EL ESPECTADOR, June 30, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In the Final Report, the Commission concludes, based on several testimonies and investigations, that some business owners supported the paramilitaries because they had interests in the war, or because they wanted to protect themselves from actions by the guerrillas. The Commission’s investigation also exposes the fact that the extermination of members of the UP was done on orders by the government, even though the actual killings were done by the Self-Defense Forces.
The Truth Commission, through its section on the paramilitaries’ networks and alliances in the Final Report chapter on findings and recommendations, states very strongly that the paramilitaries in Colombia are not a thing of the past. “It’s a phenomenon that’s continuing, and being nourished by a multitude of factors; it constitutes one of the central obstacles to progress toward a national plan for peace.” According to the Commission, there is still a network of alliances and relationships between social, political, military, and economic sectors.
Although this has already been demonstrated in different legal cases and in decisions in the Peace and Justice proceedings, the Commission explained that the paramilitary networks included government actors like certain sectors of the Armed Forces, the Police, security and intelligence agencies like the now-defunct DAS, and political organizations such as the Congress, the Assemblies, Councils, and other institutions in this country.
After comparing a number of interviews and testimonies, the Commission was able to determine that the paramilitaries reached the following unprecedented dimensions: 39 organizations, with multiple fronts and armed factions, more than 35,000 members and “direct effects on the escalation of violence that the country experienced. They are those principally responsible for 47% of the people killed and disappeared in Colombia’s armed conflict, constituting the most violent of the armed actors.”
“You will be asking, come on, and what did those guys (the paramilitaries) do to keep from getting caught? All that time and nobody caught up with them?”
“So I’ll tell you: Look, here’s the General (of the Colombian Army), here’s the Governor, they talked with those two and the relationship was official, normal, and now the bad guy (paramilitary) that could be me or somebody else, another organization, and they get in here. The first time they have a meeting, the Governor takes the General aside to talk with the bad guy, so there the three of us are interacting, and now I’m connected with the General, or the General takes me to the Governor.” This is part of a story that a former financial commander of several blocs of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) told the Truth Commission.
The relationship between the paramilitaries and the Armed Forces
This subchapter starts with several sections, of stories that came from victims, and that former AUC combatants gave to the Truth Commission, along with several decisions by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. These decisions contained proof of the connections between members of the Armed Forces and the paramilitary groups in joint operations, support, coordination, and omission. Some of the most emblematic cases are the La Rochela massacre (1984), the extrajudicial execution of former Patriotic Union Senator, Manuel Cepeda Vargas (1994), the massacre at Mapiripán (1997), the massacres at Ituango (1996), the massacre at El Aro (1997), and the Génesis operation, among others that are recounted in decisions by the Inter-American Court (IDH).
The first thing the Truth Commission did was to outline the different types of collaboration that occurred between the Armed Forces and the paramilitaries. They refer to active collaborations, like trainings in Puerto Boyacá, financed by the Campesino Association of Ranchers and Farmers of Magdalena Medio (Acdegam) “and the ones that the Army facilitated with armaments and logistics supplies to the paramilitaries, besides exchanging information and lists of people accused of being sympathizers or members of guerrilla groups.”
Another of the modalities was the extrajudicial executions presented as “combat kills” (or “false positives”), besides the intentional omissions of duty by the Armed Forces, “like lifting the Army checkpoints to permit the mobility of the paramilitary forces, and the inaction on the complaints by people about the paramilitary threat.” The document also explains that supportive connections were evidenced by allowing paramilitaries to make use of military installations, and members of paramilitary groups being allowed to lodge with military battalions.
One of the cases that proves truth of the previous statement was several testimonies the Commission collected about the process of investigating the massacre committed in 1988 at the ranches of Honduras and La Negra—now in the District (corregimiento) of Nueva Colonia—in Turbo (Antioquia).
“General Luis Bohórquez, then the director of intelligence at the Voltígeros de Turbo Battalion, had allowed paramilitaries under the command of Fidel Castaño to lodge at the Battalion installations. Castaño is the drug trafficker responsible for the above-mentioned massacres, as well as others later on, like the 43 persons disappeared at Pueblo Bello. The investigation revealed the amalgam of alliances between drug traffickers like Pablo Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha, with soldiers and paramilitaries and Israeli mercenaries.”
The DAS was at the service of the “paras”
The Truth Commission also describes the way in which the government’s intelligence agencies have had historic connections with illegal armed groups like the paramilitaries. Their objective is to identify people who might be potential victims and, above all, to find out about the criminal cases that the prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office might be preparing against the former paramilitary chieftains. One of those testimonies that demonstrate that in the Report is that of a former paramilitary of the Centauros Bloc who claims that, “We manipulated the DAS to the right and in reverse. So, this Benavides (Juan Carlos Benavides Suárez), who was a corrupt individual they were investigating at that time, we appointed him Director. For some reason he was deposed but we appointed him again.”
On that point, the Commission corroborated the information of a former Army Officer who said that the DAS gave the Army confidential information about who was going to be prosecuted, above all, the heads of the paramilitaries. “So they organized to close down prosecutions in the Attorney General’s Office, and now they don’t have criminal records, etc. They took charge of obliterating all of that.”
Part of the information that the Commission found came from Salvatore Mancuso, the paramilitary ex-boss of the AUC who was extradited to the United States in 2008. He has said that the Armed Forces taught courses of instruction to the soldiers so that, once retired from the military because of legal problems, they were recruited by the AUC. As an example, he mentioned the case of José Miguel Narváez Martínez, who had been an academic at the Superior School of War and later was appointed Assistant Director of the DAS. “He taught courses in the paramilitary schools La35 and La Acuarela (. . .) One of the courses was called “Why it is legal to kill Communists in Colombia?”.
According to a former paramilitary that attended one of the courses and who gave testimony to the Truth Commission, “José Miguel Narváez made us take notes on the people we had heard, there were some 50 or 60 people, and notes of people that would have to be killed, as he put it so crudely, which NGO’s had to be attacked, and he gave us directions, gave us names, and even more.” In the Report, the Commission makes clear that Narváez, when he testified to the Commission, he denied all of these accusations.
‘The UP was exterminated by the government’
In one of Salvatore Mancuso’s admissions to the Commission, he says that, when the guerrillas decided to form the Patriotic Union Party and the Party started winning positions of political power on councils, municipal government, and governorships, “that became a tremendous worry for the government’s security institutions and the trade associations (. . .) The UP wasn’t exterminated by the Self-Defense Forces, the killer was the Colombian government.” In the testimony he gave to the Commission, he explained that the Self-Defense Forces actually carried out the murders, but they received their orders directly from the government agencies who sent intelligence reports saying that each person to be killed had a “connection with the armed branch of the guerrillas who furnished the information so they could take out those people that opposed the implementation of the ideological and political model that they had in mind, by fire and sword.”
The Truth Commission explains that one of the paramilitary plans was to “penetrate the entire political power”, so they sought power in municipalities, governor’s offices, and councils, trying to get benefits with the power of their weapons. Vicente Castaño, ex-commander of the AUC, once said that the “paras” had “more than 35% of the Congress on our side.”
The Commission also speaks of the theft of public resources that took place that political entities caried out to finance these armed groups. In the Caribbean, for example, they mention several health care entities, the indigenous EPS Manexka, and different social organizations such as Asocomún, along with other institutions like the University of Córdoba.
Up until 2021, the Truth Commission’s analysis—based on 87 court decisions convicting senators, representatives in the Chamber, and governors of having relationships and agreements with the AUC—“shows the charging, trying, and sentencing of 35 senators and 37 representatives in the Chamber, as well as 15 governors in 18 of the 32 departments in the country. The senators, Chamber representatives, and governors were convicted of having relationships, agreements, and alliances with paramilitary organizations associated with the AUC. They belonged to twelve parties, and political movements had a central role in the persistence of the alliances. These events suggest a profound questioning of the government’s responsibility. None of that happened secretly, but rather in bright daylight, and with government institutions supposedly functioning normally,” states the document.
Paramilitaries and business owners
A former member of the Centauros Bloc who talked with the Truth Commission, stated that “paramilitaries weren’t born out of the drug traffic. Rather they arose out of the business class in Colombia. That means, it’s the people that own properties in the different areas of the country, who see themselves as besieged by the guerrillas, and who have money, and also have power.” Starting with that point, the Commission tries to explain what the relationship was between the paramilitaries and the economic sector in Colombia.
“Some members of the economic sector that participated with the paramilitaries have been an integral part of the phenomenon and went beyond being ‘third parties’ that were involved, because they benefited from the limitations on the rights of workers and of the people living where the companies were located, benefited from the attacks on labor leaders, from privileged access to resources , from the threats to their competition or the elimination of it, and from the social degradation by the violence of the conflict which, on different occasions, allowed them to fish in troubled waters,” states that chapter of the Report.
The decisions of the Peace and Justice courts exposed the fact that between 2011 and 2015, 439 business actors had relationships with the paramilitary groups. The majority of the business sectors ed inin the decisions were the cattle ranchers, agroindustrial plantations (palm and banana), and the extractivist sector (coal and oil). “In the countryside, the economic interest in the accumulation of property and in land uses was one of the motives of the armed conflict; therefore, some companies had an active role in inducing others to commit crimes or to participate directly in their commission,” concludes the Final Report.
One of the areas in which there was the most impunity was in the accumulation of land. According to the Report, the illicit enrichment associated with the paramilitaries “was so great that, together with the interim equitable orders by Peace and Justice courts for termination of ownership of properties acquired through the use of paramilitaries, in the time after issuance of the orders, only 14% of the victims (605) had actually received such an order.” That means that today in Colombia there are still 847 properties with a pending petition for termination of ownership, which would equal almost 180 thousand million pesos (roughly USD $39,000,000 at today’s exchange rates), but that property could remain in the hands of straw men or fictitious persons until a completed court decision is issued.