he definitely had influence on politicians, although he didn’t mention any of them by name, and clarified that he had never heard anyone talk about Vice President Francisco Santos. Finally, he related that he had to get out of Urabá when the crimes against men demobilized from the Centauros got started, crimes carried out, he said by the GAULA and the DAS. “They would grab them and kill them. At that time a lot of young guys got killed.”

Those are some of the inconclusive memories from alias Otoniel. His extradition to the United States, in the opinion of the victims, will delay his collaboration with the legal system, and his telling the truth that is his great debt to Colombia. While the Supreme Court of Justice announced the opening of investigations of a number of former members of Congress that he had mentioned, little is known about progress by the Attorney General’s Office on this case. The JEP sent the Court its records of his testimony and some documents supplied by the former head of the Clan del Golfo. Now all of those he has branded are claiming their innocence and good name, while Otoniel prepares his defense before a federal court where he is charged with drug trafficking. While his fate in the United States is being determined, he left a number of clues about what he experienced in the last three decades as a protagonist of the violence. It remains for the legal system to be able to tie up the loose ends.

[1] DAS was Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security, dissolved in 2011.

[2] GAULA are highly specialized groups in the Colombian Army, originally created to protect against kidnapping and hostage-taking.

[3] Exchange rates have changed very significantly since that time.

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