By María Jimena Duzán, CAMBIOColombia, December 17, 2023


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In an interview with María Jimena Duzán, the former paramilitary boss Salvatore Mancuso talked about the messages former President Álvaro Uribe is alleged to have sent to him, the failure to carry out the Justice and Peace Law, the legal persecutions he has suffered at the hands of “powerful persons against whom he has testified”, and what awaits him now that he has been accepted by the JEP.

In a historic decision, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) accepted a member of the Self-Defense Forces for the first time. It’s Salvatore Mancuso. This gesture, a very exceptional one, does not determine his responsibility for the events that took place, but the Admissions Branch will summon him to give his testimony, and the JEP will refer information about more than 300 people that Mancuso has mentioned to competent authorities.

Mancuso continues to be “accepted in the Justice and Peace process for the crimes he committed as a former paramilitary commander,” states the JEP. In addition, the JEP makes clear that it has rejected more than 1,700 petitions for admission from former members of paramilitary groups, and it notes that Justice María del Pilar Valencia dissented from the vote to accept him; she disagrees because he remains in the Justice and Peace process.

The JEP accepted Mancuso as a subject who was functionally and materially incorporated into the Armed Forces between 1989 and 2004. During that period, Mancuso functioned in the role of a hinge or joint between the Self-Defense Forces and the top ranks of the Colombian Armed Forces, serving as a commander with the capacity to establish patterns of macro-criminality.

In this interview, Mancuso talks about the complicity of the Self-Defense Forces and the Colombian Army and Police, about alleged visits to Ubérrimo, former President Álvaro Uribe’s ranch, and he explains why he appealed for acceptance in the JEP and what is needed for his return to this country.

María Jimena Duzán: What does it mean to you that the JEP accepted you in your role as the hinge: like a civilian with a strong relationship between the Self-Defense Forces and the Armed Forces?

S. M. That question has at least ten implications. I have to recognize the enormous effort of the work that the JEP has been doing to put together an understanding of what Colombia’s armed conflict was, that it’s just one conflict, there aren’t several conflicts.

That said, the decision to accept me still creates some questions, because there is no certainty about what will happen to me when I am subject to two jurisdictions. We started off with the case in Justice and Peace. Without being in the military, I was a subject who materially and functionally designed and executed joint military operations between groups in the Self-Defense Forces and the Colombian Armed Forces. We in the Self-Defense Forces would receive lists of the forces that we would be operating with, intelligence reports about the public order situation, orders for battle, locations of encampments, strategic corridors for mobility, the location of guerrilla troops, members of the guerrillas or guerrilla messages, location of government troops, brigades, battalions, limits between the borders of a brigade, and means of communication to be able to synchronize and connect our communications. That’s because the radios that we used in the Self-Defense Forces, the Army, and the Police all had different broadband systems and we had to join them together so we could be effective in the battle against subversion.

So, this contact as commander of the Northern, Catatumbo, Montes de María, and Córdoba Blocs allowed me to have a relationship at all levels and with all of the ranks, especially the highest ranks, and helped me coordinate joint military operations. Unfortunately, reservists and former military on active reserve have opposed my acceptance by the JEP as a member of the military. But I wasn’t being accepted as a member of the military; they are accepting me, as I’ve said, without my being a member of the military, but rather a subject who prepared, designed, and carried out continuous joint military operations between the Self-Defense Forces and Colombia’s Armed Forces. That is very clear.

Unfortunately, there really was a deep and illegal association that I had with the commanders of the division, of the Army, of the brigade, of the Police, of the DAS[1] etc. Let’s remember what was going on in Colombia at that time. Energy towers being blown up, highway bridges blown up, hostage situations, burning of trucks and buses, kidnappings, etc. The country was at the point of being taken over by armed guerrillas, and that led to an alliance between the Armed Forces, the economic sector and the political sector at different times, and that permitted us to share political and military power in the country for many years, while the government put most of the responsibility for the fight against subversion on our shoulders.

M. J. D. I want to make a request of you. If you gave evidence that there was total communal living between the Armed Forces and the paramilitaries or Self-Defense Forces, why are they denying that, so many active duty officers as well as former officers? What do you say to the former government officials that were trying to make peace like Camilo Gómez—or to former President Álvaro Uribe himself?

S. M. I respect what they have to say, but if you look at the events that we experienced, the military bases of the Self-Defense Forces in Colombia, both marginal and peripheral, are right beside the Colombian military bases. The most eloquent example that can be recalled easily is Cúcuta (Norte de Santander). That’s where the urban commanders of the Self-Defense Forces protected the Police Station or the DAS office when operations were going on. It was even safe for them to sleep there. So, there was enormous support that they are trying to ignore.

I saw a video that they showed when the JEP made the decision to accept me. The video showed a campesino who seemed to have been the historian that I had had carried on my back, who was breathing on my neck. He told the transparent truth, exactly the way it happened. He said that when they took over Diamante in Tierralta (Córdoba), for example, trucks, SUV’s, buses, cars were leaving, everything, loaded with soldiers to go and support us in taking over the encampment in Córdoba on December 28, 1998. And that was true, that’s where they were. In fact, the Army, in that operation, lost a whole heap of rifles and machine guns. We recovered most of them and gave them back. It was an absolute alliance, permanent, stable.

To say that didn’t happen is to block the sun with your little finger. For years, I’m repeating this, we shared military power and political power with them, which makes them accomplices because they supported us or they looked the other way. There was negligence and that led to the expansion and the power of the Self-Defense Forces. In fact, when President Pastrana cleared out of Caguan, there was the greatest concern among the political and economic class. They asked us to intervene, saying please don’t leave us alone to turn the country over to the guerrillas. We thought there would be a constitutional convention that would have guerrillas as a majority of the members of Congress at that time. Look at the statistics, the number of men in the Self-Defense Forces, to see our exponential growth beginning in 1998 and until 2002. The Self-Defense Forces got to Congress so that, if there was going to be a constitutional convention, they would have more members than the guerrillas had, and we would have representation and would not be turning the country over to them.

We went all over the countryside to block the guerrillas’ activities, and that allowed the Self-Defense Forces to expand so exponentially. To say that the expansion of the Self-Defense Forces was not tied to economic power, to political power, contradicts the reality of what was going on in the country. Or maybe, that they don’t know about me, don’t know about the Self-Defense Forces. But the evidence I have furnished is irrefutable, and the populations that were affected can testify and bear witness to what I am saying.

M. J. D. In the Justice and Peace Proceedings, you described everything that had happened with the massacres at El Aro and La Granja. You talked about Pedro Juan Moreno, the head of security in the Governor’s Office in Antioquia, presided over by Álvaro Uribe, and you said that he was in nearly all of the meetings you had in putting together the security for the region. What’s new in what you’re revealing to the JEP? That has already been leaked to the communications media, and it annoyed Álvaro Uribe quite a bit. There’s one phrase that came out in all the media, and it’s that Álvaro Uribe knew, ahead of time, that there were going to be massacres, at least at El Aro and La Granja.

S. M. Let’s get some things clarified. When I was connected with Justice and Peace, I requested that they give me legal and physical guarantees, and that they furnish me with reports of lists of members of the military, photos, organization charts, and they never turned them over. Neither was there a guarantee of security for me, for my family, and for my legal team. The result was that many of those truths were recounted in a very cursory manner.

In fact, I have some pending statements to make about José Miguel Narváez. I reviewed my non-confidential statements, and I found a statement from 2009. They still have not modified Statute 975 from 2005 to include 1592 from 2012. In 2012, the Justice and Peace law was modified, and factors of macro-criminality were introduced. Unfortunately, there is still a system of transitional justice in the Justice and Peace law which is now obsolete with respect to the charges of macro-criminality that the Transitional Justice System requests. That leads to gaps and uncertainties. Justice and Peace had a metamorphosis and turned into the worst thing you could have in a scenario of transitional justice, because it turned into a justice system that was parallel to the ordinary justice system.

So, then what happened. When it remains case by case, Justice and Peace doesn’t have the tools that the JEP has to look at the cases with the view of macro-criminality. And in 2009, right in that statement about the José Miguel Álvarez case, the prosecutor said that if he didn’t look at these issues in a macro way, that is, articulated, he would never be able to understand how we operated. Because those members of the military that you’re seeing in Córdoba now, or that you saw yesterday in Urabá, and that you will see in Cesar tomorrow, those members of the military were working with us. When you make an alliance with one of them, you keep on being part of the inner workings of the Self-Defense Forces the rest of your life, wherever you go.

M. J. D. Of course, but what ex-President Álvaro Uribe is saying, more or less, is that what you’re saying is false. He says that he never even met you, that he saw you one time and that he made a deal with the paramilitaries fair and square, transparently. What’s your reflection about that reaction by the ex-President?

S. M. You are aware that among the weapons of war and of infamy are included stigmatization, political and legal persecution, manipulation of witnesses, and declarations that accusations that are being made are false, that they are made by enemies for revenge, that you’re a terrorist, a liar, a criminal, every kind of epithet. And, O.K., that’s how people can evade the operation of justice. When they lose control, and start manipulating, well, they are using methods that are wicked.

I hope that the current generation will be able to understand, because what we did together attacked the very base of the society, the democracy. We all deserve a country at peace, a lasting peace, reconciled. We all have the right to compensate for the mistakes we have made, the harm we have caused, and to go back and re-integrate into society once again. I invite all those of us who have had responsibility in the conflict to, please, let’s be consistent in our history, with the historical moment, with what is being represented for the history of the country, and for the new generations. The past here is not let’s call them out for revenge, and let’s not use the truth for revenge and retaliation. The step to take here is the truth, so these events are never repeated, using the truth to dismantle the factors that persist, the truth to achieve reconciliation, like a reconciling element, but not for revenge, not for retaliation.

M. J. D. Well, you were able to get the JEP to accept you and a lot of people thought you would be glad of that news. But a lot of people have said to me, “What’s going on? Mancuso finally gets the JEP to accept him, and now he decides to question the way they did it and appeal the JEP’s decision?” There are people that are saying, “Better said, do we still owe him something?” Why are you doing that?

S. M. The answer is really simple. First, that decision generated some legal insecurity. The legal insecurity still prevails, and a system of transitional justice, the first thing it leads to is legal security for everybody, for the victims and for those accepted by the court.

M. J. D. And why do you say there is legal insecurity? Because

you don’t know what will happen if you are allowed to leave North American territory and arrive in Colombia? Is it that you don’t know if you’re going to be arrested because you’re still connected to Justice and Peace?

S. M. For one thing, legal security prevails in this case. It’s impossible to separate my function as a commander in the Self-Defense Forces from the role I was playing as a hinge, a joining, with the Armed Forces. If I had not been a commander in the Self-Defense Forces, I couldn’t have played the role of a hinge with the Armed Forces. We can’t disconnect one role from the other, because they coexisted permanently, simultaneously.

For another thing, the JEP’s mandate is prevailing and exclusive, and if they accept a person they are obliged to accept, as in my case, there can’t be fractionalization of the jurisdictions.

In addition, there has to be a macro-criminal focus for the JEP as the natural judge, as a logic of macro-criminal investigation, not case by case, as in Justice and Peace, because that logic will not be able to reach an understanding of the restorative focus. Justice and Peace. Justice and Peace never overcame the logic of punishment. That case by case dynamic belongs to the ordinary justice system and I am still doomed to be in two systems, Justice and Peace and the JEP. But when I’m in Justice and Peace, I’m doomed to be in the main one and in the ordinary justice system because Justice and Peace has been changed into a system parallel with the ordinary justice system.

In fact, it’s the Supreme Court of Justice that’s making the final decision on whether we are accepted by Justice and Peace, which is the highest judicial agency of the ordinary justice system in the country. For example, every time I furnish testimonies, there are prosecutors filing new charges, as in my particular case, with bills to pay, revenge and retaliation for the truths that I have revealed and the implications those truths have had with regard to powerful people and they fight back with lies, with manipulations of the evidence and the witnesses in the ordinary justice system. I’ve been confronting these procedures and taking apart a series of frame-ups.

So, these prosecutors are calling into question the investigation that 40 or 50 principal prosecutors, 200 auxiliary prosecutors, 500 investigators that I’ve had in my case, and dozens of magistrates in Justice and Peace. I already have four transitional sentences in Justice and Peace, the last of them just a month ago. What does that mean? That I have carried out my obligations and done my duty. But it turns out that Justice and Peace has not carried out its obligations to me. We made a deal with the government, and the government said that we would serve eight years and that the law would last eight years as the maximum penalty and there would be four years of probation. And I’ve been in this system for 18 years when I had a maximum penalty of eight years. They have denied me the rights the government committed to. I’ve complied with every obligation I had.

It will take 40 years to complete the Justice and Peace process. The victims are not disposed to wait 40 more years until there can be justice and reparation for them. That’s why I am saying there is no legal security if they leave you exposed to continuing in Peace and Justice. Besides that, with all of this questionable legal maneuvering and all of these frame-ups, legal and political persecutions in Colombia, they have tried to find a way to get me out of Justice and Peace ever since I started giving this testimony. They are trying for a whole lot of years, with set-ups, which I didn’t go along with, so they made up a story about a child of mine, 11 years old, commanding an urban cell in Catatumbo. Crazy things, they didn’t even take the trouble to note his age at that time.

What does that do? It makes the limits and the guarantees that all charged defendants have, along with victims and the parties accepted by the jurisdiction, something they just don’t consider. In my own case, I haven’t asked for anything other than this favor that they not apply to a transition system the questionable legal maneuvers, interpreting the law as restrictive and punitive, when it’s supposed to be a restorative system or for reconciliation.

Justice Alexandra Valencia at Justice and Peace, for example, revoked my probationary release with an interpretation of the law that is not present in the Justice and Peace Statute. She says I have to enter the pathway of resocialization at ARN (Re-incorporation and Normalization Agency) to obtain my release, and since I have not done that, she denied my release. And then it turned out that the ARN doesn’t require us to have a path to resocialization, but rather to re-integration. And in order to re-integrate, I would have to be at liberty. How do I join the ARN pathway to re-integration if I am not at liberty. Besides, I have 30 days after I am released to be able to join the ARN pathway to re-integration. Add to the fact that she says if she releases me, I will go to Italy. How can somebody suppose things and make decisions based on the suppositions if I have carried out, for my whole life, all of the requirements of Justice and Peace? What I said to Justice and Peace is that I’m going to seek international protection if they don’t give me the guarantees that I have a right to.

So why are they recognizing these rights for some people, but not for me? In effect, that has a logical answer.

M. J. D. What is it?

S. M. Revenge, manipulations, legal and political persecution, attempting to manipulate the legal system.

M. J. D. But who is doing that? Your enemies? Who are your enemies?

S. M. They’re the powerful people in this country that I’ve testified against. Please don’t ask me to say their names.

M. J. D. What are you trying to do, or what is your position behind this appeal to the JEP?

S. M. The thing here is the integrity of a legal process and legal security. What are we arguing about? Needing certain and express guarantees. But we can’t be led into maintaining this uncertainty, with two transitional justice systems that are operating as a single armed conflict where the one jurisdiction prevails and is preferred above all the others. And I don’t believe that the JEP wants to lose this competition, and that the victims shouldn’t have to be running to the JEP, Justice and Peace, and the ordinary justice system to be able to have their rights recognized. That’s not what transitional justice is supposed to be.

What do we want? We ask that there be a thoroughgoing debate about the plausibility of operating two systems of transitional justice for a single armed conflict. It’s urgent to establish a tribunal for closure that can guarantee a definitive conclusion of these transitional justice processes, because Justice and Peace doesn’t guarantee the closure of transitional justice cases. Justice and Peace has stopped being transitional a long time ago. Right now, Justice and Peace is anachronistic, obsolete, with respect to cases in the framework of transitional and restorative justice.

M. J. D. Well, and finally, I’d like to ask you this: Did you really know Álvaro Uribe and you did know, for example, General Montoya? Because they are the ones that are denying it now.

S. M. Man, you can ask around in the areas where I operated. Please, you can ask the people. Ask them if they didn’t see me walk into the Brigade, into the Battalions, to the bases, the Police, the DAS, all over, and ask them if they didn’t see me, at least once, walking into Uribe’s ranch to meetings in Ubérrimo. Ask.

M. J. D. I’m going to.

S. M. Please. In fact, Uribe has sent me a whole lot of reasons.

M. J. D. How so?

S. M. He has sent me to meet with consuls, he has sent me to meet with an attorney. Please. I’ll give you a written statement about some things he had nothing to do with. He may have asked for statements when the Piedad Córdoba business came to light, and Senator Cepeda who was the other one and also Danilo Rueda, who later became the Peace Commissioner. Some statements that I gave were about what had happened; they had requested, allegedly, certain things. I’m telling you. No, I’m testifying, I’m testifying to the truth of what happened.

M. J. D. One of the things that surprises me when I hear it is that it reminds me a lot of that phrase that the High Commissioner for Peace in the Álvaro Uribe administration; he used to say that, right now, this country isn’t ready for this much of the truth. Remember?

S. M. Luis Carlos Restrepo. The country isn’t prepared for this much truth. The truths, unfortunately, they take hold of them and sometimes they use them as a weapon of war. That is very definitely atrocious.

M. J. D. Well, I have a few questions left. You’ve completed your sentence in the United States, but what’s ahead of you now? The decision in Colombia? What’s your situation?

S. M. Here’s my legal situation in the United States: We’re waiting for an answer from the appellate branch of the immigration court. The immigration judge denied my request for international protection; we went to the appellate branch of the immigration court, and the appellate branch of the immigration court ruled in our favor. It sent the case back to the immigration judge, with the instruction to consider our arguments. The immigration judge didn’t take the findings of the appellate branch into account and ruled against us again. We appealed again, and right now, the case is once again before the appellate branch of the immigration court. This makes me think, reasonably, that it will decide as it decided before, because the immigration judge didn’t consider what the appellate branch had ordered considered.

So now, what am I hoping for? I hope they have signed—between the Office of the High Commissioner, which was waiting for decision by Dr. Danilo Rueda—a protocol that would permit my return with guarantees and conditions for my security. Justice and Peace has interfered to keep me from returning except in custody. It hasn’t complied with the resolution signed by the President when he requested that my arrest warrant be suspended. It’s complicated to return to the country under these conditions when there is no physical and legal security with guarantees, accompaniment, and international verification. I am an extremely high objective for those who feel threatened by the truth and most vulnerable to these truths. Besides that, I don’t have legal security and I’m still in a legal limbo, with a legal insecurity in the decisions on my acceptance by the JEP. So I’m keeping open my petition for international protection. I still can’t file with the appellate branch of the immigration court a motion telling them, “look, the conditions for my case in Colombia have changed.” I don’t have any way to show them that conditions in Colombia have changed and that all those protocols don’t exist; signed international accompaniment and all that stuff. It’s an impossibility. I ought to have been back in Colombia four years ago, and since President Petro, to whom I’m grateful that he considered the experience and knowledge I obtained in the conflict and issued that resolution naming me as a Worker for Peace, with reconciliation and especially for no repetition of the armed conflict in this country. Since August, when he appointed me, we still haven’t been able to work out all the issues in the office of the High Commissioner. We are hoping that with the arrival of the new Commissioner we will be able to make progress in those areas.

[1] DAS was Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security. It was dissolved in 2012.

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