By Camilo Pardo Quintero, EL ESPECTADOR, Colombia + 20, September 21, 2023

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

This week, former directors of the Cattle Ranchers Fund in Córdoba were speaking before the JEP to clarify some specific events of land theft in the subregion of Tulapas. That investigation was directed at adjustment of the rules governing conditionality[1].

The Córdoba Cattle Ranchers Fund was one of those responsible for stealing more than 40,000 hectares of land throughout the 58 towns (veredas) in Turbo, Necoclí, and San Pedro de Urabá (which make up the subregion of Tulapas in Urabá). This case, which has become emblematic in the legal system, resounded again on the witness stand at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which held a closed hearing on the issue this last September 19.

In Tulapas, between the decade of the ‘90’s and the beginning of this millennium, the notaries and their staffs, together with the oil palm growers, lumbermen, and paramilitary groups, led more than 130 episodes of forced displacement tracked by the legal system. This had a multitude of collective harmful effects on campesino families, effects that have yet to be fully repaired.

The clues from the Cattle Ranchers fund that the JEP is following up

The activities of the members of the Fund’s board of directors led the JEP to investigate their criminal patterns as part of its Case 04, (territorial damage done in Urabá and Darién), and in the midst of the hearings they have carried out during the last year and a half, they established conclusions that were specific enough to state, according to a jurisdictional order, that “between 1997 and 2005, the subregion of Tulapas was a dehumanizing paramilitary base at the service of land theft by the interests of powerful business groups.” These investigations appear to be ongoing and have revealed truths that had not been told previously, or more precisely, they may have been told in part only.   

For example, such situations led the JEP itself to refuse to accept into its jurisdiction such large land robbers as Sor Teresa Gómez, who financed the “House of Castaño” and who, by using corrupt notary procedure, permitted land theft in the Antioquia portion of Urabá and the Chocó portion of Darién.

Gómez was removed from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace because her testimony was incomplete, inconclusive, and deceitful at the point of establishing connections between her and personages in the entrepreneurial community in that part of the country such as Libardo Díaz or Guido Vargas (connected with the paramilitaries and convicted of a number of crimes by the ordinary justice system.)

The JEP was implacable with Gómez. She was not admitted to JEP jurisdiction because she omitted details regarding her name coming up in testimony by the ex-paramilitary Jesús Ignacio Roldán, “Monoleche” (“Monkey Milk”), (her son-in-law) and she couldn’t explain what she had done or justify her participation, especially in what had to do with the episodes of forced displacement that she and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) had perpetrated in northern Antioquia.

What’s behind the new hearing involving the cattle ranchers summoned by the JEP?

The warning for the cattle ranchers that are before the Court is the same: either their testimony is exhaustive and in favor of the truth for the victims to hear, or their exit from the special jurisdiction is imminent. And this week that was seen in a hearing on the adjustment of the system of regulations on conditionality, carried out in the proceedings on September 19.

It was with that spirit that the Branch for the Definition of Juridical Situations summoned for several proceedings Benito Molina Velarde, the former President of the Cattle Ranchers Fund of Córdoba; Carmelo Esquivía Guzmán, the Fund’s former Attorney; Jaime García Exbrayat, the former Director of the Environmental Corporation for the Valleys of Sinú and San Jorge—that entity acted in connivance with the Fund in the theft of land–; Benito Osorio Villadiego, allied with the Fund and the ex-Governor of Córdoba, and the business owner, Luis Gonzalo Gallo, all of them former members of the Fund’s board of directors or people that were close to those offices. All of them had already given testimony to the transitional justice jurisdiction, and on this occasion, it was expected that not only would their juridical situations be determined, (knowing that they had already been convicted in the ordinary justice system) but that they would also furnish legal and real estate register details on a group of properties that had been studied in earlier proceedings. Requests had been made for information to be examined by the special jurisdiction on land restitution, jointly with the Land Restitution Unit.

The voices of the victims will continue to be the protagonists in the proceedings this week and in coming weeks. The Association of Victims and Claimants for Land and Peace is the collective accredited in the JEP with having suffered the worst damage in estimated value by paramilitaries’ land theft in the Antioquia portion of Urabá. According to that organization, by those evictions they lost 10,000 hectares (25% of the total land theft in Tulapas) and their petitions for justice have been accompanied by threats to their safety.

A demonstration of that is the struggle by Ayineth Pérez, a survivor of the armed paramilitary violence because she was a land restitution claimant. In interviews, she says she hasn’t given up defending her property, and besides, she says, “we are living in a country that seems frozen in time. We have the same problems we had in 1998. They continue to threaten me because I am defending more than 500 families that were evicted and had their land stolen. I’m demanding what’s fair; I don’t ask more than that, and the only thing I want is for there to be justice and that they never take me away from here again. I’m from here and I will die here.”

And for this new proceeding, she expects nothing more than the “truth without restrictions–no holds barred—and one more possibility of hearing the real truth and receiving the land that never should have been grabbed away from us.”

There’s skepticism, in spite of recognition of the progress marked by the appearance of powerful business owners like the ones summoned to appear before the JEP to speak to one of its branches. Anonymously, a person who leads processes in San Pedro de Urabá said that you have to take what these people say in court with a grain of salt, because in front of other tribunals they have lied and evaded giving testimony in favor of the victims, according to him.

“Benito Osorio is looking at a sentence of 19 years for participating as Governor of Córdoba in what they did to us. I don’t have complete confidence in his intentions to tell the whole truth . . . we’ve already seen that he’s capable of dirtying up his own people. Neither he nor anybody else has talked about the politicians that paid off Carlos Mario Jiménez “Macaco” to drag us out of our houses,” he concluded.

And Guido Vargas? And Héctor Duque Echeverry?

The name of business owner Héctor Duque Echeverry recurs in these hearings that have to do with land theft. That is paradoxical. Because his character is well known as one of the greatest land thieves in northeastern Antioquia, and when those appearing before the Court are questioned about him, there are always gaps in their testimony, or connections that don’t add up involving him in the irregular land acquisition procedures. That’s even with the knowledge that Duque was convicted in the ordinary justice system between 2010 and 2014 for the illegal evictions ordered by his family company, Urapalma S.A.

The last time his name was mentioned before a tribunal was in 2021 by Gabriel Jaime Sierra, an executive convicted of land theft.

“Duque was a repeated purchaser of land from Carlos Castaño, and this was omitted in the testimony given by the cattle ranchers about the relationship they might have had with him. In the good days, it was important for them to rub elbows with Duque. Now they don’t mention him in their testimony at all,” said one of the business owners in the court proceeding.

Whatever ties together Héctor Duque with the cattle ranchers summoned by the JEP would be an oblique wing of the legal future of these people, because while it’s a recurring call for recognition by the transitional system, it’s also an exhaustive solicitation by the victims, because from the collectives in Case 04, one of the constant requests is that there be recognition of land theft as an intersectoral scourge among the lumber, the cattle, and the African palm interests.

The case of Guido Vargas is even more unusual, as his name began to be heard during the hearings with Sor Teresa Gómez.

As this paper documented a few months ago, Vargas was a business owner who was serving as a real estate broker for the paramilitaries in Urabá; then he turned into a straw man for the Castaño family and a paramilitary known as “Camisa Verde” (“Green Shirt”).

Right out in the open, men like “Monoleche”, “Macaco”, and Libardo Díaz have talked about the role of Vargas in the ranks of the paramilitaries and in the eviction orders, but any sensations that that may have left with the other witnesses in the JEP about this kind of situation are conspicuous in their absence.

Although clues about him and his connections with the cattle ranchers were requested in a hearing that the directors of the Cattle Ranching Fund of Córdoba had before the transitional justice system on December 6, 2022, the request was not successful.

A new chapter has been opened to dig more deeply into these events. It will be a time for the JEP to find a path to a juridical future for these people, whether that would be within or without the branches of the JEP.

[1] Conditionality is the term referring to the obligations that must be fulfilled by persons accepted to JEP jurisdiction.

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