By Rainero Patiño M., CAMBIOColombia, April 4, 2024


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

CAMBIO was able to go as far as an encampment of the illegal armed group that is the authority in the Sierra Nevada de Santa María. Their military chieftain says that the group is disposed to sit down at a table for dialog, but only with some guarantees from the government.

You can only see their eyes a little bit through the masks or shawls that cover their faces. They carry long-range weapons in their hands, and they have automatic pistols in their belts. A knife or a small machete is at chest height, at the ribs on the left side. A military uniform from head to foot. First, they sing Colombia’s national hymn, then a hymn of their own. “The god of war hates cowards and rewards the brave,” says one of its verses. There are 22 men in the small formation, but there seem to be more than 50 men around them, although their repetitive movements of watchfulness make it difficult to count them precisely.

They don’t like it when they’re called Los Pachenca; they never have liked that name. They have insisted that no such organization has ever existed. Their military commander says they have nothing to do with that name and that that’s just one more sign that the government doesn’t know them.

They call themselves the Conquerors Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada (ACSN), but for some people, they’re just the new paracos (paramilitaries) that are in charge in La Sierra. And that could be a valid definition, since for good or for bad, according to the people that live in that part of the country, here they are the authorities, for the law, and for the terror.

CAMBIO traveled as far as one of the Conquerors’ encampments in the heights of the Sierra Nevada de Santa María, the same area from which, some months ago, the top commanders of this illegal armed group sent several messages to the national government stating their disposition to take part in an eventual table for dialog. However, the path to a possible agreement and the legal framework for the discussion is still not clear.

Face to Face with the military commander of the ACSN

Contrary to the accusations by the people living in the area and of the victims, in these recent messages the ACSN has insisted that they are a political military organization based on the “rights and duties of the campesinos of the Sierra Nevada”, and that their existence is “the consequence of the absence of the State” which “obliged” them to try to organize in an autonomous manner through the initiative of the inhabitants of the region themselves.

The military commander of the ACSN, responds to questions while standing in front of an improvised military screen as a background to avoid giving clues about their exact location. He says that all of them are campesinos and the children of campesinos from “here” and are fighting for their territory.

“We didn’t expand to look for problems in other states the way other organizations do. We aren’t expanding because we enjoy conflict or war. It’s because we were tired of all the attacks by other organizations in the past,” he concludes.

The majority of the men in the encampment refer to him just as “Comando”, but some of the people in the area know him as “Cholo”. He’s a well-built guy who carries three weapons and too many military artifacts to count, which might intimidate anybody. He speaks very little, in clipped phrases, but always like a person who gives orders in a cordial tone. Before he answers, he looks over some points in a notebook.

He insists that the organization he represents has a history of struggling for more than fifty years. In addition, he says that what they do is “watch out for the region, because the government can’t do that”.

With regard to that history, he’s right; the presence of armed groups in the Sierra Nevada de Santa María is nothing new, because for decades this territory has been considered a bastion for different illegal organizations. This is closely related to its natural characteristics and its geographic conditions, from crop land during the so-called bonanza marimbera (good times) at the end of the last century, and then the gathering places, and with distribution routes for the cocaine cartels, and even the new illegal revenues that are linked to the tourism economy.

In the 17,000 square kilometers of the Sierra Nevada, there have been illegal military organizations of several natures, such as the EPL, the ELN, the FARC, on one side, and paramilitary groups like Clan de Los Rojas, Los Giraldo, the AUC, and now the ACSN. In all of them there has always been discourse, and they have argued for the rights and the well-being of the local campesinos as their flagship position, trying to overcome the absence of the State and its agencies, as the ACSN now proclaims. However, in practice, and with the expansion of the conflict, the “medicines” have ended up generating the illnesses that are worse. Because in many of the cases, the victims have become the very people who are living in the region.

The history and the power of the Conquerors’ Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada

The origin of the ACSN dates back to the paramilitary history tied to the former commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, Hernán Giraldo, who after demobilizing under the Justice and Peace Law and serving 12 years in prison in the United States, returned to Colombia in 2021. But now he is confined to the prison in Itaguí for the crimes of sexually abusing children.

The authority being exercised by the ACSN is evident in almost the whole mountain range, in a good number of neighborhoods in Santa Marta, and in different municipalities where they have influence in the Sierra. You only have to interview some residents to understand clearly that they are the ones recognized as being in charge of “imposing authority” and of regulating areas of commerce. You might say that a leaf doesn’t tremble without their authorization. Everybody knows it, but almost nobody dares to question or complain about their methods. Raising a voice has already resulted in killings.

In a good part of the neighborhoods in the capital of Magdalena, for example, where they are the ones who organize the security services through the popular “serenos” (night watchmen) men in charge of seeing that nobody steals anything, and to whom the citizens provide “voluntary support”. That happens in the commercial areas of the city, in the public market, and at the Sierra tourist sites, where they control everything from the prices of the tourist maps, the transportation services, and even food prices.

Days before Holy Week, for example, some residents of Minca told CAMBIO that, by order of alias Camilo, one of the top commanders of the ACSN, the price of a bird watching tour, one of the most popular with the tourists, was to be raised from 55,000 pesos (roughly USD $14.64 at current exchange rates)               to 75,000 pesos (roughly USD $19.96 at current exchange rates). And during the holy days, they prohibited the stores from selling beer or any other kind of liquor, and anyone who did that would have to pay a fine of five million pesos (roughly USD $1,330.54 at current exchange rates).

This apparent total control, however, is developing right now in the midst of a military confrontation with the Clan del Golfo (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AGC). Their disputes with them center on the part of the Sierra that overlooks the Department of La Guajira. The confrontations have left corpses side by side, and have occasioned displacements of the population, especially in the indigenous reservations.

The chieftains of the ACSN say that the only thing they are doing is defending the territory from the AGC who “want to occupy the whole country”.

The armed group is organized with a pyramidal line of command, with six chieftains or commanders, and at the end of the chain are the patrolmen.

The victims and the crimes of the ACSN

Beyond the messages to the effect that they are disposed to begin dialogs with the government, the ACSN have to confront the weight of their illegal military history in the Sierra, the accusations by their victims, and the criticisms from civil society and the organizations defending human rights in Magdalena. They see them as murderers.

About that, the commander argues that the victims are the cause of the “unavoidable incursions” and that “they serve for when other groups are trying to enter the territory”. A situation which, in his words, worsened after the processes of demobilization in the first part of decade of the 2000’s, and reached a breaking point after the paramilitary demobilization.

“The people from the interior are coming to see how they can get hold of the money, of which even here, there isn’t very much, to attack the campesinos in a way that we were not accustomed to, which for us is payment per hectare of land, or per animal, as we do. With that idea, we talked with some friends and took up the idea right then. Thank goodness, now we have a fairly numerous organisation,” he explained, while four of his men stood guard at his back, showing their weapons.

The ACSN doesn’t care for the idea of calling it extortion when the residents, campesinos, and merchants in Santa Marta and the Sierra pay their group. They would rather refer to it as “voluntary support” payments that they make to “avoid the chaos that ensues when outside groups come and impose regulations.”

“It’s an agreement that you reach. There’s no pressure, no one is obligated. If they don’t pay, security is their responsibility, and soon they see the value of the guarantee of security that we have, thank goodness. There are people that right away say I can’t pay, I don’t have money, and just say thank you. It’s not obligatory, and that’s the way we’re sustained and have maintained ourselves,” said the military chieftain in a natural way.

They also fiercely deny any connection with the drug traffickers or the control of drug distribution routes. The commander says that the difference between the ACSN and their direct enemies, like the Clan del Golfo, is that they are not in departments where coca is grown, and that the only fields you can find in the Sierra are the fields where the indigenous peoples grow crops that are used as part of their traditions.

“We are not financed by, nor are we connected to the drug traffic,” he declares. But recent reports by the authorities do connect them with disputes for control of different ports in the Caribe region that are used for sending drugs.

Conditions for a dialog

Through public communications, and statements made to the communications media, the ACSN have been insisting ever since the end of 2022, on their intention to sit down and negotiate an agreement with the government. That, says the military chieftain, doesn’t mean that they are kneeling in surrender, but rather that they see President Gustavo Petro’s policy of “total peace” as a window for dialog.

“Always, and when we see guarantees for ourselves and our organization, for our campesinos, because it’s not something just for organizations, but also for some communities that are in the background, waiting to see this yearned-for peace,” points out the commander as he explains his political pretensions.

For the ACSN, the Justice and Peace Process could be considered a “total failure”, because it led to the reorganization of most of the armed structures. To avoid that, says Cholo, is key to the creation of a legal framework that would guarantee a good agreement. Among the initial requirements would be that the authorities issue a kind of safeguard for the six representatives of the organization who would sit at the table. “Everybody ends up serving time in prison, because there were some really bad arrangements. So, we’re ready, and we want that peace, but it has to be a peace that’s guaranteed and lasting.”

Another condition for dialog is that there be a secure site in the region for the conversations, and that former paramilitary chieftain Salvatore Mancuso participate as a mediator and facilitator.

The intention to include Mancuso, who has returned from the United States recently, and who also served prison time for drug trafficking, has already been expressed by the ACSN which, at the time, characterized his arrival as “an important announcement that turns on the light for us to seek to get closer to talking with the government” and for the pacification of the Sierra. “Not as a former commander, but rather as a worker for peace, he generates confidence and is a channel that we are disposed to open and respect,” they said in their message at the time.

So far, the former paramilitary commander has made no official statement about the possibility of taking part as a mediator. But CAMBIO has learned that, by an express order of President Gustavo Petro, the current High Commissioner for Peace, Otty Patiño, had a private meeting with Mancuso at the place where he is being held, to talk about the opportunity. And also how the possible dialog with the ACSN could be a kind of pilot plan for future negotiations with other illegal organizations that now have dominion in other local territories in the regions.

The possibility of dialog, as far as we could learn in informal conversations in the ACSN encampment, leads to divided positions in the interior of the group. In the case of M., one of those charged with the security of the commanders of the organization, who had been a soldier in the Colombian Army, and has been in the ACSN for five years, the idea of living at peace on his land motivates him. As a recent anecdote, he recounts how, after long months of commitment in the mountains, when they came down, it took him a few days to take part in family goings-on. There were moments of awful panic, he says, because there is a pending warrant for his arrest.

He admits he has done “some bad things”, and he will have to face the consequences of that.

A few steps away from M., another of the commandos responds with more doubt than certainty about the negotiations. He tries not to raise his voice. He’s coming from a long struggle in the mountains, and it’s what he’s been doing for more than three decades. He doesn’t show much enthusiasm in his comments. “If it’s my turn to give in, well than, it’s my turn. But how can I trust a President who comes from the guerrillas?“ he says, by way of an answer.

Alias Cholo believes that there need to be some key words in the negotiation, like “political status”, “forgive and forget”, and “minimum penalty”, and in the case of convictions, the establishment of reclusion sites in the same region. And another of his concerns is that the Clan del Golfo would take advantage of a possible ceasefire in order to “hit their areas” and therefore they would ask that the government guarantee them full protection.

Among the people living there, there are also some doubts, especially about the true intentions of the ACSN commanders. A social leader in Minca, who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, believes that, “all they want from this process is to have their arrest warrants lifted, and so keep on committing crimes in this area.”

The spokesman for ACSN says that if the government gives them guarantees, they would say “yes” to a negotiating table. “We are disposed even at this time to do it, because it’s what we want, and what we want the most is the wished-for peace in the Sierra,” says Cholo, now without looking over the points in his notebook, with a ball point pen in his hand, and his pistols as always hanging on his chest.

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