EL ESPECTADOR, July 31, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Colombian Army’s inspectors, as well as the Office of Colombia’s Inspector General, are checking out a complaint that identifies four active duty Army officers that are carrying out troop movements intended to benefit “La Cordillera Sur”, a powerful criminal and drug trafficking organization in Nariño Department. EL ESPECTADOR  has had access to the document and to other evidence in this case of corruption.

A 278-page document, with the word “Urgent” in red ink, was filed with seven agencies of the Colombian government. It contains a very serious allegation: the alleged alliance of members of the Colombian Army in Nariño with the criminal gang “La Cordillera Sur”, directed at the time by alias “Matamba”, the drug trafficker who escaped from La Picota Prison last March and was killed during a Police operation in May in Magdalena Medio. The complaint was filed on June 2, 2022, by Lieutenant Colonel Arévalo*, who was the commander of a battalion in that department between 2020 and December of 2021, when he was relieved of his post.

The retired Colonel, who has no sanctions or investigations on his record, stated in his complaint that Colonel Carlos Cristancho, as Commander of the Pegasus Operations Command (Copeg), carried out operations without any consultation about his assignments to his men, and far beyond the location where his command has jurisdiction. According to his orders, the unit is responsible for public order in the municipalities of Olaya Herrera, El Charco, Tumaco, and La Tola. However, by Cristancho’s orders, it was forbidden to carry out operations in that area where, states the complaint, “Matamba” and his people were hiding out. Besides that, he had ordered troop movements so that “Matamba’s” organization would be able to accomplish its criminal activities.

According to the document, now in the power of the Colombian Army’s Inspector General, Colonel Cristancho was supported by three staff members: Colonel Gabriel Maje, Major Jairo Gómez, and Lieutenant Colonel Diego Tonguino. All four of them are still on active duty. “They sabotaged and torpedoed the activities of Copeg, ordering dubious operations, without any specific purpose or objective, without operational results, out of their assigned jurisdiction, ignoring and disregarding the written regulations for battalion commander (. . .) He committed funds for useless activities that the criminal gangs took advantage of, while derailing useful military operations that were being carried out,” states the complaint, which this newspaper has seen.

The extensive document from the now-retired high official, which was filed with the Attorney General’s Office, the Office of the President, and the Ministry of Defense, has already received a response from the office of the Army’s Inspector General. They told Colonel Arévalo that they had already undertaken investigations of his complaint, and that they had also furnished a copy to the representative of the Inspector General’s Office assigned to the Armed Forces. “We are commencing the appropriate disciplinary action against the chain of command at Copeg and right now are examining the evidence,” states the document signed on June 6, 2022 by General Hélder Giraldo Bonilla, then the Army’s Inspector General and now second in command of the Colombian Army.

In his complaint, Colonel Arévalo explains how a clear example of the irregularities in the command was the recent kidnapping of the Acting Mayor of El Charco, Jesús Ureña, in April of this year. The complainant points out that the place where that abduction occurred is exactly the area where Cristancho, Maje, Gómez, and Tonguino were ordering their men to turn a blind eye so that “Matamba’s” organization would be able to move their drugs freely, and not meet any official who might stop them. In addition to the example of Mayor Ureña, who continues to be disappeared and whose family has begged for information about him, Arévalo made his complaint with evidence in hand.

The audio

Arévalo, in an interview with this newspaper, states that there were several operations carried out by Cristancho Niño about which he was never informed. When he was asked why he had not complained then, he said, “(at that time) I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but later on, as time passed, I observed several more irregularities. I didn’t want to generate any friction with my superior either (Colonel Cristancho Niño). It’s easy to show that those operations had no basis in intelligence information or other information. On the contrary, when I had precise information about where the gang was, he would not authorize me to carry out operations, he always had some ‘but’.”

In the complaint, he notes that he on several occasions had asked Major Gómez for “reports with supporting facts about the military operations carried out behind my back without my permission,” and that was seen by him as a threat. He told Arévalo, “You don’t know whose business you’re butting into” and that he was going to talk with Colonel Cristancho about what had happened. On October 1, 2021, relates Arévalo, his patience was exhausted when he found out that Colonel Cristancho was carrying out an operation in Tumaco without consulting him. In an audio that EL ESPECTADOR is aware of, Colonel Arévalo, on the telephone, rebuked the officer in charge of the operation, Captain López, and asked for an explanation of what was going on.

“Colonel, I’m going to give it to you straight. I didn’t know anything about the operation. I’m pretty astute. And, Colonel, this isn’t the first time. This is really uncomfortable when they come to you, and you don’t know anything about what’s going on. You know that’s not how we’re used to working. If they are going to do something, there has to be some planning, but nothing at all. And, when we do have the information, they don’t give us any support,” says Captain López in the audio. The discomfort of both officers is based on the fact that they never found out why the Tumaco operation was ordered. But for Arévalo it’s clear. It was to move men away from areas that were “hot” and that were key for “Matamba”.

In addition, in the now-retired Colonel’s complaint, he points out that, when they were planning operations in areas where the enemy was present, Cristancho would say, “if we don’t have the troops, it’s better not to get in there. I’ll tell you that when we pass on this information to the Anti-Narcotics Brigade, they will definitely oppose any action.” “That made me really suspicious. At the same time, they scared me to death so I wouldn’t report these events to the higher commanders.” He also said that his sources told him on several occasions that Army soldiers were receiving money from the criminal gangs, and that that was engendering in the communities a lack of confidence in the Army.

Although Colonel Arévalo’s complaint is new, the movement of troops for the benefit of “Matamba’s” criminal gang in Nariño is mentioned in other criminal files. Last February, 15 people were arrested, including six active duty military and a retired Colonel. According to the investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, it was a group that had collaborated with “Matamba’s” criminal gang, which had drug trafficking business not only with Iván Márquez but also with “Otoniel”, the extradited leader of the Clan del Golfo. Among those arrested is Retired Colonel Róbinson González, who is well known to the prosecutors, as he has two convictions for extrajudicial executions.

Also in the investigation, Retired General Leonardo Barrero and the active duty General Wilson Chawez are under scrutiny, but neither has been formally connected to the inquiry. Both have flatly rejected the accusations that they were collaborators of “Matamba” and his men. Last May, this newspaper published the complaint of a Colombian Army Major who had coordinated one part of the investigation against “Matamba” and the network of military that were helping him. That article warned that, in addition to the members of the military that had been charged criminally, there were others that had not yet been touched by the prosecutions and were trying to discredit the officials that were investigating the criminal alliance.

Because of the story in the newspaper, Army Intelligence undertook an investigation to find out who had been leaking information. In recent weeks, this paper was able to establish that a number of members of the military that were part of that operation against “Matamba” have been summoned to give testimony before the Military Counter-Intelligence Command. A journalist at this newspaper was summoned to testify about the leaks. Parallel to these inquiries, Army Inspection opened an investigation of Arévalo’s complaints. EL ESPECTADOR queried the Army to learn its response and that of the members of the military implicated in these very serious complaints, but received no response.

For now, the Army Inspector General’s Office is taking its first steps to learn whether other of its members have allied with “Matamba” and his men to help them be able to move their troops and their drugs as they please. In a week in which there will be a change of administrations, all of the results of all of these investigations will be made known to a new Colombian Army command staff, under the command of Defense Minister-designate Iván Velásquez.

*The complete name of Colonel Arévalo is being kept confidential, for security reasons.

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