By Alfredo Molano Jimeno, CAMBIOColombia, December 17, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CNN Volunteer Translator)
Testimony collected by the JEP demonstrates the alliance between the military and the paramilitaries to carry out the genocide of the Patriotic Union Party.
A phony demobilization in 1996 allowed the empowerment of the paramilitaries. That operation was sponsored by the Colombian government and the Colombian Army high command. The JEP is on the trail of Iván Ramírez, the former Commander of the Army’s First Division.
Nearly 40 years ago, the Colombian government tried to avert more violence by allowing a leftist political force to emerge. The Patriotic Union was founded in May of 1985, and one year later it was already a political success. It had 14 members of Congress, 18 members of the Departments’ Chambers of Deputies, and 335 members of municipal councils. It had gained a lot of support in regions like northeast Antoquia, Bajo Cauca, Magdalena Medio, Urabá, Chocó, Arauca, and even in Medellín. But at the same time that the U.P. turned into an alternative to traditional politics, it was declared a military objective by the other phenomenon that was multiplying all over the country, the paramilitaries. The result of the collision was the extermination of the leaders of the U.P., of its members, and even of its sympathizers. Now, after decades of impunity, the truth is breaking through, thanks to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which is hearing testimony about the responsibility of military and political leaders for these crimes.
Justice Gustavo Salazar, of the JEP’s Branch for the Recognition of Responsibility, is in charge of the investigation of Macro-Case 06. For three years it has been looking into this chapter in history. It has collected nearly 200 sworn statements from victims, paramilitaries, civilian third parties, and former members of the Armed Forces. The first conclusion in this effort is that at least 5,733 members of the Patriotic Union were murdered or forcibly disappeared. And the second is that, in the planned extermination, there is a Colombian government share of responsibility which, through the Armed Forces and the DAS, in alliance with the paramilitaries, promoted and permitted the genocide of an entire political party.
That theme can be observed clearly in what took place in Córdoba and Urabá between 1995 and 1997. A region and a period in which the murder of leaders of the U.P. skyrocketed without control, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) expanded over the whole country, and in which, coincidentally, the military command boasted generals later investigated for paramilitarism. It’s in that context that the JEP is receiving sensitive information that involves retired Generals Iván Ramírez Quintero, who commanded the Army’s First Division and who for many years was the strong man of military intelligence; Rito Alejo del Río, who commanded the 17th Brigade; Leonardo Barrero Rodríguez, Commander of the Junín Battalion at the time, who got to be the Commanding General of the Armed Forces and ended up mentioned in an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office as an ally of the Clan del Golfo; and Major René Sanabria, who acted as the Commander of Intelligence in the 11th Brigade.
The sworn testimony by several paramilitaries has provided new details about how these military comanders were keys to the expansion of the AUC. They established operational alliances with them so that the paramilitaries could push forward their campaign against subversives and thus accomplish the extermination of the U.P., as ordered by the Castaño brothers. In this context, Justice Salazar has identified a phony process of demobilization of the fighters in the EPL and FARC, who went from being guerrilla fighter to being paramilitaries with the support of the Armed Forces and government funding. That demobilization of 242 men constituted a determining factor in the speed with which the AUC were able to expand, because they were trained guerrilla fighters that “rejuvenated” the strategy of the paramilitaries and provided destabilizing support in the areas of “intelligence” and familiarity with the region, and they carried out some of the worst massacres of the second half of the ‘90’s.
Change of identification bracelet, a military operation
The testimonies collected by the JEP point to fact that the demobilization carried out in the first half of 1996, in which guerrilla fighters of the EPL and the FARC “laid down their arms”, was “a false positive” by the Army, with the support of the Ernesto Samper administration and the Governor’s Office of Álvaro Uribe in Antioquia. The demobilization was intended to square accounts between the fighters and the legal system so they could start a new life, now as members of the paramilitaries. Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias Otoniel, Elkin Casarrubia, alias El Cura, Francisco José Morelo Peñata, alias Sarley, Juan Carlos Alean Arias, alias James or John Jairo Julio de Hoyos, alias Ricardo, all took part in this faked demobilization.
Casarrubia, who was part of the command staff of the Bernardo Franco Front of the EPL in those days in 1995, tells how he got through a tough encounter with the FARC and with the Self-Defense Forces, and that one of his comrades, alias Giovanni, had made the decision to join up with the AUC, who had told them how there was an open door to their ranks. “We already have Sarley, Ricardo, and my guy (The envoy from the AUC told us.), plus my brother has already left, but we didn’t turn ourselves in directly to the Self-Defense Forces, because we were afraid they would kill us. We turned ourselves in to the Army. (. . .) we had to talk to, let’s call him, Gonzalo, and when we had made contact with an Army Commander, it was Sanabria and it was Barrero. Now they’re being mentioned around here, those Colonels were from the Junín Battalion,” relates alias El Cura.
To square away the demobilization, there was a delegate from the Governor’s Office in Antioquia, and he told them they should bring their weapons along and they would buy them. And that’s how they shook hands on it, the transfer was on the Army’s account. “There we were with the rifles, the Army was there and Sanabria and Barrero, who were with the Junín (referring to the 33rd Infantry Battalion) all received us. Then the helicopters picked us up, we got together that same day and they took us to a ranch in Volador,” as Casarrubia describes it, adding that the Army helicopters took them directly to a ranch belonging to the paramilitaries.
“There were several trips and a number of helicopters. Like three helicopters dropped us off at that ranch, that was one belonging to the Self-Defense Forces. So when we got there, the one that was there organizing everything at the ranch, all of the food, all of the logistics like where we would stay was from the Fifth Mobile, like a gentleman that was one of the Self-Defense Forces, we didn’t know him. (. . .) people from the government had already arrived, the Mayor of Tierralta came, the Governor of Córdoba,” he added, describing the demobilization operation where the public officials, paramilitaries, and members of the military were mixed together indiscriminately. From there, Casarrubia was taken, together with the other two Commanders of the Bernardo Franco, directly to Carlos Castaño who was at the Las Tangas Ranch.
“Carlos Castaño told us that he would support us and that we would be staying with him (. . .) And what were we supposed to do? We couldn’t say no to him, we had come to put together the Self-Defense Forces (. . .) From there they took us from Las Tangas (the ranch where Fidel Castaño organized the first paramilitary groups in Córdoba and Urabá), we submitted, people came from the government, the Attorney General’s Office, they took our information (. . .) We left the rifles there and signed whatever we were supposed to sign, that gentleman from the Fifth Mobile picked us up (. . .) By afternoon some big dump trucks had arrived, they collected us (. . .) we left there by way of Valencia to San Pedro, to the 35 Ranch and the 10 in El Tomate. (. . .) we got there and we got the rifles that we had had when we were with the guerrillas. For me, the first rifle I carried in the Self-Defense Forces was the same AK that I had carried in the guerrillas.”
Another sworn statement made to the JEP about this faked demobilization was given by Ever Velosa, alias HH, who had commanded the Calima Bloc of the Self-Defense Forces. He related that he himself was the one that organized the real surrender of the guerrilla fighters to the paramilitaries. “All of the guerrilla fighters that demobilized immediately came to be part of our ranks,” said HH, and he reconstructed how the initial contact was made, the one that ended up with 65 guerrilla fighters of the FARC and the EPL surrendering their weapons. “We sent them to the groups in Chocó. I gathered together all of the weapons, I threw them in the helicopters and picked up the commanders and took them to Las Tangas. (. . .) We landed at Las Tangas, and Carlos and Vicente and Poncho Berrío were there. (. . .) That day we talked with Giovanni and we convinced him to call Otoniel and Gonzalo (. . .) and to buy all of the weapons. (. . .) that whole demobilization was organized by the Self-Defense Forces, and later Carlos organized the demobilization with the administration and with Serpa,” he said.
And HH continued: “In the third demobilization there definitely was intermediation and support by the Army (. . .) All those people were receiving monthly payments and some land that the Self-Defense Forces themselves sold to the government. It was a demobilization just for the government to make a show for the media and demonstrate the significance of the Army’s work in the area. That was for the benefit of the Armed Forces more than for the Self-Defense Forces. The demobilization was presented as if it had been elaborated and managed by the Army. Horacio Serpa came down several times to talk to Carlos Castaño about this demobilization.
At the taking of evidence, HH was asked why he talked about one real demobilization and one that was fictitious, and the ex-paramilitary answered, “for me the real one was when the members of the EPL turned over all of their weapons and everything they had, all of their personnel, their chain of command, politicians, militants, and patrolmen over to the Self-Defense Forces. They gave us those Fronts entirely. That was a real demobilization. But not the ones that had been part of the Self-Defense Forces for many months when they organized that demobilization with the government, with the Army, and with Horacio Serpa. Carlos organized that with Horacio Serpa; for me that was a pantomime.”
The expansion of the AUC and the extermination of the U.P.
That demobilization, carried out between May and June of 1996, marks the turning point in the expansion of the paramilitaries. Several of them that had operated in the guerrillas had made a changeover into mid-level commanders in the AUC, and the fighters, seasoned by more than ten years of experience in the war, furnished their military know-how. These men were later sent to Meta, to Cauca, to Valle, or to Catatumbo to open the way for the AUC to consolidate the powerful paramilitary army that, in 2005, demobilized more than 35,000 men and women.
HH stated that many of the men from the EPL that joined the AUC made up a kind of elite force, with the capacity to fight the FARC with guerrilla tactics, and for that reason they were sent to places like Mapiripán or Caño Jabón in Meta. “The men I commanded were almost all from the EPL. There was alias El Cura, alias Giovanni, Clavijo (. . .) Through their military capability and familiarity with the strategies for combat in rural areas (. . .) The EPL gave us a lot in the military part and renovated the command staff, because almost all of them ended up being commanders of a Front or a Bloc. Casarrubia commanded in Calima, Otoniel commanded in Casanare, Sarley was also a commander for us. El Negro Ricardo made up a special group with me that the Castaños had (. . .) to break into areas and do special jobs of homicides or kidnappings,” Velosa explained.
HH’s story claims that the men from the EPL also served as a source of intelligence, like those who at some point had been allied with the FARC furnished information on strategic areas, operation techniques, and were the ones that pointed to innumerable people that either served and supported the guerrilla networks or were militants of the left, affiliated with the U.P. or were labor leaders. On that subject, HH insists that the order they received from the Castaños was to get rid of everybody from the U.P. and all the labor leaders. “The principal objective of the group when I arrived in Urabá was the labor union part, controlling the unions and stopping any strikes. I went from ranch to ranch to get the laborers on the ranches together, telling them that starting today strikes were prohibited, anybody having anything to do with a strike will be killed, and if anybody raised a hand to oppose that, we killed him then and there.”
With regard to the genocide of the U.P., HH made an excuse. He said that a story was sold, a false story, to the paramilitaries that U.P. members were part of the FARC. “The U.P. was always seen as our direct enemy, like they were a wing of the FARC. Now we know that wasn’t true (. . .) We were brainwashed. They inculcated that they were the enemy, that they would destroy the country’s economy, the companies, the development, and that was why we had to kill them off. That’s why the people of the U.P. were just like a guerrilla fighter of the FARC.”
In collaboration with the military commanders
The sworn statements collected by the JEP recount numberless details that relate the high-ranking Colombian Army officers of that time to the paramilitaries in Córdoba and Urabá. One of those statements is that of Major Juan Carlos Rodríguez, alias Zeus. He was a Colombian Army officer who was an organic part of the Self-Defense Forces as a double agent. In a statement made to the JEP, Zeus directly involves General Iván Ramírez. “One of the most important personages who had to do with the connection between the Self-Defense Forces and the Armed Forces was General Iván Ramírez Quintero, Commander of the First Division in Santa Marta (. . .) That gentleman was one of the architects who managed the threads of military intelligence and promoted commitments or alliances with groups of the Self-Defense Forces at the national level to support the strategic plan for the expansion of all of the Blocs of the AUC,” stated Major Rodríguez, now convicted of both paramilitarism and drug trafficking.
With regard to Ramírez Quintero, Zeus added, “He was a person who had a great deal of power within the Army; he ordered transfers, demoted people, and also, I make bold to say, made his own justice to kill people that opposed his policies. There were a number of members of the Army who died in circumstances that were very suspicious, like Captain Otero and Captain Padilla, both of whom worked in intelligence and also had connections with the Self-Defense Forces.” That being the case, Zeus made clear that he was afraid to testify about Ramírez because, he insisted, he continues to be active in the world of crime that has power in the Army.
But that was not the only testimony that ensnares Ramírez Quintero; Salvatore Mancuso, commander of the Self-Defense Forces, has also talked about him. In 2009, Mancuso said, “General Iván Ramírez got together with commander Carlos Castaño to talk about consolidation of the territories by the Self-Defense Forces, with the creation of the organizations of the Northern Bloc that we were setting up, and the operations of the Self-Defense Forces in Urabá. Remember that the government’s paramilitarism was not a policy that was carried out independently by a member of the Armed Forces, but rather we had the institutional support for our actions or omissions. Without that, we would not have been able to expand in the way that we did.”
Along the same lines that Mancuso set forth, several paramilitaries have talked about Rito Alejo del Río. HH did, stating that he met directly with the then-Commander of the 17th Brigade. The former Governor of Córdoba and the Former President of the Ranchers’ Fund in Córdoba, Benito Osorio Villadiego, convicted of paramilitarism, have also testified about that. A Justice at the JEP asked him about the members of the Armed Forces involved with the AUC, and he listed, “General Martín Orlando Carreño Sandoval, General Iván Ramírez, Police Commander Colonel Raúl Suárez Gutiérrez, and Rito Alejo del Río, Commander of the 17th Brigade. So I’m mentioning four people that were aware and that took part, were coparticipants in the development of the Self-Defense Forces,” said Osorio Villadiego.
The file on the extermination of the Patriotic Union is full of that type of accusation, because for the protagonists of paramilitarism, there is no way to separate the crimes of complicity that they received from high-ranking military and police officials, as well as the economic and political elites, both regional and national. This is the now apparently incontrovertible reality of the history of Colombia’s armed conflict. There are so many elements and so much testimony about this criminal alliance that the blanket of impunity that has covered those responsible for several decades is being worn through by the work of the JEP.
 JEP: Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a reconciliation court created by the 2016 Peace Agreement.
 DAS was Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security. It was abolished in 2012.